January 10, 1834 was a remarkable day in the history of humankind. It was the day Sir John Herschel, a noted English astronomer and son of William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, first gazed through his super-powered telescope and observed life on the moon.
The account of his wondrous findings first appeared in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, but since obviously no one reads scientific journals, the story didn’t really take off until a more layman-friendly version written by Herschel’s colleague Dr. Andrew Grant appeared as a series of feature articles in the New York Sun penny newspaper beginning August 25, 1835.
The articles started with a thorough description of Herschel’s unique telescope and continued over the course of the next five issues to describe details of landscape, plant life, and numerous animal species, including unicorns, herds of moon bison, spherical amphibians, bipedal beavers, and winged human-like creatures dubbed Vespertilio-homo, or Man-bat.
The sixth and final installment detailed a superior example of Vespertilio-homo, which engaged in the most civilized of activities in close proximity to a structure that appeared to be a sapphire temple. Then it went on to explain that as the scientists took a break to discuss their findings, they accidentally left the lens of the high-powered telescope directed toward the sun and burned down a portion of the observatory. Sadly by the time repairs were made, the moon was no longer in a position conducive to further observation.
Now, as an intelligent reader of all true things on the Internet, you may have begun to realize by now that this story that really did run in the New York Sun, might not have been entirely factual. But the readers of the Sun were somewhat less sophisticated than the average discerning readers of today. And there was just enough truth to the story to make it sound kind of plausible to those who weren’t really paying attention, including a fair number of scientists who were thrilled by the discovery.
For example, it is true that Sir John Herschel traveled to South Africa in January of 1834 with a powerful telescope. It’s true, also, that the scientific community of the day was still somewhat divided on whether or not life on the moon could be possible. Herschel himself had not yet come down on one side or the other of the issue.
It’s true, too, that there had been, at one time, an Edinburgh Journal of Science, and that no one read it. Or at least no one had read it in the several years leading up to the Sun article because it had ceased to be in print. And when one considers that pretty much every sane person believed in roaming herds of moon unicorns, it’s not hard to see why everyone got so excited.
But there was no such person as Dr. Andrew Grant. He was likely an invention of reporter Richard Adams Locke. He never actually claimed responsibility for writing the articles, possibly because as a former editor of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, there’s a pretty good chance Locke plagiarized the whole story from Poe’s The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall.
But wherever it came from, the story was a huge success. Some readers were skeptical, of course, but they tweeted about it and shared the stories to their Facebook walls all the same. And within little more than a month the story had been picked up and repeated so many times, news of it had travelled all the way to Europe, where, to the credit of the European media, it was known most often as a silly American hoax.
The New York Sun did admit to the hoax eventually, but there was no retraction and with the exception of the editor of its biggest competitor, who was probably just bitter he hadn’t thought of it himself, no one seemed to care all that much. Even Sir John Herschel mostly just found the whole thing amusing. After a while he did get a little tired of answering questions about it in the middle of his very serious and important scientific lectures that no one was really listening to anyway. Still, questions about the hoax were preferable to the standard, “So,” snort, giggle, giggle, “has your dad looked at Uranus lately?”
And so the world went on, bipedal moon beavers and man-bats once again became the stuff of legend, and journalism and perhaps humankind in general continued down a very slippery slope. These days reporters can’t remember whether or not their helicopters were shot down, politicians may become confused about their own well-documented heritages, and overwhelming evidence of perjury isn’t nearly enough to pursue charges. Really, in the grand scheme of lies, the Moon Hoax isn’t so bad. I mean it’s not like Richard Locke got drunk and vandalized a bathroom or anything.