Sunday 25 March 2012

Professor Todd and the signals from Mars

The astronomer, Professor David Peck Todd (1855-1939), will probably go down in history as the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, the mistress of Emily Dickinson's brother and eventual editor of Emily's poetry.

He is also notable for dreaming up ambitious schemes regarding astronomy, that became increasingly eccentric as he got older, and he spent his last 17 years in a series of hospitals and nursing homes during which time he became worried that the sun would split in two, or he spent his time working on his plan for eternal life called “Vital Engineering”.

But as a man whose dreams far outweigh his capabilities, I have quite a lot of sympathy with David Todd. Not so much with the whole open marriage thing, nor with the way he kept track of his masturbating habits in his diaries. More to do with his ideas of detecting radio signals from Mars.

His plan, as reported in the New York Times, May 2, 1909, was to ascend to the highest possible altitude that a man could go in a balloon, with some radio equipment in order to hear any radio signals from Mars at a time when it was at its closest. At this time, the debate of life on Mars was still raging since, in 1905, Lowell had published his first photographs of the famous canals of Mars and then in 1907 Alfred Russell Wallace's book “Is Mars Habitable” which debunked the arguments for Martian life was released.

I can find no report about Professor Todd actually achieving his balloon flight (a book “Transmitting the Past” mentions that Todd did not achieve the desired altitude, but gives no reference for this), but it seems that the idea never left him, and he must've been encouraged in May 1910 when balloons were used to observe Halley's Comet.

In the April 15, 1920 issue of the New York Times there is a story concerning Todd's planning finally being carried out in the forthcoming week, after “five years of planning”. I can find no further mention of Todd's flight, but by now his ideas had clearly caught some people's imagination since at least one other attempt to hear signals from Mars (albeit without a balloon) was reported that year, although the debate about intelligent life on Mars had been dismissed by now in astronomical circles. Furthermore, in 1919 Marconi had suggested that some unfamiliar signals he'd received were possibly coming from another world until three years later when he discovered they were coming from the General Electric Company in Schenectady.

The attempt in 1920 by Drs Milliner and Gainer found no signals, but in 1924 another attempt recorded a “face” signal at half-hour intervals. Professor Todd, who was by now in a nursing home and had been for two years, said

“Three years ago Marconi was reported as saying he had heard signals from Mars. A few days ago he was quoted as saying he was too busy to listen to possible messages from Mars and that it was a ridiculous idea to do so. He changed his mind, and no one knows what he heard the first time. With our photograph, however, it is not a question of what one man heard. It is a permanent record, which all can study.”

However, the wavelength chosen was a frequency that would probably be blocked by the Earth's ionosphere so it can't have come from outer space and the “face” picture just looks like some dots to me.


“The Vigil on the Continent,” The London Times, 20th May, 1910

“No Messages from Mars”, The London Times, 24th April, 1920

Alfred Russell Wallace, “Is Mars Habitable”, MacMillan and Co., London, 1907

“Weird “Radio Signal” Film Deepens Mystery of Mars,” Washington Post, 27th August, 1924, from

Longsworth, P., “Austin and Mabel: the Amherst affair & love letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd,” Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984

“From Schenectady not Mars”, Literary Digest, August 5th 1922


Tina Laurent said...

Ah, what a shame, so my quest to find David Todd`s Mars signal face ended up as the product of a meandering senile mind.

Another one bit the dust.

Unknown said...

Pity Professor Todd didn't have the data and photos we can all share on NASA's website and Google Earth\Mars.
Mrs. Todd bravely supported her husband's work; moreover,on February 13, 1908, she lectured on "A Message from Mars" in the Congress Square Church, Amherst. Tickets went for 50 cents each at Bragdon's Drug Store, 659 Congress Street.