Great Moon Hoax

From Academic Kids

The Great Moon Hoax was a series of six articles that appeared in the New York Sun beginning on August 25, 1835 about the supposed discovery of life on the Moon. The discoveries were falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, perhaps the best-known astronomer of his day.

The headline read:


At the Cape of Good Hope

[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

The articles described fantastic animals on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tailless beavers and batlike winged humanoids ("Vespertilio-homo") who built temples. There were trees and oceans and beaches. These discoveries were supposedly made with "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle".

The author of the narrative was supposedly Dr. Andrew Grant, who described himself as the travelling companion and amanuensis of Sir John Herschel. But Dr. Grant was actually a fictional character. In reality, authorship of the article is usually attributed to Richard Adams Locke, a Cambridge-educated reporter who was working for the Sun. However, Locke never publicly admitted to being the author of the hoax, and rumors have persisted that others were also involved in the production of the story. Two men in particular have been mentioned in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, a French astronomer who was travelling through America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York, when the moon hoax appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax.

Assuming that Locke was the author, his intention was probably first to create a sensational story that would drive up sales of the New York Sun, and second to poke fun at some of the more extravagant astronomical theories that had recently been entertained. For instance, in 1824 Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, professor of Astronomy at Munich University, had published a paper titled "Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings." Gruithuisen claimed to have observed different shades of color on the lunar surface, which he correlated with climate and vegetation zones. He also saw lines and geometrical shapes, which he felt indicated the existence of roads, walls, fortifications, and cities.

But a more immediate object of Locke's satire was certainly Rev. Thomas Dick, who was known as 'The Christian Philosopher' after the title of his first book. Dick had calculated that the solar system contained 21,891,974,404,480 inhabitants. In fact, the moon alone, by his count, contained 4,200,000,000 inhabitants. His writings were enormously popular in the United States, his fans including intellectual luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

According to legend, the Sun's circulation skyrocketed on account of the hoax, and remained permanently higher than before, thereby establishing the Sun as a successful paper. However, the degree to which the hoax boosted the paper's circulation has certainly been exaggerated in popular accounts of the event.

Herschel was initially amused at the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. This later turned to annoyance when he had to field questions from people who had taken the hoax seriously.

External links


  • Evans, David S. "The Great Moon Hoax," Sky & Telescope, 196 (September 1981) and 308 (October 1981).

See also


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