The London Lawyer Who Tried to Contact Mars via Telegraph

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.

Earthlings often like to imagine Martians as belligerent, as in the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 or the 1996 movie Mars Attacks!. But for Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson, a London lawyer and former town clerk of Shoreditch, the Martians were a gentle people who only wanted peace.

Sure, the inhabitants of the Red Planet might look a little alarming—they were often more than 7 feet tall with huge ears and large shocks of hair, according to Robinson—but other than that they were much like humans, living in houses and driving cars, and enjoying simple pleasures such as drinking tea and smoking pipes.

Robinson knew all this because he had been telepathically communicating with a Martian woman named Oomaruru since the early 1920s, or so he claimed. In March of 1926, he had also held a séance with a psychic researcher and a medium whose hand wrote the Martian alphabet and drew a sketch of Oomaruru. A British newspaper, the Sunday Referee, later described the drawing, saying she had a “whimsical, half-smiling mouth, dark, penetrating eyes, curious nose, and very large ears.”

Though this all of this may sound absurd today, at the start of the 20th century, many scientists believed in the possibility of life on Mars. The discovery of what astronomers identified as canals on the Red Planet (first observed by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877) had excited imaginations, and with inventions like the telephone and radio, science was continually turning what had once seemed impossible into the possible. Furthermore, the rise of Spiritualism in the 19th century—based on the idea of communication with the dead—remained popular, with notable advocates like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraging people to believe contacting the beyond was a worthwhile pursuit. Was contacting Mars really so much of a stretch?

EARTH TO MARS

A 1926 memo from the Central Telegraph Office concerning Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson
BT Archives

In October 1926, Robinson decided to take his communications with Oomaruru to the next level—by going to the post office. At the time, London’s General Post Office had recently opened Rugby Radio Station, which served as a global radio telegraph hub.

A memo unearthed from London’s Central Telegraph Office explains that Robinson made arrangements to transmit a message for a standard long-distance rate of one shilling, six pence per word (then about 35 cents).

“Dr. Mansfield Robinson is singularly serious in this business, and we may expect other messages from him,” the memo reads. “I do not think we could have any conscience pricks as regards taking the money for he is perfectly sane and seems to have devoted his life to the study of possible intercommunication with the planet.”

The transmission, scheduled for 11:55 on the evening of October 27, used Robinson’s requested wavelength of 18,240 meters. It consisted of three words: Opesti, Nipitia, Secomba. Their meanings remain a mystery.

A handwritten letter from Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson to a telegraph office concerning his Mars transmission
BT Archives

Postal clerks stood by with a receiver tuned to a wavelength of 30,000 meters, which Robinson said was the Martian’s preference. Sadly, they received no response.

Undeterred, Robinson waited two years for the Red Planet to get close to Earth again. And then in October 1928 he made another attempt.

Once more, the post office agreed to dispatch his message. A memo states that its reasons were “mainly in order to obtain free publicity for Rugby.” Officials reasoned that press coverage would promote its rate far more efficiently than paid advertising.

This time, the messages read, “M M Lov to Mars x Erth" and "M M God is lov." They were transmitted at 2:15 am on October 24.

Again, no discernible message from Mars came through.

Robinson blamed the equipment. “The wavelength of 18,700 meters used by the post office does not go through the heavy-side layer of rarefied air, and therefore the signals are reflected around the earth,” he told the Associated Press. “The Martians were very annoyed that the signals could not come to them. They were sitting up for hours to receive signals.”

In December, Robinson made another attempt. This time he used a radio tower from Brazil, armed with wavelengths of more than 21,000 meters.

Unfortunately, changing hemispheres did not change the results.

WORLD PEACE VIA TELEPATHY

Robinson’s mission went quiet until January 1930, when he apparently dispensed with radio communication and reported that he’d telepathically conducted an interview with Oomaruru for the United Press. In his alleged conversation, she suggested opening a College of Telepathy. She also expressed dismay at the lack of world peace after nearly 2000 years of “listening to the teachings of Jesus.”

Telepathy, Oomaruru believed, would make the world a better place. Not only would it help humans reach Mars, it would also help simplify communication right here on Earth. Robinson believed it was the “missing link in progress.” He was frustrated by the inefficiencies of the telephone (wrong numbers, busy signals), which would disappear, he said, “when the world learns to telepathize.”

Six months later, a United Press correspondent reported that Robinson had opened the College of Telepathy, staffed with six teachers and a telepathic dog named Nell. To help build the student body, Robinson offered free tuition for a month to the first seven pupils. He explained that each would be required to have “complete chastity and abstinence from flesh, alcohol and tobacco, coupled with good health and a desire to seek spiritual development.” Nell’s role was not clarified.

