“The Planet Mars – Is It Inhabited?”: A. H. Patterson’s 1902 Speech

In researching Professor Andrew Henry Patterson for my last blog post, I came across an interesting document among his personal papers. In 1902, while still a professor at the University of Georgia, Patterson delivered a speech at the centennial assembly of Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, N.C. titled “The Planet Mars – Is It Inhabited?” Following this address, the speech was supposed to be stored in a sealed envelope in the Salem Academy archive and reopened in 2002 “to  compare theories in 1902 with those 100 years later.” However, attempts to find the speech at the Salem Academy archives in 1964 were unsuccessful. The speech now held by UNC is a copy of a draft of the original, acquired from Andrew Patterson’s son Dr. Howard Patterson.

It is now fourteen years after Patterson had intended the speech to be reopened, and our knowledge of the planet Mars far surpasses what was theorized in 1902. The most compelling evidence for life on Mars discussed in the speech was the existence of canals on the Martian surface, first observed by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877. Patterson devotes a great deal of his speech to corroborating the existence of these canals by citing other astronomers, concluding that “On the whole, I believe we may consider the existence of the so-called ‘canals’  as proved by most careful and reliable observers in many parts of the world.” Patterson proposes the theory that these canals are artificially created for irrigation. Astronomers of the period also observed that the polar caps of Mars appeared and disappeared according to the Martian season, theorizing that these could be sources of water for the vast irrigation networks. Patterson even imagines just how differently life might have evolved on Mars, stating “what manner of beings thet [sic] may be we lack the data even to conceive.” In his conclusion, Patterson stated his belief “that Mars seems to be inhabited is not the last but the first word on the subject.”

Despite the wide gap in astronomical knowledge between 1902 and today, the accuracy of some theories is impressive. With regards to the difficulty many astronomers had in observing Schiaparelli’s canals, Patterson cites a Dr. Fison, who argues “that these canals have not been seen at the Naval Observatory, Harvard Observatory, Yerkes Observatory and others having far better telescopes than those used by Schiaparelli, who had an 8 1/3-inch glass, and by Lowell, who had a 24-inch, and therefore the canals must be optical illusions.” Fison was ultimately correct about the canals being optical illusions. Patterson also quotes Fison accurately describing the surface of Mars as “a succession of bleak arid deserts over which the rays of the vertical sun would seem to struggle in vain to mitigate the blasting chill of attenuated air.” However, Fison then went on to suppose the existence of “elementary forms of vegetation capable of withstanding the rigors of a climate more than artic [sic] in character.” Patterson addresses the question of polar ice caps by citing scientists who believed “the snow caps to be composed of solid Carbon Dioxide, instead of water. . . . the spectroscope shows no trace, or at least very little, of water vapor on Mars.” We now know that the polar caps are composed of both frozen carbon dioxide as well as water-ice.

114 years after Andrew Patterson delivered his speech on Mars, it is now possible to view the surface of Mars in 360 degrees through a web browser. Using virtual reality technology, it is even possible to see what it would be like to stand on the “bleak arid deserts” of Mars from a first-person perspective.

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