xxxxxThe Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a curious network of straight lines when he began a study of the planet Mars in 1877. He called them canali (channels), but this word was taken to mean canals and opened up a great deal of speculation. Many observers, particularly the American astronomer Percival Lowell, thought them to be irrigation canals made by intelligent beings. Schiaparelli favoured a natural explanation, but kept his options open. Eventually, early in the 20th century, more powerful telescopes proved that these lines had simply been an optical illusion. Schiaparelli also showed an interest in the planets Mercury, Venus and Uranus, but his most important contribution to astronomy was the discovery that all meteor showers are fragments of disintegrating comets. This earned him the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1873. He discovered the asteroid Hesperia in 1861.


xxxxxGiovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, the astronomer who aroused so much interest in the planet Mars, was born in Savigliano, Italy, and studied astronomy at Turin and Berlin until 1856. After serving as assistant observer at the Pulkovo Observatory, near St. Petersburg, in 1860 he took up a similar post at the Brera Observatory in Milan and remained at this establishment until his retirement in 1900, becoming director in 1862.

xxxxxIt was in 1877, following the installation of a more powerful 8.6-in refractor at Brera, that Schiaparelli began a close study of Mars. His painstaking work resulted in the production of a highly detailed map of the planet in 1888 (illustrated above), and one which, updated as new discoveries were made, became a standard work of reference. He gave the major Martian features names from ancient history and mythology - like Nix Olympia, Syrtis Major, Cydonia and Thyle - and many of these remain in use today.

xxxxxIt was while drawing up this map that he noticed what appeared to be a curious network of straight lines on the surface of the planet and this “discovery” set off a wave of speculation. He called these linear markings canali, meaning channels, but the likeness to the word “canals” was enough to feed the imagination. On planet Earth this was the age of the man-made canal. The Suez Canal had been opened in 1869, and plans were afoot to build a waterway across the Isthmus of Panama. Was it not likely that the straight lines on Mars were the work of intelligent beings? Thisxwas certainly the view of the American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916). He had made an extensive study of Mars over fifteen years, produced detailed drawings, and written three books on the subject, beginning with Mars in 1895. He put forward the theory that the canals had been constructed by a form of intelligent life in order to control and direct the planet’s limited water-supply. However, some of the details on his drawings were thought to be suspect by some observers.


xxxxxSchiaparelli was more cautious in his appraisal of the matter. He leaned towards a natural explanation, but he did not entirely rule out the possibility that these channels were artificial. The fact that they were drawn with such geometric precision did tend to suggest that they were the work of intelligent beings. “I am very careful, “ he wrote, “not to combat this supposition, which includes nothing impossible”. And by giving names of rivers to some of these canali, (such as Phison from the Garden of Eden, Lethes from Hades, and Ganges from India) he himself contributed - unwittingly no doubt - to the creation of some fanciful suggestions. Then in 1879 he reported what he termed “gemination”, the appearance of two lines running in parallel. This convinced him that the channels existed, whatever their exact nature might be.

xxxxxButxby the early years of the 20th century serious doubts were being voiced about the existence of these lines. The Greek astronomer Eugene Antoniadi (1870-1944), using a more powerful telescope in 1909, saw no sign of them and concluded, with others, that they had been an optical illusion caused by the merging of a number of features - such as craters and sunspots - when seen through a poor quality lens. Others argued that in any case the planet’s climate prohibited any complex form of life. The matter was finally put to rest by the findings of the space probe Mariner 4 in 1965.

xxxxxControversy over the existence of canals on Mars has tended to overshadow Schiaparelli’s research in other directions. Whilst his study of Mars and the map he produced were of value, his most important contribution to astronomy was the discovery that all meteor showers are fragments of disintegrating comets. This earned him the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1873, and the installation of a more powerful telescope at the Brera Observatory. The latter enabled him to turn his attention to the planets, including Mercury, Venus and Uranus. He also made a study of binary stars, and discovered the asteroid Hesperia in 1861. After his retirement in 1900 he wrote L'astronomia nell'antico testamento, a work tracing the astronomy of the ancient Hebrews and Babylonians.

xxxxxIncidentally, the first map of Mars was made by the German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Madler in 1840, but they did not name the features. In 1858, however, the Italian astronomer Pietro Secchi (1818-1878) produced a map in which he named one of the “dark spots” the Atlantic Canale (known today as Syrtis Major). Then five years later he made a number of colour sketches of the surface of Mars on which he used the term canali. These were not then seen as long straight lines, but Schiaparelli used this description when starting work on his map in 1877. ……

xxxxx…… Perhaps not surprisingly, the science fiction novel The War of The Worlds, produced by the English futurist writer H.G. Wells in 1897, is centred around an invasion of England by Martians - bulky tentacled creatures armed with a heat ray and a chemical weapon! ……

xxxxx…… Before Schiaparelli began his study of Mars in 1877 he went into training. He avoided everything which could affect the nervous system, such as narcotics and alcohol. He also found that coffee was “exceedingly prejudicial to the accuracy of observation”. ……

xxxxx…… Schiaparelli’s niece, Elsa Schiaparelli, became a famous couturier after opening a fashion house in Paris in 1929.