In History, Science, Student Life, Uncategorized, Yale on February 13, 2009 at 12:11 pm

What did students observe from the tower of the Athenaeum in 1835?


  1. P.T. Barnum’s circus coming to town.
  2. The first sighting of Halley’s Comet.
  3. “Life” on the moon.
  4. Charles Darwin on the Beagle.


In 1829, the Athenaeum’s spire and belfry were replaced with a cylindrical observatory.  Through its new telescope there, Yale made the first American sighting of the return of Halley’s Comet in November, 1835.  That  may have seemed an anticlimax, though, compared to other astronomical events of that year.  Three months earlier, the New York Sun published an article about British astronomer Sir John Herschel’s discovery of life on the moon.  It described his sighting of herds of bison, blue unicorns and spherical, amphibious creatures. The Sun also claimed that Herschel had found evidence of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding beavers, and a race of winged humans he called Vespertilio-homo, or “man-bat”. 


As with Orson Welles’ 1938 radio production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, many were taken in by the hoax.  According to one reporter, “Yale College was alive with staunch supporters.  The literati–students and professors, doctors in divinity and law–and all the rest of the reading community, looked daily for the arrival of the New York mail … It was the absorbing topic of the day. Nobody expressed or entertained a doubt as to the truth of the story.”

Charles Darwin, in Tahiti, on the Beagle, was not visible from the campus in 1835, and was unaware of the new species found on the moon.

“Lunar Discoveries”
Lithograph that appeared in the New York Sun, Friday, October 16, 1835

Picture of Atheneum from Class Album Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: