Steele's Solar System
John "Bridge" Martin
Copyright © 2016
Originally posted to erb-list in three parts, June 7, 2016
Vulcan is the home planet of Mr. Spock but, for awhile, it was thought by some that our own Solar System had a Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun.
This theory is likely well known to those who are more familiar with the subject of astronomy than I, but it was revealed to me Saturday when I took my grandson Schuyler out to some garage sales.
Schuyler has not been the most eager reader in the world, unlike my other grandson, so I was surprised when he began to show great interest in that tattered old book. The volume, with decorated cover typical of the pre-ERB era, was titled "Steele's Sciences" on the outside but inside the title page identified this particular volume as The Story of the Stars - New Descriptive Astronomy by Joel Dorman Steele, Ph.D. The book is copyrighted just after the Civil War, in 1869.
I looked at the table of contents and saw that the planet Vulcan was listed as being described on page 71, so I turned there immediately and saw that it was a "hypothesized" planet. It had actually been supposed to exist as early as 10 years prior, in 1859, when an observer of the heavens named Le Verrier was certain that he had spotted it passing between Mercury and the sun and also attributed certain irregularities in Mercury's orbit to the presence of the planet, for which he offered the name of Vulcan.
More stargazers chimed in, offering observations that seemed to confirm Le Verrier's theory, but eventually others reported a lack of success in locating the orb. By 1915, pretty much no one believed that there was a Vulcan. That was the year Einstein's Theory of Relativity offered a more acceptable explanation for the movements of Mercury.
An article on Vulcan:
...and an article on other fictional planets in our Solar System:
I didn't know Schuyler was particularly interested in the subject of astronomy. I know he likes dragons, wolves and other dangerous creatures. But I was happy to see his interest in something like this. I did point out to him, though, the date of the book and said there are many other more recent books with great photos and more up-to-date information. However, he said he was interested in that older book because he liked to know what people used to think. So, he was happy to pay $2 for it in a sale where most of the books were priced at 10 cents to 50 cents. They must have thought that one was worth more because it was old.
It's a neat old book, a bit smaller and thinner than an ERB book, with illustrations and diagrams on just about every page.
Today we went to the library and he picked out a book on mysteries of the universe, so now he's got the newer information to go along with the old.
Burroughs started writing Under the Moons of Mars* back in 1911, when the existence of Vulcan may still have been considered a possibility. But fortunately he placed John Carter on Mars (or, as it is more commonly referred to, Barsoom) instead, which makes his story much more likely!
* Burroughs' original title for A Princess of Mars
As Edgar Rice Burroughs was growing up and studying the world around him and its idiosyncracies, his course of studies no doubt included the latest scientific findings about the other planets in the Solar System. And even had they not, the imaginative and inquiring mind of ERB would no doubt have led him to pursue such studies on his own.
In fact, his personal library contained the volume, "Steele's Science, The Story of the Stars," as seen in this link on Bill Hillman's erbzine website:
This is the identical volume to the one my grandson Schuyler paid two dollars for at a garage sale this past Saturday. I showed Schuyler the picture of the book cover on the website so he would know he has a book which is in ERB's library and which was no doubt used as a reference when he wrote his Mars series. Schuyler read part of "A Princess of Mars" a couple of years ago so now perhaps he will go back to the book and read the whole thing next time.
When Burroughs opened the book to page 150, the first thing it would have told him, in fine print beneath the title of Mars, was "The god of war. Sign (a diagram of the scientific symbol for male), shield and spear."
Burroughs would not have needed that line to know that Mars was named after the god of war since, like most school students, he would probably have known it from an early age.
The book describes Mars as the planet most like earth and goes on to give the standard information about orbit, distance from the earth, length of year and so forth.
Then it comes to the part we ERB fans are most interested in:
"Surface of Mars"
Artist: Chesley Bonestell. From Conquest of Space by Willy Ley, 1949.
"Under the telescope, Mars exhibits slight phases. Its surface is covered with reddish spots, which are believed to be continents. Other portions, of a greenish tint, are considered to be bodies of water. The proportion of land to water on the earth is reversed in Mars. 'Here every continent is an island; there every sea is a lake: but these, like our own continents, are chiefly confined to one hemisphere, so that the habitable area of the two globes may not differ so much as the size of the planets.'
"The ruddy color is thought by Herschel to be due to an ochery tinge in the soil; by others it is attributed to peculiarities of the atmosphere and clouds. Lambert suggests that the color of the vegetation on Mars may be red instead of green. There are constant changes going on in the brightness of the disk, owing, it is supposed, to the variation of the clouds of vapor in its atmosphere. No mountains have yet been discovered.
"In the vicinity of the poles are brilliant white spots, which are considered to be masses of snow. The 'snow zones' apparently melt and recede with the return of summer in each hemisphere, and increase on the approach of winter. We can thus from the earth watch the formation of polar ice and the fall of snow,— in fact, the changes of the seasons — on the surface of a neighboring planet."
Steele puts some additional information, regarding the inhabitants of Mars, in a footnote to the first paragraph above:
"So carefully has the surface of this planet been studied, that a globe of Mars has been prepared which is said to be in some respects more perfect than any globe of the earth. The different bodies of land and water have been named after distinguished astronomers. A characteristic feature of the seas is the long, narrow channels. Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer, claims to have discovered a number of singular dark lines, now known as 'canals.' They seem to connect different bodies of water, and though without sufficient reason, have been by some considered as the work of the Martian inhabitants."
