Thursday, 4 June 2009

Before there was Snopes.Com

Every one gets one now and then; an email asking you to share this new miracle discovery, or warning you of the dangers of cell phones exploding in your pocket, and a thousand other urban hoaxes that are circulated by "pass this on" emails. But before there was the Internet, there were men like Richard Adams Locke, a descendant of the famous philosopher, who reached levels of sensationalism not heard of by modern day Internet users, most often, to sell a 2 cent broad sheet.

In 1833, Sir John Herschel sailed from England for the Cape of Good Hope, carrying a large telescope with which to view the southern stars. In the days of slow travel and communication, it would be two years before the true accounts of Herschel reached England or the US, but in 1835 a series in the New York Sun scooped the world with, "Great Astronomical Discoveries made by Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope."
The first article described a plausible account of the Sun being able to scoop the world news, and went into great detail on how Sir John had been able to increase the magnification to unheard of powers by the introduction of artificial light into the tube. In my 1917 account of the story, it is said that when he heard the idea, David Brewster was so ecstatic that he, "leaping halfway to the ceiling exclaimed, 'Thou art the man!" (Honest to Goodness, check it out in Recreations in Mathematics, 1917, by H.E. Licks, page 109]..

The series went on to explain the things Herschel saw with his 42,000 times magnification scope; "herds of brown quadrupeds of the bison kind, each animal having a hairy veil over its eyes." The conjecture was that the animals needed the protection for their eyes due to the extreme variation in light which they were periodically exposed.
And THEN??? ".. his search was rewarded by the sight of human beings with wings and who walked erect and dignified when they alighted on the plain..

The Sun issued 60,000 copies and sold out in less than a month. Translation were made throughout Europe. Incredibly, over twenty years after Herschel returned to England, the Sun had another incredible run in 1859 with a pamphlet edition complete with illustrations.

Amazingly, this was only one of many such hoaxes that have occurred before the Internet. Many of them have been captured in a book by Matthew Goodman called "The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York ".

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