Telescopes versus the Moon People

Why then should witless Man so much misween,
That nothing is, but that which he hath seen?
What, if within the Moon’s fair shining sphere,
What, if in every other star unseen,
Of other worlds he happily should hear?

— Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

5th Century BCE

Anaxagoras is credited with discovering that the Moon reflects the light of the Sun, and with this in mind, he explained eclipses. Diogenes Laertius reports that he said that “the moon contained houses,” which leads to the conclusion that he thought it inhabitied.

1st Century CE

In an essay/dialog titled “Concerning the Face which Appears in the Orb of the Moon,” Plutarch has Theon raise the issue of “beings that are said to dwell on the moon — not whether any really do inhabit it but whether habitation there is possible.” If impossible, the Moon serves no purpose because it provides humanity neither food nor “an origin, an abode, and a means of life, the purposes for which this earth of ours came into being….” Theon then raises the problems of the Moon people falling off the surface along with “the heat and tenuousness of the atmosphere.” Lamprias replies that, even without indigenous life, the Moon has value to humanity. Just as there are uninhabitable regions of the Earth that cool us or provide water, so the light reflected by the Moon “slackens the excessive torridity of the sun.” (A persistent question of the lunar life debate is, if it is barren, then what’s its purpose — especially in regard to humanity or to God.) A 1704 English translation of this work is in Plutarch’s Morals, but an easier-to-read translation from 1957 is here.

2nd Century CE

Lucian of Samosata wrote A True Story, which opens by admitting that it’s full of “many monstrous and intolerable untruths” stated by earlier poets and scholars. The story that follows concerns a band of voyagers who, after some earthbound adventures, are whisked by a whirlwind up to the Moon. There, they find Hippogypians, inhabitants who ride giant, three-headed vultures. The voyagers assist in these people in their war against the Sun people, meeting on webs spun by gigantic spiders. The Hippogypians lose the war. The narrator then provides extraordinary particulars about the Hipposypians, such as they gestate their young in their legs, turn to smoke when they die, live on frogs, and have detachable eyes. The voyagers then sail to the Sun. A 1780 English translation is here, but this 1894 translation is a bit easier to read.


Hans Lippershey applied for a patent on his telescope. Others who had been working on similar devices came forward, so Lippershey was not awarded the patent (though he was compensated for his work). News spread. The era of the telescope began. These first instruments became known as “refracting telescopes,” meaning they have a lens at the front, a tube, and an eyepiece. Essentially, light runs from one end of the telescope to the other as with binoculars.


Thomas Harriot and, a few months later, Galileo Galilei observed the Moon through telescopes and mapped what they saw.

Galileo's moon
Galileo’s sketch of the Moon published in Sidereus Nuncius (1610)


Johannes Kepler’s novel Somnium was published (though written in 1609 or earlier). Framed as a product of the narrator’s dream, the story involves a mother and son from Iceland who are told by a daemon, a shadow-bound spirit, how daemons and select humans are able to travel to Levania (a.k.a. the Moon). It’s not an easy task! The daemon then describes what such a traveler will find: the Subvolvans, who live on the hemisphere facing Volva (a.k.a. Earth) and the Privolvans, who never enjoy that reflected light. The indigenous inhabitants are giant in stature, their legs being longer than a camel’s, yet snake-like in their habits.


Francis Godwin’s The Man on the Moone was published (though written in the 1620s). The adventure is narrated by Domingo Gonsales, who flies to the Moon on a geese-powered craft. There, he meets the “Lunars,” a Christian people of extraordinary height and life span. The exception is the Lunars who are “lower” in stature, life span, and social status. After several months, Gonsales returns the Earth on the same craft as he arrived.

Gonsales and the Gansas
Domingo Gonsales harnessing the power of birds in a 1654 French translation of Francis Godwin’s “The Man on the Moone.”


