Martians! How Aliens Invaded Earth

Thank you to Draper and its Hack the Moon
initiative for supporting PBS Digital Studios. The red planet has captured our attention
throughout human history. With its relative proximity to us and to the
sun, early astronomers thought it was possible for life to exist on Mars. We’ve imagined martians as everything from
humans with silver antennae, to skeletal invaders with exposed brains. From a helmeted cartoon to muscular, four-armed
bipedal warriors. Annddd whatever this thing this. PBS even has its own Martians. Some martians are depicted as monsters, while
others are allies. Why are they all so different? Technology plays a role, and so does biology,
natural history, and war. But the whole martian craze began with just
a single mistranslated word. [Monstrum Intro] The modern history of Mars began in 1877 when
a crucial discovery was made: a network of lines were visible on the surface. The Italian astronomer who discovered these
grooves named them “canali.” “Channels” in English. In 1895, astronomer Percival Lowell published
the first illustrated book on Mars. Lowell observed the same lines, and writing
for an English-speaking audience, translated the word canali to “canals” rather than
“channels.” And that’s when a fateful mistranslation
changed Mars history forever. He speculated how life could survive there
if it did indeed exist. But then, Lowell’s theories got a little
out there: His book claimed that the surface markings visible on Mars were deliberate as
quote: “no natural theory has yet been advanced which will explain these lines.” He theorized that what he was seeing were
changes in vegetation made possible by a vast series of irrigation canals. And even though he insists that he is only
referring to the possibility of an intelligent lifeform on Mars, he also says “Certainly
what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the
journey of life.” Now that a scientist had suggested intelligent
life on Mars, the public couldn’t get the idea out of their heads, and the press had
a field day. Newspapers and magazines reprinted Lowell’s
maps, adding a visual element to Mars mythology. Depictions in literature of the time presented
Martians as humanoid in form-and their society utopian. No war, no poverty, no social classes, no
prisons, and no alcoholism. Martians were portrayed as advanced beings
both in technology and intelligence. They were odd, but kind of appealing. Until The War of the Worlds that is. No not that one. Nope, not that one
either. Further back. Yes, this one. Not only did H.G. Wells give us one of the
first alien invasion novels of all time, his Martians were very far from human. Although they did possess a superior intelligence. They also wanted to kill humans—and inject
themselves with our blood. Initially serialized in Pearson’s Magazine
in 1897, the story was collected and published as one volume in 1898 and was an immediate
success. It has never been out of print. It increased in popularity after Orson Welles’
infamous radio broadcast in 1938. On October 30, listeners tuned in to hear
his dramatic reading of the book. The show was so realistic he managed to convince
some people Martians were actually invading New Jersey. Other than my beloved Yip Yips, and Marvin
the Martian, these were the first aliens I was ever exposed to, and they left a lasting
impression. How could they not? After all H.G. Wells’ aliens were essentially
giant heads about 4 feet in diameter with no nostrils, a fleshy beak, large eyes, and
sixteen tentacles arranged in two bunches. Their internal structure was basically all
brain. What was so scary about these Martians was
their advanced war machinery. Wells describes a “monstrous tripod” 100-feet-high
capable of traveling with the speed “of an express train.” These machines, driven by the Martians, have
flexible metal tentacles, heat-ray guns, and a chemical weapon in the form of “black
smoke.” See? Terrifying. In what is regarded as one of the best plot
twists in science fiction, the Martians are destroyed not by human military or weapons,
but by bacteria. While serious, persistent criticism of the
supposed canals on Mars began in the 20th century, that did not stop authors from writing
about life on the red planet. Some authors latched on to Mars as an uncharted
frontier ripe for nostalgic romance driven by masculinist fantasy, a place for swords
and magic, beasts and treasure, slave-girls, princesses, and other beautiful female Martians
just dying to be loved by a human man Even film picked up on the trend Following World War I, we see a shift in Martians. The human explorers traveling to Mars in these
texts were met with menace, and we see a surge of non-mammalian extraterrestrials similar
to Earthly insects, reptiles, or worms that were, more often than not, predators. Stories of aliens from this period could be
read as American anxieties about nationalism and racial segregation. When Martians were described as more humanoid,
they were still a threat because of their advanced weaponry. It wasn’t really until after World War II
that Martians were more commonly referred to as “aliens.” This word alien was specifically linked with
a new term and concept for the time—the “unidentified flying object.” As consumer cameras and recording devices
became more accessible, so did the popularity of UFOs. People could now capture and share “alien”
experiences. Martian literature post-WWII reflected a desire
to escape Earth. To flee from repressive governments, nuclear
weapons, and other human-created evils. Like in The Martian Chronicles, where humans
flee Earth for various reasons including nuclear war, government censorship, and racism. As its author, Ray Bradbury once famously
said, “Mars is a mirror, not a crystal.” As our science and technology advanced, and
the idea of life on Mars was largely debunked, a belief in Martians became even more of a
fantasy. After the invention of in-space telescopic
photography, and the Mariner 9 and Viking Missions, people pretty much gave up hope
that above ground organisms lived on Mars. Of course this hasn’t stopped people from
creating stories about them. Mars is more visible and more accessible to
us than ever. While many still hold out for the possibility
of life on Mars buried deep below its crust or in the polar ice caps, we are more concerned
with trying to put humans on Mars than encountering some kind of life form there. Today, narratives about Martians have changed. We’ve moved away from imagining Mars as
a pre-existing utopia, populated by a Martian race superior to our own. Now, we envision Mars as a utopia in-waiting,
a promise of hope and a better life, off-planet for Earthlings. PBS is bringing you the universe with SUMMER
OF SPACE, which includes six incredible new science and history shows streaming on
and the PBS Video app, like The Planets from NOVA. There are also many celestial episodes from
PBS Digital Studios creators! Thank you to Draper and its Hack the Moon
initiative for supporting PBS Digital Studios. You know the story of the Astronauts who landed
on the Moon. Now, you can log onto to
discover the story of the male and female engineers who guided them there and back safely. Hack the Moon chronicles the engineers and
technologies behind the Apollo missions. Brought to you by Draper, the site is full
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