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Great Moon Hoax of 1835

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

It was the most spectacular global news event of the year, despite it being a complete fabrication. The first fake news?

In 1835, The Great Moon Hoax convinced people around the world that the Moon wasn't a barren wasteland but actually a rich landscape full of ruby caverns and towering amethyst crystals, populated by intelligent humanoid bat-people, two-legged badgers, and unicorns.

While this seems ridiculous in hindsight (particularly as Donald Trump hadn't been born yet), everyone from Ivy League students to middle-class professionals were totally hoodwinked by The New York Sun newspaper. Claiming to be a supplement to a serious scientific journal in Scotland, the newspaper played on the era's excitement over a steady stream of revolutionary scientific discoveries, and an increasingly literate audience hungry to be "in the know."

The Sun never admitted to inventing the whole thing, and those involved would claim that it was just satirizing the spectacular claims of popular scientists and was never meant to be taken literally. But there's no question that the story was taken as fact by its audience and that it was a serious money-spinner for The Sun as the story helped boost its circulation to make it the best-selling newspaper in the world.

So, was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 a cheeky bit of satire that got out of hand, or was it a harbinger of modern-day fake news?

The 19th century was a remarkable one for scientific progress that people could actually see. In the two centuries before, scientists like Isaac Newton had made incredible discoveries, but these discoveries were largely confined to academic papers and made little impact on the lives of everyday humans, who lived not that differently than their great-great-grandparents. So what did the speed of light or the development of calculus have to do with them?

For them, every day brought startling new discoveries that no one could have previously imagined, so life on the Moon didn't seem too far-fetched. Remarkable, but true!

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