John Wilkins’ The Discovery of a World in the Moone was published. (The 1802 edition might be easier to read.) Wilkins makes several controversial claims that help support life on the Moon. The dark spots are, in fact, seas. There is an atmosphere. Addressing indigenous life, Wilkins opens by admitting the extreme difficulty of settling the issue. Nonetheless, he postulates that the people he calls “Selenites” might be very different from people on Earth. Just as there is a diversity of species on our planet — and a wide span between humans and angels — there is a wide range of possible forms for life on the Moon. In the 1684 edition of the book, he concludes: “‘Tis not Improbable that God might Create some of all Kinds, that so he might more Compleately Glorifie himself in the Works of his Power and Wisdom.”


Selenographia, sive Lunae descriptio, by Johannes Hevelius, was published. Hevelius took mapping the Moon a significant step forward. In The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900, Michael J. Crowe says that Hevelius “drew seas on the moon, and advocated ‘selenites,’ as he called his lunar inhabitants. . . .”


A surprisingly accurate and influential lunar map drawn by Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi was published in Book 4 of the New Almagest. Michael J. Crowe draws a sharp contrast between Riccioli and Johannes Hevelius (see 1647) when, in The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900, he says that the latter “denied that water exists on the moon and above his map proclaimed ‘No Men Dwell on the Moon’ and ‘No Souls Migrate to the Moon.'”

Riccioli and Grimaldi’s map announces “Nee Homines Luman incolunt,” meaning no humans inhabit the Moon.


L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune (The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon), by Cyrano de Bergerac, was published. In it, “Cyrano” travels to the Moon and finds a variety of miraculous inhabitants and technologies. He also meets Domingo Gonsales from Francis Godwin’s The Man on the Moone  (see 1638). An 1899 English translation is here.

Cyrano's TARDIS
A 17th-century engraving depicting Cyrano’s spacecraft. (I imagine it to be a blue box, possibly bigger on the inside.)


In the pages of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Adrien Auzout suggests that, while hypothetical inhabitants of the Moon would see seasonal and other changes on Earth, we do not observe the same on the lunar surface. His implication seems to be that it is unlikely any significant atmosphere exists there. He also says that most interpret “those Spots we see in the Moon” to be seas, but that he has “many reasons, that make me doubt, whether they be so. . . .”


The first reflecting telescope was built by Isaac Newton (though the concept had been introduced much earlier). The reflecting telescope offered certain image advantages over the older refracting telescope by using curved mirrors rather than lenses. (With time, though, the problems with refractors — namely, chromatic and spherical aberration — were corrected.) The light enters one end, hits a parabolic mirror at the other, and is directed out through a “secondary mirror” to an eyepiece on the side. Reflecting telescopes remain the standard for astronomical study today.Newton's_reflecting_telescope


Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds), by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, was published. Fontenelle achived his goal to make astronomy accessible to a non-specialist reader, his book going through several editions and being translated into several languages. The work features conversations about inhabited planets held between a philosopher and a skeptical but curious marquise. The second chapter, entitled “The Moon is an Inhabited Globe,” includes talk about those “who travel thither every day with their telescopes” giving reports of lunar “lands, seas, lakes, very high mountains, great caverns, and deep abysses.” When the talk turns to moon life, the philosopher says that he imagines that, eventually, Earth people and Moon people will meet: “The art of flying is yet in its infancy, it may hereafter be brought to perfection; and the time may come when mankind may fly to the Moon.” If Earthlings never reach that point, he continues, perhaps the Moon people will arrive here.


Iter Lunare; or, a Voyage to the Moon, by David Russen, was published. A trip to the Moon is made via an engine comprised of springs and pulleys.


The Consolidator; or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon, by Daniel Defoe, was published. Using a fuel-powered flying machine, the narrator finds the Moon to parallel Earth in ways that allow Defoe to satirize British politics.


De lunae atmosphaera, by Ruđer Josip Bošković (aka Roger Joseph Boscovich), was published. In it, Bošković asserts that there is only a meager atmosphere on the Moon, if any at all.


William Hershel reported his measurements of lunar mountains. He defends the value of such study by asserting that greater understanding of “the construction of the Moon” can validate important conjectures, notably, “the great probably, not to say almost absolute certainty, of her being inhabited. . . .”


