The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray.

It wasn’t much of a war; as one man put it, it was no more a war "than there’s war between men and ants". The War of the Worlds was an unmitigated disaster for humanity.

The poor people of Grover’s Mill never knew what hit them. On the evening of Halloween, 1938, as America watched war engulf Europe, the small town in New Jersey was visited by warfare of a different sort. On the Columbia Broadcasting System, an evening of dance music featuring Ramón Raquello was interrupted by one shocking announcement after another:

The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray.

It wasn’t much of a war; as one man put it, it was no more a war "than there’s war between men and ants". The War of the Worlds was an unmitigated disaster for humanity. Of course, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater was staging a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Although Welles was quite well known for his portrayal of the Shadow, he appeared only at the beginning and end of the performance. For those who missed his introduction, however, the beginning of the show might well have been mistaken for an actual news broadcast. (The stunt was repeated by Radio Quito in Ecuador in 1949 to tragic effect.) It’s entirely possible that Welles was aiming for this effect; he had a lifelong fascination with fraud, as his final film, F for Fake, indicates; it ranges from Elmyr de Hory, the notorious art forger, to Clifford Irving, Elmyr’s biographer who went on to forge a biography of the reclusive, paranoid billionaire Howard Hughes (on the theory that Hughes wasn’t going break his silence to let the world know it was a fake), to a passel of cheerful lies designed to throw the notions of truth and authorship into doubt. But there were good reasons for listeners to panic; tensions with Germany were running quite high, so some of the Mercury Theater’s audience may have assumed the alien ships to be a Nazi superweapon. And who was to say the Martians weren’t coming?

The red planet’s association with war is crosscultural: Babylonians named it Nergal, after the god of war and fever; Indian astrology associated Mars ("Mangala") with Shiva’s son Karthikeya, a war god; the Greeks saw it as Ares, the war god who was attended by Fear and Panic. But the belief in Martians can largely traced to two men, Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell. Schiaparelli was director of the Brera Palace observatory in Milan, and his meticulous observations of Mars set the stage for one of the most momentous mistranslations of recent times:

Do not brevity and clarity also induce us to use such words as island, isthmus, strait, channel, peninsula, cape, etc.? Each of which provides a name and description which expresses well what could not otherwise be expressed except through long paraphrases that would need to be repeated each time one spoke of the corresponding object…. After all, we speak in a similar way of the seas of the Moon, knowing very well that they do not consist of liquid masses.

He may have been prejudiced in favor of showing that Mars could sustain life, and he was almost certainly influenced by the wonderfully poetic names that selenographers assigned to the Moon’s features, but by canali Schiaparelli certainly meant "channel", not "canal". He was following the terminology of an earlier Italian astronomer, Fr. Angelo Secchi; while Schiaparelli may have thought the channels were waterways, he certainly didn’t mean to imply, at least initially, that they were artifical in origin.

That’s not how it came out in English, though; just as a mistranslation of the Biblical description of Moses’ halo led to centuries of belief in and depiction of horned Jews, the idea that there were canals on Mars found fertile ground. In particular, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell (of the Boston family that spoke only to Cabots) was seized by the notion. He headed off to Flagstaff to observe Mars and its canals, and he observed lots of them. He observed so many, in fact, that he felt the need to tell the world about his amazing discovery, despite the scorn he earned from professional astronomers. In three books (Mars; Mars and Its Canals; and Mars as the Abode of Life) he laid out his belief in Martian life and a Martian civilization. The ideas seized hold; a 1910 encyclopedia entry took issue with his description of the Martian canals but agreed that there was at least vegetation on Mars. In 1898, three years after Lowell published Mars, Welles wrote The War of the Worlds. As usual, he combined vague scientific notions with an underlying socialist message; as usual, a few of his ideas stuck. Despite Edgar Rice Burroughs’ successful John Carter of Mars (and John Carter-less spinoffs) series and C.S. Lewis’ Miltonian Mars in Out of the Silent Planet, Wells’ depiction is, by and large, the one that lasted in the popular imagination. (although Alan Moore is currently attempting to combine all three in the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, his tribute to nineteenth century pulp fiction).

Wells imagined the Martian attack — ended by common Earth bacteria — spurring humanity on to Venus and the stars; Welles’ scriptwriter, Howard Koch, depicted a shattered planet, with a few scattered survivors dreaming of the havoc they could wreck with Martian weapons. Neither spent much time worrying about communicating with the aliens, although in 1924, as Mars and Earth reached the closest points in their orbits, others did; Nikola Tesla proposed shining gigantic lights at Mars, while the New York Times submitted a plan to carve a gigantic geometric proof of the Pythagorean Theorem in Sibera. Radio receivers were closely monitored, all to no avail. The Times wrote that "men would never cease trying to establish communication with Mars", and they were right; in 1976, Viking 1 reached Mars. There were no pre-lapsarian Martians, no warring city-states full of Green Men, no tripods spewing Black Smoke. In fact, there was very little at all: vast rusty deserts, great craters, the gigantic volcano Olympus Mons. And there was also one notable trick of the light, the famous "face on Mars". The mania for the face is vaguely embarassing, but Percival Lowell also saw what he wanted to see. As William Sheehan writes of Schiaparelli’s successors in The Planet Mars:

Their results demonstrate only too clearly that once a definite expectation is established, it is inevitable that subsequent observers will see what they expect to see, refining their expectations in a continuing process until finally everyone sees an exact and detailed—-but ultimately fictitious—-picture.

Vision is a remarkably flexible thing, as any of the New Jerseyans who took potshots at a menacing, tripod-shaped water tower on October 30, 1938, could tell you.