By Matthew Goodman
In the summer of 1835 Richard Adams Locke was thirty-four years old, and at the height of his powers – editor of the most widely read newspaper in the city. As New York newspaper editors went, Locke cut a decidedly unimposing figure, being of slim build and middling stature (Edgar Allan Poe, who stood five-foot eight, guessed Locke to be an inch shorter than himself), nowhere near as tall as James Gordon Bennett or James Watson Webb, and without Webb’s military bearing, or the literary glamor of the Evening Post’s William Cullen Bryant, or the aristocratic burnish of Mordecai Manuel Noah of the Evening Star. Still, he had a certain presence: In The Literati of New York City Poe observed that Locke’s eyes contained a “calm, clear luminousness”; there was “an air of distinction about his whole person,” as though he had carried with him to New York, along with the family’s five bags and bedding, some of the genteel manner of the world he had left behind.
For the past several years Locke’s reading had focused almost entirely on the natural sciences. Science was his true intellectual love, even more than literature or politics, and astronomy in particular had long held a special interest for him. When he was seventeen, shortly before he left East Brent for London, he had composed an epic poem entitled “The Universe Restored,” in six cantos of nearly a thousand lines each, that put forward his own theory of the ceaseless destruction and reproduction of the universe. Under his editorship the pages of the Sun often carried news of the latest astronomical developments. It might have seemed curious material to give the readers of the Sun, who were accustomed to news made much closer to home, but those were the journals he was reading and could draw upon for his items – and, in any case, almost everyone these days had at least a passing interest in astronomy, thanks in part to the imminent arrival of Halley’s Comet, an event awaited with excitement as well as a certain trepidation, for there was still a tendency to see comets as omens of disaster, portents of God’s wrath, an age-old imposition of religion onto science of the very sort that Richard Adams Locke had long found so objectionable.
The idea for his moon series came to him as he was leafing through an old volume of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, the distinguished British quarterly of arts and sciences; he had been a regular reader of the Journal back in England, and had brought several copies with him aboard the James Cropper. He was perusing the premiere issue, published in 1826, when he came upon a brief article entitled “The Moon and its Inhabitants.” The article reported that the German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers considered it “very probable” that the moon was inhabited by rational creatures, its surface covered by a vegetation very much like that of the earth’s; the astronomer Franz von Paula Gruithuisen likewise maintained that he had recently discovered “great artificial works in the moon, erected by the Lunarians,” and was at present considering the possibility of communicating with the inhabitants of the moon – perhaps by means of an immense geometrical figure to be built on the plains of Siberia. That idea had met with the approval of “the great astronomer Gauss” (the mathematician and scientist Carl Friedrich Gauss), who believed that “a correspondence with the inhabitants of the moon could only be begun by means of such mathematical contemplations and ideas, which we and they must have in common.”
Locke had found this item near the back of the journal, as part of a survey of various disciplines under the heading “Scientific Intelligence.” Toward the front was a longer article by the Scottish astronomer Thomas Dick about a new telescope he had invented, which he had dubbed the “Aërial Reflector.” In the past decade Thomas Dick had risen from obscurity (he had until recently been a schoolteacher in Perth) to become one of the most widely read authors in the field of science. The book that had made him famous was called The Christian Philosopher, or, The Connection of Science and Philosophy with Religion. First published in 1823, it had gone through several editions since then, at least one of which – the one Richard Adams Locke had read – contained a statement of Dick’s beliefs about life on the moon. In an appendix called “On the means by which it may probably be ascertained whether the Moon be a habitable world,” he proposed that a vast number of astronomers be enlisted worldwide to maintain continuous observations of the moon’s surface; over time, he believed, these observations would reveal changes on the surface brought about by “the operations of intelligent agents” – a forest being cut down, for example, or a city being built on what had earlier been only an open plain. Even if the lunarians were not themselves seen, their presence could be inferred, just as a sailor passing an uncharted island concludes that it is inhabited after noting the presence of huts and cultivated fields. If such a plan were to be put into effect, he wrote, “there can be little doubt that direct proofs would be obtained that the Moon is a habitable world.”
Immense Siberian figures, astronomers the world over watching for signs of lunarian cities: It was all, Locke thought, utterly absurd. Yet these were respected scientists, their views aired in prestigious journals. They were so very confident in their predictions of lunar life; they believed it was only a matter of time until, in Thomas Dick’s mathematical phrase, “direct proofs” were obtained and humanity knew itself to be alone no more. Life discovered elsewhere in the universe: what a sensation that would make. Locke began to imagine how such an event might be reported in the newspapers – the triumphant announcement, the awestruck descriptions of the fantastic become real. He could picture the exclamatory headlines, the long columns of black type, each day’s account concluding with that most captivating of phrases: To be continued. It would be the most remarkable news story in the history of the world.
And all the better, for his purposes, for being entirely untrue….