A Short History of Martian Canals in Maps

In 1877, the Italian cosmologist Giovanni Schiaparelli published a map of Mars. On this map, the planet’s surface was crisscrossed by straight lines from 60° north to 60° south latitude, each rod-straight and up to thousands of miles long. Schiaparelli called these lines “Canali”, Italian for “channel”. This was incorrectly translated into English as “canals”.

Map of Canals on Mars
Map of Mars, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1877), Source: NASA
Map of Mars , Giovanni Schiaparelli (1877)
Atlas of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)

Canals were confirmed by later observers. In 1894, Percival Lowell, a prosperous cosmologist from Boston, made his first observations of Mars from a private observatory built in Arizona (Lowell Observatory). He concluded that the canals were real and finally mapped hundreds of them. Percival Lowell thought that the straight lines were artificial canals built by intelligent Martians to transport water from the polar caps to the equatorial territories.

A color map of Mars
A color map of Mars (1905), Percival Lowell, Source: lowell.edu

As a result during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was erroneously believed that there were “canals” on the planet Mars. Many people had thought that only an advanced civilization could create such unnaturally straight lines. For decades, people lived with the thought that a competing civilization of intelligent beings was successfully developing on Mars! No wonder what Its legacy has had a very real effect in areas like pop culture. For instance, Ray Bradbury wrote his famous work The Martian Chronicles (1950), and H.G. Wells wrote his incredibly influential Martian-invasion novel The War of the Worlds. It was performed and broadcast live as a Halloween episode at 8 p.m. on Sunday, October 30, 1938, over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. The episode became famous for allegedly causing panic among its listening audience. These works were far from the only ones.

The Martian Channels not only have left a big mark on popular culture but have even influenced modern space exploration. 

The arrival of the United States’ Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1965, which took pictures revealing impact craters and a generally barren landscape, was the final nail in the coffin of the idea that Mars could be inhabited by higher forms of life, or that any straight lines that cross the Martian surface and canal features existed.

A snapshot of the surface of Mars taken by the Mariner 4 in 1965

And nowadays, as a result of decades of Mars exploration, we have more information about the surface of Mars than there is about the Earth’s seafloor.

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