Extra! Sun Saved By Moon!


The first half of the 19th century saw major advancements in the field of astronomy; but also, amidst the starry-eyed excitement, extraordinary speculations. As knowledge of the solar system increased, attracting scientific and popular attention, science oftentimes gave way to science fiction as theories and hypotheses became all the rage among scientific luminaries and charlatans alike.

Two leading examples from this period of outlandish intellectualism were Professor Franz von Paula Gruithuisen and the Reverend Thomas Dick.

In a paper published in 1824 titled “Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings,”  Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, Professor of Astronomy at Munich University, claimed to have discovered various shades of color on the Moon that he correlated with vegetation zones on its surface. He also claimed to have observed a patterned series of lines and geometrical shapes that he believed were indicative of roads, fortifications and cities.

The Reverend Thomas Dick, aka “The Christian Philosopher” after the title of his first book, “computed” that the Solar System contained 21,891,974,404,480 (21trillion+) inhabitants; the Moon alone, by his computations, would contain 4,200,000,000 residents (quite a crowd, even for Facebook). His writings were extremely popular in America; members of the intellectual elite, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, were also fans.


Media_httplyimgcomgim_onemdOn August 25, 1835, the first of six articles appeared in the Sun, New York City‘s fledgling and faltering conservative newspaper. The paper reported that Life had been found on the Moon and attributed the discovery to the eminent British astronomer Sir John Herschel; the headline reading:




At the Cape of Good Hope

[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

Reporter Richard A. Locke* explained how Herschel devised a telescope that could magnify objects 42,000 times their size and was suddenly observing everything from 16 species of animals to 38 species of trees to 76 plants on the lunar surface. The astronomer could also see bat-like humanoids, four-feet high and a “slight improvement on that of a large orangutan,” wandering around. Locke went on to say how Herschel also observed a 60-foot high amethysts alongside a sapphire temple.


The public was fascinated with these incredible accounts which confirmed the gist of what they may have already imagined or were ready to believe.  That’s exactly what Locke was counting on and he took extended liberties with the truth and exploited the current appeal of wild intergalactic stories to boost the Sun’s declining circulation.

Even though it was true that Herschel was using a powerful telescope, it was thousands of time less powerful than described. While an Edinburgh Journal of Science did exist, it had folded in 1833…two years before Herschel’s “headline” appeared in it. Locke merely contrived the entire “discovery,” not only to increase sales of his newspaper but to satirize the wild (if sincere) claims of men such as Gruithuisen and Dick. In what came to be known as the The Great Moon Hoax,” Locke met sensationalism with sensationalism and indeed used the Moon to save the Sun…that part of the story was entirely true.

*Authorship of the article has been attributed to Richard Adams Locke, a Cambridge-educated reporter who, in August 1835, was working for the Sun. Locke never publicly admitted to being the author, while rumours persisted that others were involved. Two other men have been noted in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, a French astronomer traveling in America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York, when the moon-hoax issues appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine. However, there isn’t any solid evidence to indicate that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax. (Wikipedia)

A great source for various tales of the Moon is Starry Skies; the moon tale “When The Moon Saved the Sun” was the source for this post.

Note: The current New York Sun should not be confused with the Sun of this post which ceased publication in 1950; the newspapers had nothing to do with one another.