The article also noted that at the time of its writing there was only one student, named Claire. In addition to meeting the aforementioned requirements, she also signed a membership declaration in which she agreed to obey its rules, keep its secrets (unless “compelled by a competent court of justice”), and use her powers for the benefit of others.

No further details on attendance or successes were ever reported in the press. However, Robinson made headlines again in 1933 after claiming to be telepathically in touch with Cleopatra, who was living on Mars as a farmer’s wife. This may not have pleased his own wife, who once told reporters that she wouldn’t allow his experiments to be conducted at home. “There will be no foolishness around this house,” she said.

Robinson continued his telepathic communications with Oomaruru and Cleopatra for a few years, but died in 1940 at age 75 without ever having made radio contact with Mars. For the last several years of his life, at least, it seems he respected his wife's wishes and kept the foolishness to a minimum.

Maine Man Catches a Rare Cotton Candy Lobster—For the Second Time

RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images
RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images

Just three months after a cotton candy lobster was caught off the coast of Maine, another Maine resident has reeled in one of the rare, colorful creatures.

Kim Hartley told WMTW that her husband caught the cotton candy lobster off Cape Rosier in Penobscot Bay—and it’s not his first time. Four years ago, he caught another one, which he donated to an aquarium in Connecticut. While the Hartleys decide what to do with their pretty new foster pet, it’s relaxing in a crate on land.

Though the chances of finding a cotton candy lobster are supposedly one in 100 million, Maine seems to be crawling with the polychromatic crustaceans. Lucky the lobster gained quite a cult following on social media after being caught near Canada’s Grand Manan Island (close to the Canada-Maine border) last summer, and Portland restaurant Scales came across one during the same season. You can see a video of the discovery in Maine from last August below:

According to National Geographic, these lobsters’ cotton candy-colored shells could be the result of a genetic mutation, or they could be related to what they’re eating. Lobsters get their usual greenish-blue hue when crustacyanin—a protein they produce—combines with astaxanthin, a bright red carotenoid found in their diet. But if the lobsters aren’t eating their usual astaxanthin-rich fare like crabs and shrimp, the lack of pigment could give them a pastel appearance. It’s possible that the cotton candy lobsters have been relying on fishermen’s bait as their main food source, rather than finding their own.

While these vibrant specimens may look more beautiful than their dull-shelled relatives, even regular lobsters are cooler than you think—find out 25 fascinating facts about them here.

[h/t WMTW]

7 Very Victorian Ways to Die

A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."
A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."

In the 19th century, the Grim Reaper was seemingly around every corner. A glass of water, a beautiful dress, or a brightly colored piece of wallpaper could all spell your doom. Poor sanitation, dangerous working practices, and widespread poisons meant that even those in their prime of life were not immune to sudden death. Thankfully, today's scientific advances—and better regulation—have massively improved life expectancy, although some of these dangers still lurk.

1. Flammable Fashion

In the 1850s and '60s, the trend for huge crinoline skirts boomed. These large structured petticoats covered with fabric gave the impression of a voluminous skirt, whereas previously, the look had been achieved by wearing numerous layers of skirts, which was both hot and cumbersome. Crinolines became popular in part because they were light and easy to maneuver.

There was, however, a downside to their design—crinolines, often made of diaphanous materials such as silk and muslin, were highly flammable. Numerous newspapers reported on the scores of women who had the misfortune to get too close to a naked flame. Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, died in 1861 after her dress went up in flames when a lighted match or small piece of paper fell on her. Longfellow himself attempted to extinguish the flames, but his wife's skirts were so flammable it proved impossible to save her life. Another sad example was Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, who in 1867 is said to have pulled the classic teenage move of hiding a cigarette from her father behind her back and inadvertently set her dress ablaze.

Newspaper reports abounded with editorials on the perils of flouncy fashion, and offered various solutions (sometimes perhaps in jest). The Tablet in 1858 recommended, “We would … suggest that every lady wearing a crinoline, should be accompanied by a footman with a pail of water.” Needless to say, this was not a practical solution, but trends soon moved away from crinolines and the threat of fire lessened.

2. Opium Overdoses

A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)
A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)

Quieting fractious babies has always proved a challenge, but in the 19th century a seemingly wonderful solution was offered: opium. Tinctures of opium, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, were widely used as method to soothe sickly or teething infants. Although it might seem horrifying by modern standards to drug children into listlessness, in the 19th century opium was an extremely popular medicine and, before the days of aspirin, was commonly used as a painkiller and sleeping aid.

Godfrey’s Cordial was especially popular among working-class mothers who often had to return to work soon after the birth of a child. It became not uncommon to dose babies with Godfrey’s to make sure the child remained in a stupor until the mother returned from work. Unfortunately, accidental overdoses were frequent—in 1854 it was estimated that, in Britain, three-quarters of all deaths attributed to opium were of children under 5 years old. Fortunately, better regulation has meant that children’s medicines are now tightly controlled today.

