Percival Lowell had been inspired by the work of Giovanni Schiaparelli, a 19th century Italian astronomer who had observed lines on Mars that he had called canali, Italian for channels.  Unfortunately, Lowell and several other English-speaking astronomers had read an article in which canali had been mistranslated as canals.


In 1894, Lowell, an upper-class New Englander, moved to Arizona and built an observatory in the mountains, where he began spending his evenings looking through his telescope and sketching surface features of Mars as he saw them.


Pictures from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum



Lowell soon decided that there were indeed canals and reasoned that he, and Schiaparelli before him, must have been observing areas of vegetation growing along waterways that were so straight they had to have been constructed by intelligent beings.  Lowell concluded that Mars’ smaller size as compared to that of Earth had caused it to develop more quickly and, consequently, to enter into a decline.  The inhabitants, Lowell reasoned, were highly advanced and engaged in a desperate engineering feat to save their world, which was now drying out.


The Mars that Lowell imagined would have had an atmosphere thick enough to breath so that a visitor from Earth could actually walk around without a spacesuit.  The Mars globe pictured above is based on Lowell’s drawings, which were highly detailed.  In fact, he even gave names to the waterways and to the cities that he thought existed where the largest canals intersected.  A stroll along the Grand Canal might have lead the human visitor to the heart of the planet’s capital city, where Lowell’s imaginary Martians would have administered their ambitious planetary engineering project.  [Return to Mars Home]