Signalling Mars

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Image courtesy Fabio FeminÚ

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If you can't get to Mars, then sending some sort of a signal to anyone living there is the next best thing.  At least, that was the thinking of some Earthbound scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of course, it wouldn't be possible to send anything like intelligible messages; more like simple signs to show that their was intelligent life on Earth, and that, as every good sci-fi reader knows, meant geometry.

In 1893 the Reverend Lach-Szyrma proposed signalling Mars by shining electric lights on the Rigi or the Malvern Hills to form geometric patterns.  He also proposed a more flexible scheme for the Chicago Exhibition of stringing arc lamps across Lake Michigan (pictured above) that could be shifted about to form various geometric shapes to show that Earth was inhabited by beings who were up on their Euclid. 

Image courtesy Fabio FeminÚ

Others suggested such schemes as giant bonfires in the Sahara...

Or geometric crop plantings in the American Midwest.

Image courtesy Fabio FeminÚ

Searchlights to irritate the MartiansThe more modest London Magazine proposal in 1907 suggesting building gigantic searchlights that could flash coded messages at Mars or Venus seems downright sober by comparison.

Martian voyeursMind you, the publishers of the London Magazine seem to have been a bit optimistic about the chances of someone catching their signals, as they also depicted winged Martians lounging about in front of gigantic view screens as they watched the happenings on Earth.

By the 1920s bonfires and searchlights gave way to radio as the favoured means of chatting with Martians.  The eccentric Nikola Tesla claimed to have already received signals from Mars around the turn of the century.  Even Guglielmo Marconi expressed interest in Martian radio by 1919, though he had reservations about attracting the attention of "superior intelligences."

Today, we send radio signals into deep space as a matter of routine to communicate with  our unmanned probes to the other planets, but we can manage that because we are able to send tight-beamed, powerful, frequency-modulated signals that even a small machine a billion miles away can pick up.  In the '20s, sending radio to Mars was a different kettle of fish.  Radio back then meant amplitude modulation and getting a signal to cover any sort of distance was an exercise in raw power.  Being able to shove a signal as far as the Moon would have been an incredible feat and getting it to Mars would have taken the output of the entire national grid.  Small wonder magazines that talked about radioing the planets depicted giant installations like the one on the left on their covers.

Because of the difficulties of calling Mars ourselves, Professor David Todd of Amherst College suggested that the better approach would be to listen for what the Martians were transmitting to us.  There was one problem, however: how to hear the Martian broadcasts with so many Earth stations to drown them out?

In 1924, when Mars was in opposition with the Earth, Todd proposed two days of worldwide radio silence so that scientists could listen for the Martians.  It says something for Todd's powers of persuasion that he was able to get the US Army and Navy to shut down their sets for two days, though his appeals to private broadcasters resulted in only WRC in Washington DC going off the air. 

The results were less than less than encouraging.  Todd tuned his receivers to a frequency that was so low that any incoming signals would have been unable to penetrate the Earth's atmosphere. Many of those listening for the Martians heard all sorts of strange clicks, whines, whistles, and buzzes, but anyone who has spent time with a shortwave set will understand that these all turned out to be the usual static and atmospheric effects that radio is prone to.  Anyone listening in the vicinity of Louisville, Kentucky, however, would have had something more alarming as WHAS was carrying an unscheduled live broadcast of local artillery exercise that featured some of the most remarkable noises ever heard on radio as the cannon reports overwhelmed the primitive transmitters.

In the end, the two-day listening fest was declared a wash.  When the great Charles Steinmetz did the maths and revealed the incredible power it would take to punch a signal across space with the technology of the day that was pretty much the end of the matter for the next twenty years until the development of radio astronomy.

One person who did not lose heart over this was the 82 year-old French astronomer Camille Flammarion, who declared that he believed that the Martians would still try to contact us... by telepathy.

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