Are we alone in the universe?
It’s a question that has plagued mankind for hundreds of years. But in the early 20th century, a Pittsburgh inventor attempted to solve that problem. Pop culture contributor Joe Wos sat down with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer to tell the story of inventor, Alexander Foster Humphrey.
The tale begins in 1899 with famed inventor Nikola Tesla receiving a message, believed to be from Mars, consisting of three dots. While Tesla was largely ignored at the time, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi announced he received a similar message in the 1920s.
“They knew it was too powerful to be an Earth bound signal, so they assumed it must have come from outer space, based on what they knew at that time,” Wos said.
Suddenly the world went wild with stories of men on Mars, with scientists across the globe coming up with ideas on how to contact Mars. Giant radio towers, painted symbols in the desert, were some of the many ideas proposed.
Humphrey came up with an idea of his own, that would turn out to be far ahead of its time. A fascination with munitions, lead to Humphrey proposing the construction of a 370 foot long cannon. The cannon would fire a massive shell into outer space. Once out of Earth’s orbit, the cannon would release a swarm of smaller shells, firing-off three explosions, similar to the three dots from the original message.
This process would be repeated for sets of three days, with a one day break in between each set, for an entire month to show intelligence behind the explosions.
While the concept may seem ridiculous now, Humphrey’s idea is very similar to the multistage rockets used by the NASA program, Wos said. However, that turned out not to be the only revolutionary idea Humphrey had about the possibility of aliens.
“Man for thousands of years had looked to the skies and said ‘Are we alone?’” Wos said. “And he was one of the first men to say ‘instead of asking are we alone, let’s send a signal out to the universe to say we are here, you are not alone.”
More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.