January 9, 2013

Rhodes: The surface of the moon

The first descriptions of the Lunarians, the native inhabitants of the moon, were described by a 9-year old boy named Johnny Palmer in San Francisco on January 9, 1876. "When fully grown," according to Johnny, "they resemble somewhat a chariot wheel, with four spokes, converging at the center or axle." The axle is the creature's head, which has four eyes, and the spokes are its limbs. They come in various colors — or races — including bright red, orange, and blue.

The surface of the moon is all hill and hollow. There are but few level spots, nor is there any water visible. The atmosphere is almost as refined and light as hydrogen gas. There is no fire visible, nor are there any volcanoes. Most of the time of the inhabitants seems to be spent in playing games of locomotion, spreading themselves into squares, circles, triangles, and other mathematical figures. They move always in vast crowds. No one or two are ever seen separated from the main bodies. The children also flock in herds, and seem to be all of one family. Individualism is unknown. They seem to spawn like herring or shad, or to be propagated like bees, from the queen, in myriads. Motion is their normal condition. The moment after a mathematical figure is formed, it is dissolved, and fresh combinations take place, like the atoms in a kaleidoscope. No other species of animal, bird, or being exist upon the illuminated face of the moon.

Johnny observes the moon, and other astronomical phenomena, without the use of any scientific equipment. Due to a malformed eye (it is almost flat), he can only see things which are at least 240,000 miles away. He has no vision of objects closer and, because of this, his parents assumed he was blind. The truth was discovered by a committee of scientists sent from the California College of Scientists.

A little over a month after these experiments, a journalist (the narrator of the story) pays a visit to the remarkable boy, with heaps of sugar candy to coax his story out of him. The journalist secures permission for the boy to use a powerful telescope and observe the surface of Mars.

The description comes from the short story "The Telescopic Eye" by William Henry Rhodes (who often wrote under the pseudonym "Caxton"). Born in North Carolina, educated at Harvard, he made his living in Texas and California, though his first book was published in New York in 1846. His story "The Telescopic Eye," published in 1876, has the air of "The Great Moon Hoax," a series from the New York Sun in 1835, usually attributed to Richard A. Locke.

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