As telescopes brought Earth’s planetary neighbors into closer view, Lowell, an astronomer, proffered a bold theory about the nature of faint lines glimpsed on the surface of the Red Planet. They were, he deduced, irrigation canals built by intelligent Martian life forms. Though his colleagues were skeptical, Lowell’s conjecture helped popularize the field of astronomy, and his later work—his search for “Planet X”—paved the way for the discovery of Pluto.

By Percival Lowell

That Mars … should be peopled by intelligent beings, although physically they be utterly unlike us, more goblins than men or animals, is a suggestion which appeals romantically, at least, to everybody …

If Mars were the earth, we might well despair of detecting signs of any Martians for some time yet … Anything like London or New York, or even Chicago in anticipation, would be too small to be seen … [But] the telescope presents us with perhaps the most startling discovery of modern times—the so-called canals of Mars … Desert-like ground is seen to be traversed by a network of fine, straight dark lines. The lines start from points on the coast of the blue-green regions, commonly well-marked bays, and proceed direct to other equally well-marked points in the middle of the continent. At these latter termini the lines meet, very surprisingly, other lines that have come there from different starting-points in a similarly definite manner. And this state of things exists all over the reddish-ochre regions.

All the lines, with the exception of a few that are curved in a regular manner, are absolutely straight from one end to the other. They are arcs of great circles, taking the shortest distance between their termini. The lines are as fine as they are straight …

The first point worth noting about them is that their actual existence is quite beyond question; the second, that the better they are seen, the odder they look … Too great regularity is in itself the most suspicious of circumstances that some finite intelligence has been at work …

The evidence of handicraft, if such it be, points to a highly intelligent mind behind it … Certainly, what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the race of life … If astronomy teaches anything, it teaches that man is but a detail in the evolution of the universe, and that resemblant though diverse details are inevitably to be expected in the host of orbs around him … He is destined to discover any number of cousins scattered through space.

Read the full articles in the May, July, and August 1895 issues of The Atlantic.

This article available online at: