On recent evenings, as July has melted into August, Earth’s rocky red companion has dropped by for a visit. Earth and Mars, when they’re on opposite sides of the Sun, can be as many as 250 million miles apart. This week, however, Mars has been just shy of 36 million miles from Earth, the snuggest our planets have been since 2003. Looming bright and orange in the night sky, it has been easily visible to the naked eye. The close-up comes courtesy of opposition—the point at which Mars, Earth, and the Sun align, with us sandwiched in the middle.
When the planets approached a similarly cozy distance 94 years ago, in August 1924, some people, including Curtis D. Wilbur, the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, thought it might be possible to actually hear messages from our neighbor. If Martians were ever going to drop us a line, they suspected, that’d be the time.
From an office in Washington, D.C., Wilbur’s department sent orders to every naval station clear across the country. An outpost in Seattle received a telegram asking operators to keep their ears tuned to anything unusual or, maybe, otherworldly.
“Navy desires [sic] cooperate [sic] astronomers who believe [sic] possible that Mars may attempt communication by radio waves with this planet while they are near together,” it read. “All shore radio stations will especially note and report any electrical phenomenon [sic] unusual character …” The orders asked for operators to keep the lines open and carefully manned between August 21 and August 24, just in case.
This request didn’t come out of nowhere. There was a long buildup to the idea that Mars might be trying to tell us something, with technologies that were then new to us. As early as 1894, Sir William Henry Preece, the top engineer at the British General Post Office and a champion of radio and wireless technology, proposed that it might be possible to ring up our planetary neighbor. Say Mars was populated “with beings like ourselves having the gift of language and the knowledge to adapt the great forces of nature to their wants,” he wrote. And imagine that those fluent, expressive beings had managed to “oscillate immense stores of electrical energy to and fro in electrical order.” Under those conditions, Preece said, he saw no reason why it wouldn’t be possible “to hold communication, by telephone, with the people of Mars.”
It was far-fetched, sure, but it probably didn’t strike readers as unthinkable. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the popular press was enamored of the idea that Mars was neither unknowable nor utterly alien. In Atlantic Monthly, astronomer Percival Lowell suggested that Martians were dredging a series of canals on their planet, which looked fairly similar to ones freshly dug out on Earth. Scientific American and a slew of university professors nodded in agreement. (We now know they are natural features.) And in 1901, Nikola Tesla claimed to be intercepting signals from Mars.
Then there was Guglielmo Marconi. An Italian engineer often considered the founding father of radio, Marconi began severing the cables that had tethered telegraphs to Earth. As he advanced wireless communication, he also became the face of the quest to message Mars.
In the early 1900s, Marconi began telling newspapers about “strange sounds” that he found in his transmissions. He imagined these to be “distinct, unintelligible” messages rather than wayward noise—they bore some similarity to the sound of the Morse-code “S” (dot-dot-dot)—and he attributed them to “the space beyond our planet.” Newspapers quoted Marconi beside illustrations of pot-bellied, antenna-sporting Martians fiddling with the dials of their own radios beneath a canopy of stars and planets.
Some scientists swatted the idea away, but others were less inclined to dismiss the possibility. Thomas Edison endorsed it, though a young Albert Einstein was half-convinced: If Martians were trying to tell us something, why wouldn’t they use light, which was easier to manipulate than sound?
Marconi’s purpose in all this was likely somewhat self-serving: It happened to make the wireless look great. Some skeptics doubted that his wireless would supercede the telephone and the wired telegraph, but who would doubt its chops if he managed to ping the cosmos?
Eventually, Marconi disputed some of these accounts, blaming “reportorial enthusiasm” for crediting him with “saying and doing things I never thought of saying or dreamed of doing.” In the book Marconi: The Man and His Wireless, Orrin Dunlap, a radio historian and former vice president at the Radio Corporation of America, recounts how journalists had made a habit out of turning Marconi’s glib or winking answers into sensational stories. When the inventor tried to dodge journalists’ questions about what he was up to with a vague description of a “machine that sees through walls,” papers around the world sprinted to tell the story, and Marconi was flooded with letters from readers decrying the death of privacy. Marconi vowed that he wasn’t attempting to communicate with Mars, and had no plans to do so.
But even when he tempered his comments, Marconi wasn’t willing to rule out contacting Mars, as he didn’t want to imply that wireless wasn’t up to the task. (And just in case Martians didn’t speak English, he had a contingency plan that involved broadcasting lantern-slide images of trees or humans, with captions transmitted in “dots and dashes,” Dunlap writes.)
Against this backdrop, radio was busy knitting together homes and communities, from dusty towns to dense cities, that had previously lacked any other connections. Could the same unifying principle scale up—to space—and help us be better people? “There was a hunger for contact over great distances and with beings who presumably knew more, and were wiser, than most contemporary Americans,” writes the radio historian Susan J. Douglas in Inventing American Broadcasting 1899–1922. Douglas continues, “such contact would bring wisdom; it would be reassuring; it would be religious.”
In that summer of 1924, many members of the public earnestly believed that a message might arrrive. Scientists on the other side of the Atlantic were planning to give it a go, too, as the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, installed a team to listen in. A month before the experiment, the Miami News reported, “There is a stupendous interest manifested by a credulous public in this international experiment.”
Average Americans couldn’t listen in to the radio signals, but they still wanted to have a look. Across the country, people flooded observatories. More than 300 visitors crowded the observatory at Drake University, in Iowa, in the hope of glimpsing canal boats and mules. Many among them were disappointed to see little more than a “reddish colored splotch” in the eyepiece. The university’s president complained that the public “expects too much from a telescope,” and reiterated that “We have as much reason to believe that Mars is inhabited as the Earth.”
The opposition came and went with no extraterrestrial message. As far as anyone can tell, the Navy’s few days of silence yielded nothing but static. It was the same for the British scientists. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying to communicate with anyone who’s listening. And even when our planets are at their closest in the celestial dance, it’s all relative. The space between us is still vast, and any Earthlings looking up at that orange spot might still feel alone.