After building a series of larger and larger reflecting telescopes, siblings William and Caroline Hershel completed work on a 40-foot instrument with 48-inch mirror. It remained the world’s largest telescope for half a century.


A Flight to the Moon: or, The Vision of Randalthus, by George Fowler, is published.


The Christian Philosopher; or, The Connection of Science and Philosophy with Religion, by Thomas Dick, was published. As his title suggests, Dick attempts to harmonize science and religion, and so the Moon is viewed in terms of why God put it up there. Dick writes:

The lunar surface contains about 15 millions of square miles, and is therefore capable of containing a population equal to that of our globe, allowing only about 53 inhabitants to every square mile. That this planet is inhabited by sensitive and intelligent beings, there is every reason to conclude, from a consideration of the sublime scenery with which its surface is adorned, and of the general beneficence of the Creator, who appears to have left no large portion of his material creation without animated existences; and it is highly probable, that direct proofs of the moon’s being inhabited may hereafter be obtained, when all the varieties on her surface shall have been more minutely explored.

Later in the book, Dick defends his stance that life exists on other planets against arguments to the contrary. This is in Appendix 5: On a Plurality of Worlds.


Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings, by Franz von Gruithuisen, was published. I haven’t found a scan of it or a translation of it online, but the same year, The Gentleman’s Magazine ran a short article that says Gruithuisen had observed lunar vegetation, “indications from which the existence of living beings are inferred,” along with “artificial roads” and a “great colossal edifice, resembling our cities.” In 1826, an article in The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal opens by stating that “Olbers considers it as very probable that the moon is inhabited by rational creatures.” Gruithuisen’s findings are mentioned next, followed by the news that “another observer maintains, from actual observation, that great edifices do exist in the moon.” A geologist named Noggerath is quoted to offer an explanation that discounts lunar life. The reporter returns to Gruithuisen, summarizing his proposal to communicate with those on the Moon by “erecting a geometrical figure on the plains of Siberia.” The thinking is that communication could only begin by relying on “such mathematical contemplations and idea, which we and they must have in common.” That such claims were highly controversial is shown in The Annals of Philosophy, which reprinted the article and ridiculed those mentioned in it. In 1828, The Literary Register also reprinted the article, adding that “the Revd. J.B. Emmet” observed lines on the lunar surface “which have the appearance of rivers.”


A Voyage to the Moon with Some Account of the Manners and Customs Science and Philosophy of the People of Morosofia and Other Lunarians, by Joseph Atterly (a.k.a. George Tucker), is published.


“Hans Phaall–A Tale,” a.k.a. “The Unparralled Adventure of One Hans Phaall,” by Edgar Allan Poe, was published. The title character, who turns out to be a questionably reliable narrator, claims to visit the Moon in a balloon.


“Some Account of the Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope,” a.k.a. “The Great Moon Hoax,” anonymous (but attributed to Richard Adams Locke), was published in the New York Sun. Still perpetuating the hoax, the series was republished as a book with the same title.  A couple of decades later, with the hoax exposed, the series was yet again published in The Celebrated Moon Story, Its Origin and Incidents and The Moon Hoax; or, A Discovery that the Moon has a Vast Population of Human Beings.

Moon Hoax
An illustration created for Locke’s “Some Accounts of the Great Astronomical Discoveries” series published in The Sun, starting on August 25, 1835. Exactly where and when–or even if–it appeared in the newspaper series, I don’t know. The closest I’ve come to seeing the actual articles are partial reproductions at The Museum of Hoaxes.


Adventures in the Moon, and Other Worlds, anonymous (but attributed to John Russel), was published.


Der Mond, by Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich Mädler, was published. The authors argue that there is neither atmosphere nor water on the Moon.


Thomas Dick followed The Christian Philospher (see 1823) with Celestial Scenery; or, The Wonders of the Planetary System Displayed. Again, he makes a “plurality of worlds” argument, contending that life exists throughout the solar system. While he says that telescopes will probably never be powerful enough to allow us to see the lunar inhabitants themselves, he is confident that “we may be able to trace the operations of sentient or intelligent beings or those effects which indicate the agency of living beings.” Dick also echoes Plutarch’s Lampias by saying that, even if we never do find evidence of lunar life, the Moon offers us beauty, direction, relief from the hot sun, and cleansing tides. The Moon, then, has purpose.


