First Non-Contact?

I don’t know if this is the first case of attempted first contact, but it might well be:

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.


7 thoughts on “First Non-Contact?

  1. Not sure if it’s the same thing, but I’m a fan of Matthew Goodman’s account of the great moon hoax, “The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York”

  2. Tina,

    Aw, you’re sweet. :)


    Yeah, the book crossed my mind. This is a little different, since Todd was actually really trying to contact ETs. But certainly the history book you mentioned is of the sort I imagine people reading this proposed book of mine would enjoy as well — likely a similar audience. Or at least some overlap.

  3. Ah. Right. I see the difference you mean.

    If I recall correctly that Goodman book has a chapter on early astronomers trying to contact Lunarians and Martians before the hoax. Two stories stick in my head, which I think come from that book, 1) a scientist proposed burning hieroglyphics into the Russian tundra so they’d be visible to anyone in orbit, 2) A missionary sought donations to buy bibles for extraterrestrials. Not sure if they were in response to the hoax or proposed beforehand and what the hoax author was using as inspiration.

  4. I was going to clarify that talking about and actually trying are different, but since Wilkins was trying to build flying machines, I’d say that counts as “trying to contact” following Jacobean communications logic. (If you want to communicate with someone across a long distance, a messenger needs to be sent, after all.)

    That book is trippy, thanks for the link!

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