Tech UPTechnologyMarconi and extraterrestrial signals

Marconi and extraterrestrial signals

Many years ago the editor of a newspaper sent a telegram to a well-known astronomer: “Cable immediately 500 words on the possible existence of life on Mars.” The astronomer answered: “We don’t know” 250 times.

The search for little green men with trumpet noses had its moment of glory when in 1877 the great Mars observer Giovanni Schiaparelli claimed to have observed “not very deep depressions in the ground, extending in a rectilinear direction for thousands of kilometers, with a width of 100 , 200 kilometers or more”. This was the starting signal for the great obsession of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Martian ‘canals’, which reached their peak with the North American astronomer Percival Lowell, who saw in them great works of planetary engineering . It is striking to recall the idea of Mars that was held at that time: it is really evocative. The great popularizer of astronomy, the Frenchman Camille Flammarion, wrote: “If we arrived at Mars, we would not find greater differences than those perceived by a European when get to Australia.

It is not surprising that with such ideas the belief that the surface of the red planet could be teeming with life formed part of the imaginary of scientists: in 1900 the widow of French millionaire Pierre Guzman offered a prize through the French Academy of Sciences 100,000 francs to whoever communicated for the first time with another world… except Mars .

Tesla and Marconi against the Martians

Of course, the best way to do this was through a recent invention, the radio. In fact, its two inventors, Tesla and Marconi, had already made their first steps in this field. While Tesla was experimenting with wireless signal transmission in his Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899, he detected mysterious signals that he assumed came from Mars: “In the course of my experiments I used a receiver of practically unlimited sensitivity. There was no other radio station nearby then, and none powerful enough on this planet to affect mine. One day I picked up what seemed like regular signals. I know they could not be produced on Earth . The possibility that they came from Mars crossed my mind, but pressures from my other businesses made me abandon this experiment. No one has been able to find out what reached his transmitter, although it is speculated that what he detected were radio emissions from his competitor, Marconi.

In Collier’s Weekly for March 1901 Tesla wrote the article Talking to the Planets : “My first observations terrified me… but at the time the idea that these disturbances were being intelligently controlled did not immediately present itself to me… the feeling that I was the first to hear the greeting from one planet to another grows inside me”.

That same year Guglielmo Marconi made front page headlines in The New York Times : “Marconi’s hope is to use radio to the stars.” There, the Italian inventor stated that it would be the best way to communicate with other beings from distant planets. In fact, the following year he claimed that his radio stations had received signals that could be of extraterrestrial origin . Of course, all hope vanished when we realized that they were letters of the Morse alphabet; it is not very probable that the extraterrestrials used it in their communications…

martemania arrives

But Marconi was not discouraged. On March 18, 1920, he returned to the fray when The Tomahawk newspaper published some of his statements in which he claimed to have received messages from extraterrestrials: “During my wireless telegraphy experiments I have encountered the most amazing phenomenon. The most striking thing for me is that I have received some signals that I believe originated in space beyond our planet . I think it is entirely possible that these signals may have been sent by the inhabitants of another planet to the inhabitants of Earth.” In the spring of 1922 he set out to hunt for signs of Martians – stricto sensu – with his ship Electra throughout the Atlantic.

This Tuesday mania reached its maximum splendor on August 22 and 23, 1924, when, under the direction of astronomer David P. Todd, the US Army and Navy carried out a total blackout of their communications, except for those strictly necessary, to detect possible emissions from Mars . How could it be otherwise, “mysterious signals” were received at different stations.

Decades later, on his birthday in 1937, Tesla announced that he had been preparing an apparatus with which “considerable amounts of energy can be sent through interstellar space and to any distance without the slightest dispersion.” He did not need to say that it was a radio to talk to aliens . He never made public any technical details nor did we know what device it was. Or if he ever built it.


Jakosky, B. (1998) The search for life on other planets , Cambridge University Press

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