Extraterrestrial DX Circa 1924: "Will We Talk to Mars in August"
Thomas H. White -- January 1, 2000
Today, whenever someone hears a radio station, it is safe to assume the signals originated on Earth. However, in the summer of 1924 there wasn't the same certainty. In August some were carefully making last minute adjustments to their radio sets, hoping to hear signals from Mars. Some, thanks to stations like WHAS, would temporarily claim success.
Today, because of the various landings on Mars, the red planet is seen as a vast and probably lifeless desert. But in 1924 there was reason to believe that extensive vegetation, and perhaps even advanced life, existed on the red planet. Some even believed that Martian inhabitants would be far superior to human beings. Astronomer Percival Lowell had been the United States' foremost proponent of the existence of an advanced Martian civilization. In a series of writings Lowell claimed his telescopic observations had revealed, on especially clear nights, an intricate network of lines on the Martian surface. He hypothesized that these lines were a complex canal system, used to irrigate the dying planet with water drawn from the polar ice caps. Most other observers saw only vague shadings on a smudgy sphere, distorted by the Earth's atmospheric turbulence. But if Lowell's observations were correct, then an advanced civilization must have existed on Mars, and might still exist. Communication with these beings promised great scientific revelations.
Over the years there had been various proposals for contacting Mars. Flashing a series of bright lights towards the planet had been suggested by the electrical experimenter Nikola Tesla, but never attempted. A New York Times editorial endorsed the suggestion that a proof of the Pythagorean theorem be carved on a vast scale on the Siberian steppes. Not only would this be big enough for easy viewing, but the canal-digging Martians would be favorably impressed with our own engineering and mathematical skills. A little known Clark University professor by the name of R. H. Goddard was experimenting with rocketry, which he claimed would one day link the planets, but his work was still barely getting off the ground.
Thanks to the march of science, Earth now had a powerful new communication tool--radio. During the previous four years millions had witnessed, in their own living rooms, the miracle of capturing voices from half a continent away. The previous November some had received transatlantic signals exchanged during the International Radio Week tests. Would not a Martian civilization, builders of a canal system far beyond the capabilities of humans, be thoroughly versed in the advanced use of radio? On earlier close passes, perhaps over many thousands of years, Mars might have fruitlessly attempted to hail its backward neighbor. Earthlings now had the technology required to receive signals across vast expanses of space. On August 23rd Mars and Earth would come to within 55.7 million kilometers of each other, their closest approach since 1804. Perhaps for the first time the Martians would find us listening.
In spite of skepticism (the Marconi organization called it a "fantastic absurdity"), plans were organized on various fronts. Apparently no attempt was made to transmit signals to Mars. Transmitter powers were too limited, and it was known that the newly discovered Heaviside Layer (ionosphere) would absorb and scatter any signals sent from Earth on the frequencies then in use. (Although no doubt some announcers couldn't resist the temptation to say hello "to our Martian listeners".) It was hoped that more powerful Martian transmissions would be able to bridge the gap. Thus, the task on Earth would be to intercept these transmissions. And every home with a radio was a potential detector.
Professor David Todd, former head of the Amherst College astronomy department, worked to organize radio silent periods, to aid the reception of any interplanetary signals. Major General Charles Saltzman responded by ordering all American military stations to monitor and report any unusual signals, but he didn't order any cutback in normal transmissions. Admiral Edward W. Eberlen, Chief of Naval Operations, did the same for his branch of the military. Professor Todd had requested that every radio station maintain a five minute silence each hour over a two day period. Only WRC in Washington, DC appears to have complied with this request, although officials in other nations were reported "interested".
Interpretation of the signals also merited attention. A Martian broadcast might be in the form of a speech delivered in an alien tongue, or Earth might be serenaded by a lilting Martian tune. But most expected any transmissions to use a code based on some mathematical key. William F. Friedman, Chief of the Code Section in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, announced he was available to interpret any otherworldly codes. Friedman had already gained recognition by deciphering a series of messages between two defendants in the Teapot Dome scandal.
Monitoring centered on Saturday night, when the two planets were at their closest. However, strange signals were reported even before the nearest approach of the planet. Radio operators in Vancouver reported on Thursday that they were receiving a series of "four groups of dashes in groups of four". Both the form and origin of the strange signals were unidentified, and a close watch was promised. In London a specially constructed 24-tube set picked up "harsh notes" of an unknown origin. WOR engineers in Newark, New Jersey reported similar sounds at nearly the same wavelength. A Bostonian reported a strange ringing, ending with an abrupt "zzip".
Into the midst of all this activity marched WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky. By coincidence, military maneuvers near Louisville were scheduled on Friday, the day before Mars' closest approach. (Mars was, after all, the god of war). WHAS saw the maneuvers as an opportunity to score a first, and scheduled a special half hour program, where for the first time a "war" correspondent would broadcast live the progress of the mock battle. Credo Fitch Harris, then manager of WHAS, reported on the events in his book "Microphone Memoirs". WHAS's innovative program featured a remote broadcast carried by telephone lines direct from the "front". A Colonel Hamer provided commentary. By chance he was located between two three-inch field artillery pieces firing in an alternating sequence at four times per minute. Scattered small arms fire could be heard at the same time. Because the colonel's remarks ended a few minutes earlier than expected, the close of the program consisted solely of the sounds of the firing of the artillery and small arms, unbroken by any announcements.
According to Mr. Harris, this final segment was thought by some listeners to have originated from Mars. Imagine the reaction of an unsuspecting person, searching for evidence of Mars, coming across this odd program. (Most schedules listed WHAS as carrying orchestra music at this time.) Every fifteen seconds a loud "bong" was heard, as the loud artillery reports overwhelmed the microphone. In between the small arms firing sounded like a strange code, clearly not Morse. Could it be Mars? Could it be anything but Mars?
Eventually the various mysterious reports were sorted out. The operators of the 24-tube set decided they had heard nothing more exotic than "a combination of atmospherics and heterodyning". (RCA engineers calculated that, for the signals to have originated from Mars, a one million megawatt transmitter, consuming the equivalent of 2.7 million metric tons of coal hourly was required. The engineers suggested that the Martians had better outlets for their talents and resources). The Vancouver signals were identified as a new type of beacon being developed to aid navigation in Washington state inland waterways. And although WHAS eventually took great pride in its contribution to the confusion, as Credo Harris' book greatly overstates the number of reports that could be traced to WHAS, everyone eventually figured out the true nature of the mock battle broadcasts.
The final consensus was that there was no evidence the red planet had shown any interest in talking to us, although, as noted by the New York Times, "...men would never cease trying to establish communication with Mars". Camille Flammarion, 82 year old French astronomer, was confident not only that the Martians were far superior to Earthlings, but that they ultimately would contact us through the means of mental telepathy. (Fourteen years later Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast would convince many that the Martians were indeed making an unexpected direct, and very unwelcome, contact.)
Perhaps it's best that Mars turned out not to have any radio stations. It's difficult enough having to regulate radio on an earthly scale. Having to include other planets in regulatory agreements would just make things even more complicated.
By the way, I just noticed something. No one ever explained where the Boston "zzip" signals came from...
Even the original 1938 broadcast caused considerable panic, it was later adapted and repeated in other countries, sometimes with tragic results. See, for example Don Moore's The Day the Martians Landed, which reviews a broadcast made in Quito, Equador in 1949.