History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search


Inv. 25152 - Featured object July 2007

This small snuff box reveals the global impact of a series of articles in the New York Sun in August 1835. The newspaper published what claimed to be an account of astonishing astronomical discoveries made by Sir John Herschel, particularly of civilized life on the moon. The articles caused a brief sensation in America before it was realised that they were entirely invented. Translations and illustrated versions were printed in many European countries. The snuff box shows how the story even made its way onto everyday objects. The captions are in both German and French and the picture shows Herschel using a microscope to examine the telescopically magnified image of the bat-men he had supposedly discovered.

Although he became exasperated at the volume of enquiries he received about the story, Herschel was initially amused. As his wife wrote from their South African observatory "Have you seen a very clever piece of imagination in an American Newspaper ... The whole description is so well clenched with minute details of workmanship & names of individuals boldly referred to, that the New Yorkists were not to be blamed for actually believing it as they did for forty eight hours."

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