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

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.

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.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Roomba/Amazon

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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30 Strange Old-Timey Medical Treatments

Venesection on male patient by Cintio d'Amato, 1671
Venesection on male patient by Cintio d'Amato, 1671
National Library of Medicine, Flickr // Public Domain

Some treatments of old, like the ones in this piece adapted from The List Show on YouTube, will make you especially thankful for science and modern medicine.

1. Cure Rabies with Raw Veal

In Ancient Rome, people thought they could treat rabies. According to Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and author, anyone bitten by a mad dog should be treated by having their wound cut open and covered with raw veal. Then, the patient should eat a diet of lime and hog’s fat—and then the patient would then drink a concoction made with wine and boiled badger dung.

2. Treat Asthma with a Diet of Boiled Carrots

In Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, first published in the late 1740s, British evangelist John Wesley suggested “a fortnight on boiled carrots only” to treat asthma.

3. Take Care of Heart Palpitations with a Vinegar-Soaked Rag

For heart palpitations, Wesley's treatments included “drink a pint of cold water,” “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and “be electrified.”

4. Cure Toothaches with Electricity

Wesley also suggests that patients with toothaches be electrified. The idea of electrotherapy was fairly new in the 1700s, but it was used regularly until the early 1900s for illnesses like epilepsy, paralysis, impotence, tapeworms, and more. Some people just got electrotherapy for general wellness.

5. and 6. Prevent Nosebleeds with the Aid of a Red-Hot Poker or Bloodletting

To prevent nosebleeds, Wesley recommends, “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose or steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

In Wesley’s day, someone with nosebleeds might also get blood removed from another part of their body. There is documentation going back to around 200 CE recommending that someone with nosebleeds have their elbow bled. Back then, it was believed that every person had four humours in their body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and any illness could be boiled down to an imbalance of humours. Bloodletting was one of the therapies that was supposed to put them back in balance. During medieval times in Europe, bloodletting was used for the plague, smallpox, and gout.

7. Treat Malaria with a Magic Word

There are a lot of strange historical treatments for malaria, but one of my favorite cures was a magical charm recommended by a Roman physician in the 3rd Century CE. Patients were told to write Abracadabra over and over on a piece of paper with one less letter on each line, until the letters formed a triangle with just an A at the bottom. Then, they had to tie the paper with flax and wear it around their necks for nine days before tossing it into an east-running stream. If that didn't work, they were supposed to rub themselves with lion fat.

8. Cure Rabies With Ground Liverwort and a Cold Bath

Back to rabies, which was a huge concern in Europe during the 1700s. There was this treatment from The Book of Phisick, written around the same time, that advised, “Tak[ing] 40 grains of ground liverwort and 20 grains of pepper in half a pint of milk ... take this quantity four mornings together, then use of Cold Bath, every other day, a month.”

9. Treat Epilepsy with a Powder Made of Hair and Deer Bones

The Book of Phisick also contains a remedy for patients with epilepsy. Cook a strong man’s hair with a deer leg-bone, turn it into powder, then eat it leading up to the new moon. (For a long time, people have debated whether the moon affects seizures. As recently as 2004, there was an article published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior titled “The influence of the full moon on seizure frequency: myth or reality?” For the record, they found no connection between the full moon and the frequency of epileptic seizures.)

10. Cure Bible Cysts with a Dead Man's Hand

In 1743, German anatomist Lorenz Heister wrote down treatment options for Bible cysts, which appear on the hand or wrists. They included strapping a bullet that had killed an animal to the cyst or touching it with a dead man’s hand. But one of the treatments he recommended, hitting it with a heavy book, is still in use today. That’s why they’re called Bible cysts—the Bible was supposedly a good book to whack them with because it’s so big. But medical professionals probably don’t want you doing that.

11. Treat Asthma with Cigarettes

Asthma cigarettes were popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were made with a number of toxic ingredients, including stramonium, belladonna, and tobacco.

12. and 13. Use Saffron to Sober Up—and Cheer Up

The Red Book of Hergest is a Welsh manuscript from around 1382 that contains some herbal remedies, including one to remove drunkenness that involves “eat[ing] bruised saffron with spring water.” Sadness could be cured by saffron, too, at least in moderation—according to Hergest, “If you would be at all times merry, eat saffron in meat or drink, and you will never be sad: but beware of eating over much, lest you should die of excessive joy.”

