In 1913, David Todd made a flamboyant and well-publicized attempt to establish radio contact with Martians. “Assuming that there is life on Mars,” he told the New York Times, echoing the views of his old friend and patron Percival Lowell, “the evolution of intelligence through the cycle of a million years must be advanced beyond the best efforts of our puny intellects…. Possibly they carry on ordinary conversations at all distances on their planet, where to them miles are as inches. If so, they have been trying for years to get into conversation with us and perhaps they wonder what manner of stupid things we are not to respond.” Todd and Leo Stevens, chief instructor of ballooning for the U.S. Army, ascended in a hot-air balloon in western Massachusetts to the height of 22,000 feet. After twenty-six hours in the air, the balloon was blown northward into Quebec. Todd flashed some messages to Mars with a mirror and listened intently to a wireless receiver–but he reported no response.
— from The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan by Christopher Benfey (my review here)
Anyone know of any earlier attempts to actually make first contact with imagined extraterrestrial intelligences?
(By which I mean beings living on other planets, not ghosts, spirits, demons, or other supernatural creatures. People have been trying to contact those since people were people, so it seems. But I mean “aliens” in a sense comparable to the one we have.)
This strikes me as a fascinating seed for a story of some kind. What if Todd had heard something? How would the past century have unfolded differently? What would have been the same? It’s a fascinating question… one that begs for an alternate history to be written about it, but not in the form of a novel… rather, in the form of a kind of literary-historical account of interesting figures in the time. A kind of history book about this other history that did not happen.
Also something I wonder about, as I’ve been considering writing something like this for a long time, and never seen anything quite like it. (World War Z is about the closest, but that’s more of a Studs Terkel approach, and I’m thinking more of a Jonathan Spence-styled — or, for that matter, Christopher Benfey-styled — approach to the alternate-history-via-a-history book concept.) A history made up of the footnotes, the odd coincidences, the funny tangential connections and missteps and wonders of a small group of people in a history that could maybe have happened, if only, if only… except it just didn’t, which makes it even more delicious to read about.