A reflecting telescope of unprecedented size was completed and dubbed the “Leviathan of Parsonstown.” The instrument had been commissioned by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, and was constructed at Birr Castle in County Offaly, Ireland. The enhanced magnification, according to a Dr. (William?) Scoresby, enabled Parsons to confidently conclude that there were “no signs of habitations such as ours — no vestiges of architectural remains to show that the moon is or ever was inhabited by a race of mortals similar to ourselves.” Parsons had seen neither “green fields” nor any body of water. Instead, “all seemed desolate.”


The Young Astronomer; or, The Facts Developed by Modern Astronomy, Collected for the Use of Schools and the General Reader, by John S.C. Abbot, was published. In this textbook, Abbot informs his youthful readers:

It is the general opinion of Astronomers that the Moon is inhabited. Though we cannot hope by any increase of telescopic power, within the limits of probability, to see inhabitants of the Moon, it is not unreasonable to suppose that their works may be seen.

Interestingly, Abbot makes this bold statement right after debunking the notions that the Moon influences weather on Earth and that the Moon can induce insanity (or “lunacy”) among people of Earth.


Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation: With a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere and His Wonderful Voyage Around the Moon, by John Leonard Riddell, was published. Interestingly, though writing fiction, Riddell describes a Moon with barely any atmosphere and no water or life:

Probably the air is more rarified than the nearest approach to a vacuum which we can produce in our air pumps. . . . There were no seas, lakes nor rivers of water; indeed not a drop of water was anywhere visible. There were no indications of animal or vegitable life; but all seemed a cold, dry, dreary, wild and barren waste.


Work was completed on a refractor telescope with an unprecedented 15-inch lens. It was housed at Harvard University and was used to take the first telephoto images of the Moon.

1847 15-inch refractor
Harvard University’s 15-inch refractor telescope


Outlines of Astronomy, by John Herschel, was published. In a chapter about the Moon, John punctures the expectation of his father, William, (see 1780) when he says that telescopes “must be greatly improved, before we could expect to see signs of inhabitants, as manifested by edifices or by changes on the surface of the soil. . . . Owing to the want of air, however, it seems impossible that any form of life, analogous to those on earth, can subsist there. No appearance indicating vegetation, or the slightest variation of the surface, which can, in our opinion, fairly be ascribed to change in season, can any where be discerned.”


A refractor telescope with an 18 1/2-inch lens — at the time, the world’s largest — went into operation at the observatory of the Chicago Astronomical Society.


A refractor telescope with a 26-inch lens — a new record — was completed and installed at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. With it, the moons of Mars were discovered.


The Moon and the Condition and Configurations of Its Surface, by Edmond Neison (aka Edmond Nevill), was published. This became an authoritative work, and Neison reasserts the claim that the lunar surface is without water or atmosphere. Regarding life there, he says, “It is curious to read Herschel’s opinion as to the great probability, if not absolute certainty, of the moon being inhabited.” (See 1780.) He later says that Herschel’s statement initiated a shift away from the view that the Moon could not be inhabited, as expressed by Riccioli (see 1651), to the view that it could be, as seen “forcibly and extensively” in Gruithusen (see 1824). However, the consensus view began to revert back to uninhabited in the early 1800s, and Beer and Mädler “entirely completed this alteration” (see 1837).


H.G. Wells’ The First Men on the Moon was serialized, starting with the November issue of The Strand. This signals a renewal of fiction about indigenous lunar life. However, such fiction had now entered the realm of pure fantasy, not “scientific” speculation. As Wells would explain, The First Men on the Moon was one of his novels that “do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream. They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their impossibility.” The quotation comes from Wells’ preface to Seven Famous Novels (Knopf, 1934).

From The Strand Magazine 21.122 (Feb., 1901) p. 167


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