14. Cure Everything from Arthritis to Impotence with Radium

Radium was once considered a legitimate medical treatment. The ailments it supposedly cured included arthritis, impotence, and aging. The Revigator, an early 20th century crock that combined water with radium, was placed in hundreds of thousands of American households. Now we know that radium doesn't cure aging; it puts people at risk of radiation sickness. Users of the Revigator also had arsenic and lead leach out into their water, which wasn't great.

15. Treat Syphilis with Mercury

From about the 16th century to the 20th century, mercury was the primary treatment for syphilis, either eaten or applied to the body. It was also used to treat less severe illnesses, like constipation. In fact, Lewis and Clark’s men consumed so many pills containing mercury chloride that historians and archeologists can find the places where they camped just based on the mercury content of the area.

By the 18th century, doctors were aware of mercury poisoning, but they continued using it to treat syphilis—they just limited the amounts that were used.

16. Treat Hay Fever with Cocaine

Dr. Thomas Jefferson Ritter's Mother’s Remedies: Over One Thousand Tried and Tested Remedies from Mothers of the United States and Canada, published in 1910, contains many remedies that have been phased out—like the one for hay fever, which called for spraying a “four-percent solution of cocaine” up the nose. That was relatively normal back then; cocaine was prescribed for indigestion, fatigue, eye pain, and hemorrhoids.

17. Use Chloroform to Treat Asthma

The book also recommends inhaling chloroform for asthma. Chloroform, like cocaine, wasn’t an unusual treatment in the United States, where it was used as an anesthetic. We now know that it’s toxic.

18. Fix Chapped Hands with Old Sour Cream

Dr. Ritter has an interesting fix for chapped hands: Put sour cream in a cloth, bury it outside overnight, then unearth it and apply the sour cream the next day.

19. Treat Ringworm with Gunpowder and Vinegar

To heal ringworm, Mother's Remedies recommends a paste made of gunpowder and vinegar be applied to the infection. If the first time doesn’t do the trick, repeat until the ringworm disappears.

20. Use Nux Vomica for Headaches

For certain headaches, Dr. Ritter suggested mixing a drop of tincture of nux vomica in a teaspoonful of water. Today, nux vomica is best known as the primary source of strychnine, which is poisonous, and often used to kill rats.

21. Get Rid of Bruises With Powder Made From Human Bodies

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the use of human bodies in medical remedies became more popular than ever in Europe. They appeared in medicine for headaches, epilepsy, and more. Egyptian tombs and graveyards were looted for the bodies. If you had a bruise or other ailment, you were supposed to put it on your skin or turn it into a powder and ingest it via a drink. French King Francis I and Francis Bacon both used it.

22. Take Care of Colic With "Soothing Syrup"

Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, 25 cents could get you a bottle of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for your baby. It was advertised as a solution for colic, teething, diarrhea, and any pain. And it worked, because it contained a whole lot of morphine.

23. Use Periwinkle Flowers to Treat Cataracts

There’s one known copy of Bald’s Leechbook, a medical textbook from around the 10th century, which can be found at the British Library in London. For cataracts, it suggests putting burnt periwinkle flowers and honey in the eyes.

24. Cure Swollen Eyes with the Eyes of a Crab

According to Bald's, to treat swollen eyes, take a live crab and cut its eyes out, throw the crab back into the water, then apply its eyes "on the neck of the man who hath need."

25. Treat Swollen Body Parts with a Fox Tooth

Similarly, a live fox to is needed to heal swelling: Take one of its teeth out, secure it in a fawn’s skin, then place the skin on the swollen body part.

26. Cure Typhus Through Prayer

Typhus had a more religiously oriented treatment in the 10th century. A patient should go outside, write a prayer on a piece of paper, then hold it to their left breast.

27. Avoid Tipsiness Using Ground Up Bird Beaks

In ancient Assyria, bird beaks were ground up, combined with myrrh, and eaten. Supposedly, this helped you avoid getting tipsy, though it seems more painful than a hangover.

28. Eat Pickled Sheep's Eyes to Cure a Hangover

During Genghis Khan’s days, the Mongols ate pickled sheep’s eyes for breakfast to get rid of a hangover. The practice continues today, though the eyes are followed by a glass of tomato juice.

29. and 30. Cure a Hangover with Tea Made of Poop or Owl Eggs

Legend has it that one popular Wild West hangover cure was rabbit poo tea. Pliny, meanwhile, suggested drinking owl eggs mixed with wine for three days to get rid of a hangover.