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This is one of Percival Lowell’s drawings of the canals that he claimed to have seen on Mars. - NMMSH Archives

This is one of Percival Lowell’s drawings of the canals that he claimed to have seen on Mars. - NMMSH Archives


Tombaugh Sees Lowell’s Famed Mars’ Canals | This Week In Space History

by michael shinabery

None other than “noted New Mexico astronomer” Clyde Tombaugh, The Associated Press reported on Dec. 30, 1965, saw the controversial Mars phenomenon.

“I know there are others who say they can’t see canals on Mars,” the story published in the Alamogordo Daily News said. “But I’d like to see them have their eyes tested.”

Tombaugh said he’d reached his conclusion from Mariner IV photographs. Launched on Nov. 28, 1964, the deep space probe passed and photographed Mars on July 14-15, 1965. Mariner IV confirmed the planet had a cratered surface, something Tombaugh had long suspected, said Mike Smith, a retired registrar at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.


“He was the first professional I knew of that said the markings you see are craters, and sure enough that was what Mariner IV showed,” Smith said. The two were friends from 1963 until Tombaugh’s death in 1997.

Clyde Tombaugh – NMMSH Archives /// CLICK TO ENLARGE

Tombaugh made his pronouncement in December 1965 before speaking to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Berkeley, Calif. But Martians hadn’t constructed the canals, he said; instead, they were natural “faults or fractures in the planet’s crust.”

Percival Lowell, who built the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in 1894, believed otherwise, and enthusiastically trumpeted his theories in the press.

“Lowell had observed the Martian canals and claimed to have confirmed the phenomenon of gemination (doubled or paired canals, possibly parallel to each other),” said “The Book of Mars” (NASA/1968). “As the years went by he reported more and more canals, and his maps of Mars were essentially networks of canals.”

Lowell believed such canals were constructed to move the water that would “irrigate” and support Martian life, he said in his 1895 book “Mars.”

Percival Lowell – NMMSH Archives /// CLICK TO ENLARGE

Lowell had skeptics, of course, and “to deal with such skepticism, Lowell asked two of his assistants, Vesto Slipher and Carl Lampland to take photographs of Mars,” the website umich.edu said. “However, photographing the surface of Mars wasn’t easy. The films at the time were not very fast. Atmospheric distortions cause the image of Mars to move slightly, and without fast film, you are likely to get a blurry image.”

The observatory did have an impressive 24-inch refractor telescope, what Smith described “as one of the biggest in the world at the time.”

While the photographs did show “surface detail,” the quality was insufficient to publish in newspapers, the website said. Nevertheless, Lowell “believed the pictures proved the canals were real.” The May 28, 1950 New York Times reported: “A telegram was received at the Harvard Observatory tonight from Prof. Percival Lowell, Director of the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Ariz., stating that the canals of Mars have been photographed there for the first time.”

As proof that intelligent creatures built them, Lowell pointed out in “Mars” that “the lines appear either absolutely straight from one end to the other, or curved in an equally uniform manner. There is nothing haphazard in the look of any of them,” he wrote. “Their most instantly conspicuous characteristic is this hopeless lack of happy irregularity. They are, each and all, direct to a degree.”

This is one of Percival Lowell’s drawings of the canals that he claimed to have seen on Mars. – NMMSH Archives /// CLICK TO ENLARGE

In addition, according to Lowell, the “lines” that he deduced as canals were “as fine as they are straight.” He judged them to be “about thirty miles wide” and “of comparable width” to each other, no matter their location on the planet. He further asserted: “If lines be drawn haphazard over the surface of a globe, the chances are every so many to one against more than two lines crossing each other at any point. If the lines were true lines, without breadth, the chances against such a coincidence would be infinite, that is, it would never happen.”

Percival Lowell died in 1916, his belief never wavering.

“Mars, to all appearance, is so badly off (for water) that inhabitants of that other world would have to irrigate to live,” he wrote in “Mars.” “As to the actual presence there of such folk, the broad physical characteristics of the planet express no opinion beyond the silence of consent but they have something very vital to say about the conditions under which alone their life could be led. They show that these conditions must be such that in the Martian mind there would be one question perpetually paramount to all the local labor, woman’s suffrage and Western questions put together – the water question. How to procure water enough to support life would be the great communal problem of the day.”

Tombaugh’s first association with the Lowell Observatory was in 1929. He was in his early 20s when he mailed “meticulous sketches” that he’d drawn of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, to astronomers there, Mark Littman wrote in “Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System” (Wiley Science Editions/1988). Tombaugh made the drawings after viewing through telescopes his family had built from discarded farm machinery; he himself ground the mirror from a ship’s porthole glass.

A young Clyde Tombaugh with his telescope. – NMMSH Archives /// CLICK TO ENLARGE

Tombaugh only hoped that he’d get back a professional appraisal. Instead, Slipher offered him a job searching for Planet X. Lowell had postulated in the late 1800s that a ninth planet existed in the solar system. In that, he was correct. On Feb.18, 1930, after 7,000 hours of photographing on glass plates, an undated document in the NMMSH Archives said “Tombaugh found a ‘star’ in the constellation Gemini” that moved, showing the position had changed. It was Pluto.

Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at michael.shinabery@state.nm.us.

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