Of course, ERB knew much more and had access to more up-to-date scientific information, and was aware that the "time of oceans," as Dejah Thoris phrased it in the movie, "John Carter," was over, and so he more accurately wrote of the "dead sea bottoms" across which John Carter and the Tharks would ride their thoats* and above which the red men of Mars would soar in their fliers.
* Eight-legged Martian "horse".
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote of inhabitants on four planets and two moons in our Solar System. He ventured well beyond our neighborhood in "Beyond the Farthest Star," where none of our space probes have yet arrived, although some are on the way.
Besides, Earth, of course, ERB found life on Venus, Mars and Jupiter, as well as one moon of Mars and in the interior of Earth's own satellite.
What did Steele's Science report of life on other heavenly bodies?
In Part 2, we reported what Steele's book has to say about life on Mars, so here's is a world-by-world rundown of the rest:
MERCURY — "An inhabitant of Mercury must be accustomed to sudden and violent vicissitudes of temperature. At one time, the sun not only thus pours down its vertical rays, and in a few weeks after sinks far toward the horizon, but, on account of Mercury's elliptical orbit, when in perihelion the planet approaches so near the sun that the heat and light are ten times as great as ours, while in aphelion it recedes so as to reduce the amounT to four and a half times. The average heat is about seven times that of the earth, — a temperature sufficient to turn water into steam, and even to melt zinc.
"Mercury is thought by some to have a dense, cloudy atmosphere, that materially diminishes the intensity of its heat and, perhaps, makes it habitable, though others assert that the atmosphere is too insignificant To be detected."
VENUS — There is no mention of any inhabitants on Venus, although the book contains some speculation about the type of atmosphere it has. We thus, are left only with ERB's account of what types of life thrives on the Shepherd's Star.
EARTH'S MOON — "If there be any lunar inhabitants on the side toward us, the earth must present to them all the phases which their world exhibits to us, only in a reverse order. When we have a new moon, they have a full earth, a bright full-orbed moon fourteen times as large as ours. The lunar inhabitants upon the side opposite to us of course never see our earth, unless they take a journey to the regions from whence it is visible, to behold this wonderful spectacle. Those living near the limbs of the disk might, however, on account of the librations, get occasional glimpses of it near their horizon."
Steele is fair, though, and not afraid to present other possibilities. A footnote later in the moon chapter quotes Winchell's "Geology of the Stars," speculating that any life on the moon was in the past:
"The moon is a fossil world, an ancient cinder, a ruined habitation perpetuated only to admonish the earth of her own impending fate, and to teach her occupants that another home must be provided, which frost and decay can never invade. The moon was once the seat of all the varied and intense activities that now characterize the surface of our earth. At one time its physical condition was like that of the parent earth from which it had just been separated: but, being smaller, it cooled faster, and its geologic periods were correspondingly shorter. Its life-age was perhaps reached while the earth was yet glowing."
MOONS OF MARS — Earthmen refer to the Martian moons as Phobos and Deimos, while Barsoomians on the red planet below refer to them, respectively, as Thuria and Cluros. Steele states, in a footnote: "The satellites of Mars were discovered in August, 1877, by Prof. Hall of the Naval Observatory, Washington. ...The inner moon moves so much faster than the rotation of Mars that to an inhabitant of that planet, the moon would seem to rise in the west and set in the east, passing through all the phases of our moon during a single night. The moons have been named Deimos and Phobus, or Dread and Terror — the sons of Mars. The diameter of these little globes is probably less than 15 miles. For an amusing descrition of such a world, read 'Living in Dread and Terror,' a chapter in Proctor's 'Poetry of Astronomy.' " Starting at page 305, at this link: archive.org.
That footnote, of course, refers more to inhabitants of Mars looking at the moons than it does to any inhabitants of the moons. We know from Swords of Mars* that Thuria is inhabited by people who are sized in proportion to the sphere and John Carter and his crew are shrunk to that size in order to relate to the inhabitants in a normal way while having their adventure there.
* Eighth volume of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels.
JUPITER & SATURN are not regarded as able to support inhabitants. The author doesn't state that specifically but a footnote at the end of the chapter on Jupiter makes statements that would preclude it: "In the case of Saturn and Jupiter, we never see the real planets, but only the outline of their atmospheres. If this theory be true, Jupiter and Saturn now represent the condition in which our earth existed ages ago, before a solid crust had been formed upon its surface."
And yet ERB wrote of life on Jupiter. So what are the possibilities? A. The science is wrong. B. ERB changed the location of the events in the story on purpose for some reason. C. ERB made the story up.
URANUS: Though further away from the sun, and colder, Steele writes: "The inhabitants of Uranus, if any such exist, can see Saturn, and perhaps Jupiter, but none of the planets within the orbit of the latter."
NEPTUNE: Pluto had not been discovered when this book was written so Neptune is described as the furthest body known to orbit our sun. The author writes: "The Neptunian astronomers, if there be any, are well situated for measuring the annual parallax of the stars, since Neptune has an orbit of 5,580,000,000 miles in diameter, and hence the angle must be thirty times as great as that which the terrestrial orbit affords."