Pressland Editors
Aug 8 · 8 min read

A false story published in the Kansas City Times spread to other papers, hatching a hoax about the Earth’s impending collision with the sun.

There is no evidence that the famed 19th-century astronomer Giovanni Donati thought the earth was careening toward the sun. But the story caught fire anyway.

By Jim Knipfel

Please bear with me. The story begins with a long letter written to the editor of The Kansas City Times, published in February of 1874. It represents some of the first public speculation concerning impending apocalyptic climate change. It was certainly the first to propose a 12-year window for doing something about it.

The letter, signed J.B. Legendre, went like this:

To the Editor of the Kansas City Times:

A friend of mine residing in Florence, an American man of science traveling for the sake of his health, lately wrote to me as follows:

“I have attended the meetings of one of the numerous scientific coteries with which Italy is blessed. In one of them a subject was broached which if generally known would startle the whole civilized world. One of the members, a man whose name is known in both hemispheres, asserted that the celebrated {astronomer Giovanni} Donati (who lately died, much regretted by scientific men) had been a victim, not to disease or to time, although he was in a “green old age,” but to nervous excitement or fright, caused by a discovery which he had made of great and even agonizing importance to the human race.

Donati had for many years been employing his unbounded energy in exploring some of the “hidden things in astronomy.” of these investigations he kept a strict record of solar phenomena especially. He constructed an instrument by which he could calculate the earth’s exact place in the great ellipse that it travels around the sun, and also, in his own estimation, its distance from the sun, although in this latter point he was not universally credited by his scientific colleagues. He never failed to make minute daily records of the result of his observation, and to this custom he owed his fresh discovery. On the very day that the cable was laid, his instruments showed him that the earth, like some vast ship towed by invisible hands, was drawing nearer to the sun. Every month after that epoch its distance was perceptibly lessened, as shown by his instruments, much more delicate than telescopes or the human eye.

Giovanni Donati.

When the French cable was laid there was an acceleration very marked in this attraction to the sun. Donati thought that this movement was increasing in a geometrical ratio.

He explained this alarming fact by certain reasonings based on the connection between gravitation and magnetism, which I suspect my friend was hardly able to follow.

His conclusion was this: That in twelve years the climate of Europe would become tropical, if not unfit for human existence, and that in a few more years this globe, which, with all its faults we love so well, would be precipitated into the sun.

It seems that Donati had in vain tried to bring this matter before the Italian government — hoping through it to reach the nations most interested in oceanic telegraphs — but the war politics had prevented any notice being taken of his representations.

He thought that if America and England could be induced to examine his data and proofs they, seeing the tremendous consequences of man’s tampering too far with the machinery of nature, would speedily cause these cables to be things of the past.

His failure induced him to think of private enterprise, and several wealthy Italians, amateurs of science, combined together, chartered a brig and expensive machinery, and by their patriotic (although patriotism is too petty a name) efforts produced the first break in Field’s cable, laid by the Great Eastern. Donati’s instruments quickly showed that the earth was nearing its normal ellipse. But the break was quickly repaired, and once more the earth commenced its infinite spiral journal to the flames.

Donati’s health gave way. Age and disappointment hastened his dissolution. A few days before his death he carefully sealed up all his manuscripts, with directions that they should not be opened for five years.”

So much for my correspondent, Mr. Editor. Make of him such use as seems best to you. I am yours respectfully,

J.B. Legendre

A quick recap: Mr. Legendre claims that the Italian astronomer Giovanni Donati, who had died a few months earlier in December of 1873, discovered that transatlantic telegraph cables, the first of which had been laid in 1858, were exerting an electromagnetic pull that was knocking the earth out of its usual orbit and sending it careening toward the sun. As a result, by 1886 Europe would be a tropical zone. Not long after that the entire planet would be uninhabitable, and soon thereafter would be vaporized when it fell into the sun.

Too preoccupied as they were with preparations for war, Italian government officials ignored Donati’s urgent warnings about the cataclysm that lay ahead. In desperation, the astronomer put together an expedition to cut one of the cables. Although this seemed to help restore Earth’s proper orbit, it was a temporary victory, for as soon as the cable was repaired we were all once again sent on a trajectory toward the sun. In short, our need for high-speed communication had doomed us all. Donati soon died due to a combination of despair and fright.

Giovanni Donati was a noted, and very real, astronomer of the age, a pioneer in the use of spectroscopy to study the chemical composition of comets, stars, and the sun. That he’d invented a device that could accurately measure the distance between the earth and the sun was not unthinkable. The transatlantic telegraph cables were likewise quite real. The first cable connected Ireland and Eastern Newfoundland, with the inaugural transatlantic telegram being sent on August 16th, 1858. The French cable Mr. Legendre refers to connected France and Massachusetts, and was laid a few years later. Thanks to those cables, messages sent across the ocean now arrived in a matter of minutes, not weeks.

