Where Did the Concept of “Martians” Come From?

by | Feb 22, 2019


Why do we often think of aliens as being “Martians“?  Why don’t we attribute aliens to Venus or Uranus (for example)?  Much of the reason for popular culture attributing extraterrestial life to Mars may be due to the astronomer Percival Lowell. 

Mr. Lowell was not a trained astronomer.  Instead, he was a wealthy businessman who was interested in astronomy and he created the Lowell Observatory on a mountaintop outside of Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894.  (Notably, the Lowell Observatory was the first observatory intentionally located in a remote location ideal for observing the night sky and the Lowell Observatory still exists today.)  In 1877 an Italian astronomer noted dark markings on the surface of Mars which he called “canali” which was translated into English as “canals.”  What the Italian astronomer was describing was actually a “channel” more like the English Channel – a natural phenomenon – not a “canal” which suggests artificial creation.

Percival Lowell

Percival Lowell read the Italian astronomer’s accounts of “canals” on Mars and was fascinated.  He moved to Arizona from Boston, built his observatory and then devoted the rest of his life to studying the “canals” on Mars.  He drew very detailed maps of the canals and in 1906 published a book entitled “Mars and its Canals”.  In his book, other writings, and many public speeches Mr. Lowell postulated that Mars was a dying desert world whose inhabitants built a planet-wide system of canals.  These canals transported precious water from the polar ice caps to the warmer equatorial regions where the purported Martians lived.  Mr. Lowell’s theory captured the imagination of the early 20th-century public.  The idea of “Martians” was captured in books, movies, and plays.  Even though many other astronomers studied Mars and didn’t agree with the “canal hypothesis”, surprisingly, it wasn’t until space probes in the 1960s and 1970s took close up pictures of Mars that the Martian canal idea was put to rest.  There are no artificial canals on Mars.

Drawings of Martian canals by Mr. Lowell

Interestingly, Mr. Lowell also saw possible canals on Venus in a spoke and hub pattern. This pattern is likely thought to be due to the setup of his telescope. From Sky & Telescope Magazine:

Sherman Schultz, a retired optometrist, notes that Lowell’s setup simulates what he used in his practice in examining patients for cataracts. Andrew T. Young (San Diego State University) and Philip C. Steffey also both realized that the small exit pupil might have revealed shifting shadows of Lowell’s blood vessels on his retina. As Young notes, a small exit pupil often casts shadows of blood vessels on the retina, making them visible. “As the eye pupil moves with respect to the small telescope pinhole, the angle at which rays arrive at the retina changes, so that features [that are] within the eye but a little removed from the retina may cast shifting shadows on the latter and be seen.” This effect is a well-known annoyance among planetary observers using very high magnification.

Percival Lowell’s interest in Mars has paid dividends has his observatory has had some great success, including the discovery of Pluto and contribution to the discovery that the universe is expanding. My buddy KG also had a notable dating experience at the Lowell Obervatory while a student attending the University of Northern Arizona.

Only a few years after Lowell opened his observatory and started “seeing” canals, H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds. The concept of Martians as an evil race intent on attacking earth comes from that book. In War of the Worlds, Martians attack earth with the purpose of terraforming it for their use and destroying humanity in the process. In 1938 the concept of attacking Martians was taken to a whole new level with the famous radio broadcast of the book. Here’s a great description of what happened from Michio Kaku’s recent book The Future of Humanity:

On the day before Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles took excerpts from the novel to create a series of short, dramatic, realistic radio broadcasts. The program was presented as if the Earth was actually being invaded by hostile Martians. Some people began to panic, hearing updates on the invasion—how the armed forces had been overwhelmed by death rays, and how the Martians were converging on New York City in giant tripods. Rumors from terrified listeners spread rapidly across the country. In the aftermath of this chaos, the major media vowed never again to broadcast a hoax as if it were real. This ban continues today.

BTW – the 1996 Tim Burton movie “Mars Attacks” is really fantastic.


  1. There are no artificial canals on mars? Hmmm? The plot thickens!

    Mars Attacks is fantastic!

  2. “The major media vowed never again to broadcast a hoax as if it were real. This ban continues today.” Hmmm…..


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