In the 1800s, penny press newspapers were filling America’s streets. Steam powered printing made daily, cheap papers available for anyone who could pay the small price of just one penny, and everyday America’s masses would read about some new, seemingly magical, scientific advancement. America was gripped by the industrial revolution. Telegraphs could send messages across the country in an instant, people could race from city-to-city on high speed trains, and in coal-powered factories in America and Europe, the previously un-makable was being made.
The public was so used to hearing about massive, incredible discoveries, that when they picked up a penny press newspaper, The Sun, on the morning of August 25th, 1835, and read about another unbelievable discovery, they believed it.
That morning, The Sun reported that famed astronomer, John Hershel, had developed a new telescope, more powerfully than any telescope before. After using it to discover distant solar systems and planets, Hershel reportedly turned his invention to the moon. Upon the lunar surface, Hershel saw rolling hills, green forests, wild rivers, and great natural pyramids of quartz. And life. The landscape abounded with moon-bison, pelicans, cranes, one-horned-antelope and moon-fish. Intelligent bi-pedal animals, resembling tail-less, beavers used fire and lived in huts by the water’s edge, and, most fantastical of all, a race of humanoids that soared through the air on batwings.
“They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their legs… We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures.”
The public ate it up.
The descriptions of the new world were so vivid and detailed, so filled with prose that many may have given it more credibility than it deserved.
Though some were skeptical of The Sun’s articles, at the time, the concept of life on the moon was still legitamitly up for debate among scientists. Though the majority leaned towards there
probably not being life there, no actual telescopes yet existed which could confirm or deny it, and some researchers still insisted that it was possible. The astronomer credited with this incredible discover, Hershel, was himself in South Africa, on the Cape of Good Hope charting the stars of the southern hemisphere, and was not even aware of the articles until months later.
This debate was made more complicated by Scottish preacher Thomas Dick, who spread the idea of life on other worlds through his popular writings.
However, as series of articles on the lunar world continued, skepticism grew. Eventually, The Sun’s new British editor, John Thomas Locke, confessed to the writings. They were, he said, not meant to be taken literally, but rather were a critique of the influence of the preachers, like Dick, upon the public.
There were no bat-people, no tail-less bipedal beavers, no moon-fish, though many continued to believe the “Great Moon Hoax” for years, even after Locke’s confession. But how was the public to know? Sure it was fantastical, but more fantastical than being able to send a message in seconds, when it would have taken weeks on horseback before? When science and technology move so fast, seem so incredible, and appear to be almost magic, every new discovery can seem a bit like finding life on the moon.