The rest of the story, however, was science-fiction. As innovative and brilliant as he was, there is no evidence Giovanni Donati ever concluded the Earth was hurtling toward the sun, nor that he ever spearheaded a foolhardy expedition to sever telegraph cables at the bottom of the ocean. He died, it is believed, of cholera, not fear or despair. And while the telegraph cables may well have disrupted whale communication and navigation in the immediate vicinity, there was no evidence they were exerting a force strong enough to send the planet spinning inexorably toward the sun.

In the weeks after it appeared in The Kansas City Times, Mr. Legendre’s letter was reprinted in papers throughout the country, and while it received a good deal of attention, it sparked little or no public panic. In fact, most newspaper editors, much like the government officials Donati allegedly approached, openly dismissed the letter as absurd humbug. There was a reason for this.

In the latter half of the nineteenth-century, scientific hoaxes were commonplace and plentiful. Newspaper editors and readers alike were well aware of this, having seen more than their share. Edgar Allan Poe had made a bit of a cottage industry out of planting fictional stories in newspapers disguised as truth. When the Global Warming Hoax first appeared, another famous hoax, The Cardiff Giant, was still fresh in everyone’s memory; in comparison, this flapdoodle about the Earth spinning toward the sun seemed far too outlandish to take seriously. As one frustrated editor wrote in the February 24th edition of The New York Daily Tribune:

The Donati hoax was later used as the basis for a 1961 film that captured many truths about the media industry of the time.

“So many elaborate hoaxes, originating in this country, have imposed upon men of science at home and abroad, that America has gained in some quarters an unenviable reputation. It would be tedious to enumerate these impositions — from Locke’s Moon Hoax down to the Cardiff Giant — for scarcely a week passes that a new one is not started, getting more or less of a newspaper run according to its ingenuity… Prof. {celebrity scientist Louis} Agassiz, speaking about this class of hoaxes, while expressing indignation at their authors, made the remark that, ‘after all, if a scientific student is humbugged by them, he must be himself to blame.’”

It’s interesting to note how neatly the above quote still applies to today’s Fake News phenomenon. If readers are taken in by cockamamie stories like Pizzagate, then the fault lay with the reader, not the hoaxster. Also, in his 1940 New Yorker essay “Footnote on the Future,” James Thurber catalogued the array of scientifically grounded doomsday predictions which were still appearing in newspapers with insistent frequency. Difference was, they were no longer hoaxes.

As widely as it had been reproduced, within a month or two Mr. Legendre’s cautionary letter had been mostly forgotten, lost in the flood of other, more entertaining or plausible scientific hoaxes. But not completely forgotten. In his 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, director Val Guest and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz took the core doomsday premise of Mr. Legendre’s letter to the editor and gave it a Cold War update, replacing telegraph cables with hydrogen bombs, but with the same effect. A decade before environmental disaster films became all the rage, Guest’s picture may well be the first film to confront the idea of man-made climate change headlong. It’s also, as it happens, one of the best newspaper films ever made.

Ah, but history has a funny way of throwing ironic twists into things like proven hoaxes, even 145 years after the fact.

As the obvious and deadly effects of climate change continue to make themselves apparent on a weekly basis in the form of unprecedented floods, wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards, heat waves and cyclones, conspiracists and the insufficiently educated stubbornly insist the whole thing is a cheap ruse, a lie concocted by Leftists in an attempt to destroy the American economy. And now a number of climate change deniers have dredged up the Global Warming Hoax of 1874 as evidence in support of their lunkheaded crusade.

In 2015, a climate change denier and blogger named Tom Correa made the strange and specious argument that because the 1874 story was a hoax (or as he calls it, “a scam”), contemporary stories about man-made climate change must likewise be fictional. While shamelessly plagiarizing at length Alex Boese’s Museum of Hoaxes essay on the subject, Correa presses his readers to remember, “even today the Global Warming story is all a scam, all just pure fiction, but people still want to believe it.”

While the Legendre letter may not have sparked the public brain fever he was expecting in 1874, it seems that nearly a century and a half later, he may be getting his wish, but with a really dumb twist: Old Fake News is now being used as corroborating evidence for new Fake News.

Jim Knipfel is the author of three memoirs, five novels, a short story collection and a volume of pop cultural sociology. His most recent book is Residue (Red Hen Press). He lives in Brooklyn.

Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: August 5, 2019
Author: Jim Knipfel
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Lead photo courtesy of NASA

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A Pressland publication covering trust and transparency in media.

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