3. Cholera Contamination

Many of us take it for granted that we can turn on the faucet and drink a glass of clean water. However, in the 19th century, as the populations in Europe and America ballooned and increasing numbers of people moved to cities, the infrastructure struggled to cope. Many slums had open sewers in the streets and an unreliable water supply, and communal wells and water pumps were often contaminated with raw sewage. This meant that water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhus became rife.

The cholera outbreaks of the 19th century originated in India, but with the growth of global trade networks it soon spread around the world. A pandemic around 1832 ensued when the disease reached Britain and America for the first time. Several other pandemics swept the world, killing 23,000 people in Britain in 1854 alone. Physician John Snow mapped the cases of cholera in London's Soho that year, and traced the cause to a single water pump that was located near a cesspool. The pump was removed, and cholera cases dropped dramatically. As scientific understanding of the spread of water-borne diseases improved, public water supplies were cleaned up, and the last documented cholera outbreak in the U.S. was in 1911.

4. Arsenic Poisoning

A jar of poisonous Paris Green
Chris goulet, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Colorful green wallpaper was the height of fashion in the Victorian era, largely spearheaded by pre-Raphaelite artists and designers. The green pigment often used, known as Scheele’s Green, had first been developed in 1775 by German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, and the key to its vibrant shade was the use of arsenic. Although arsenic was known to be poisonous if eaten, at the time it was thought to be safe as a color pigment.

In 1862 an investigation was carried out after several children from the same family sickened and died within weeks of each other in Limehouse, London. Dr. Thomas Orton investigated the case and concluded that the children had been poisoned by the arsenic in their bedroom's green wallpaper. Arsenic coloring was also used for dresses, hats, upholstery, and cravats. The poison was sprayed on vegetables as insecticide, and even added to beer. Restrictions on its use in food and drink were only added in 1903. Today, historic houses have had their arsenic wallpaper removed, and arsenic-dyed clothes in museum collections are generally kept safely behind glass.

5. Fatal Factories

By the 19th century, rapid industrialization across Europe and America had led to thousands of factories producing everything from fabric to munitions. Numerous adults—and children—were employed in these factories, providing ample opportunity for death and injury.

The cotton factories of Manchester, England, for example, could kill you in a number of ways. First, the air was thick with cotton fibers, which over time built up in workers’ lungs, causing breathing difficulties and lung disease. Then there were the whirling, grinding machines that might catch your sleeve or hair, dragging you into the loom. Children were employed to clean under the machines and retrieve dropped spindles because their small size allowed them to move about under the moving machines—but a trip or a loss of concentration often proved fatal. The huge number of accidents and deaths in factories eventually led to increased regulation—reducing working hours, restricting child labor, and making the machines themselves safer.

6. Sudden Spontaneous Combustion

Some Victorian scientists believed that alcoholism could cause spontaneous combustion. This idea caught the public imagination, and the theory was used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853) to explain the death of the drunken rag and bone man Mr. Krook. In Victorian accounts, the victims were typically overweight and were heavy drinkers, and their bodies had seemingly burst into flame, leaving only their legs intact. Needless to say, the threat of spontaneous combustion was soon seized upon by the temperance movement, who used the supposed link to alcoholism to scare people away from the demon drink.

For example, The Anatomy of Drunkenness by Robert Macnish (1834) described the various types of drunk and devoted a whole chapter to the risk of spontaneous combustion. Macnish recounted a number of case studies, including that of Mary Clues—an inveterate drinker who was found almost entirely incinerated excepting one leg, while the room around her was more or less undamaged. Despite the widespread discussion of spontaneous combustion in the Victorian era, it's now generally considered highly unlikely if not impossible. Modern forensic science has in part explained the phenomena through the “wick effect,” wherein a body on fire produces melted fat that seeps into the clothes, causing a long, slow, self-contained burn that may look like the result of spontaneous combustion—but almost certainly began with an external source.

7. Pestilent Pox

Smallpox has been around for over 12,000 years. Europeans brought the disease to North and South America in the Age of Exploration, killing up to 90 percent of indigenous populations. Smallpox was still prevalent in the 19th century and killed about 30 percent of its victims. Those that survived were often blinded or badly scarred by the virulent pustules. To give some idea of the scale of fatalities, in just one year, 1871, over 50,000 people died of smallpox in Great Britain and Ireland alone.

In 1796 the English doctor Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cow pox appeared to be immune to smallpox. This led Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine. As with many new developments, it took a number of years for vaccination to catch on, but once it did the incidence of smallpox began to fall. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease exterminated—the first virus ever to be completely eradicated world over—thanks to a sustained program of vaccination.

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