Originally posted in the Smithsonian.
Anyone who opened the pages of the New York Sun on Tuesday, August 25, 1835, had no idea they were reading an early work of science fiction—and one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.
In that issue began a six-part series, now known as the Great Moon Hoax, that described the findings of Sir John Herschel, a real English astronomer who had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. But according to the Sun, Herschel found far more than stars through the lens of his telescope.
The 19th century was “the time before we knew everything,” says Kirsten van der Veen of the Smithsonian Institution’s Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. “Science was very accessible,” she says. Common people of the time could easily read about scientific discoveries and expeditions to far-off places in the pages of newspapers, magazines and books. So the Herschel tale was not an odd thing to find in the daily paper. And that the series was supposedly a supplement to the…