The 1880s and 1890s were a time ripe with speculation on the existence of great networks of canals on the planet Mars, constructed ostensibly by an alien technology exceeding that of late 19th century western civilization. These ideas fired the imagination of the public in the early 1890s, coinciding with several books on the subject. Fictional novels and scientific accounts of global canal systems built by an intelligent and advanced civilization on Mars were wildly popular at the time. An example was the popular English translation of Camille Flammarion’s La Planète Mars (1892), and contemporary books by William Pickering and Percival Lowell. These works would strongly influence H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “War of the Worlds”.
Giovanni Schiaparelli’s 1877 map of the Martian “canal” system, based on meticulous telescopic observations. This map helped to ignite wild speculation about an advanced Martian civilization.
A fanciful rendering of canals on the Martian surface, from an 1884 book Les Terres du Ciel (Lands of the Heavens) by Camille Flammarion.
Large-scale canal networks were a bold expression of 19th century technological advancement. Canals in the eastern United States fueled the industrial revolution and allowed geographic mobility on a scale never before seen. The completion of the Suez Canal project in 1869 was seen as one of the greatest technological accomplishments in human history. By 1890, telescopes appeared to reveal great canal networks on another planet, which suggested to late 19th century society that canal transportation technology was somehow the ultimate expression of any global civilization.
It is little wonder, then, that Curtin and Ed decided to name this canal boat “Mars”, the culmination of all their boat designs, to ply on a state of the art navigation system. To them, “Mars’ must have represented invincibility, confidence, and a promising look to the future, as well as a sense that they were part of something larger than themselves. Or perhaps it was a desperate realization that inevitably, in fact in a few short years, the entire navigation system would fade to a shadow of its former self, and their canal boat operations would become only a glorious memory.