Lowell, Percival, 1855-1916

Alternative names
Birth 1855-03-13
Death 1916-11-12

Biographical notes:

Astronomer; founder of an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona. Known especially for his interest in Mars and his theory of the 'canals' of Mars, which this document illustrates.

From the description of Letter and photograph, 1911. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78630761

Percival Lowell was born on March 13, 1855 in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard University from 1872-1876 and graduated with a B.A. degree with honors in mathematics. He also received honorary LL.D degrees from Amherst College in 1907 and Clark University in 1909.

Prior to 1883, Lowell devoted himself to business interests. Between 1883 and 1893, Lowell traveled throughout the Far East. He lived in Japan from time to time during this period and wrote several books about his experiences in this area. He also served as the counselor and foreign secretary to the 1883 Special Mission from Korea to the United States, which was the first diplomatic group sent from Korea to any western power. Following this mission, Lowell stayed in Korea as a guest of the government for several months.

Lowell decided to take up observational astronomy in 1893 after hearing that Giovanni Schiaparelli, who had originally discovered the Martian canali (which means 'channels' or 'grooves' in Italian but was mistakenly translated as 'canals' by the English press), was losing his eyesight and would no longer be able to continue his work on Mars. In 1894, after extensive site testing, Lowell established his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The chief goal of the observatory was to study the solar system and especially Mars. Lowell's theory stated that the Martians were trying to keep their planet alive via a worldwide canal network which channeled water from the Martian polar caps to the rest of the planet. He claimed that the canals were clearer at some times of the year because from Earth one saw the vegetation around the canals rather than the water in the canals themselves. Therefore, while water was running through the canals, more vegetation grew around them and they became clearer. Several Martian globes which Lowell illustrated with his findings are contained in the Observatory archives.

Lowell also conducted research on the other planets in our solar system, particularly Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Venus. He was deeply involved in a search for the ninth planet (Planet X), whose existence he had predicted mathematically by studying the eccentricities of Uranus's orbit not accounted for by Neptune. Lowell determined the internal constitution of Jupiter and Saturn by observing the movement of their satellites as it was influenced by the mass of the planet. He also sketched the surface markings of Mercury and determined periods of rotation for Mercury and Venus. However, it should be noted that the accuracy of his sketches of Mercury's surface markings were the subject of much dispute in the scientific community. One should also note that some, if not much, of the data used to form the conclusions published under Lowell's name was gathered by his assistants. For example, in "On the Spectrographic Investigation of the Rotation Period of the Planet Venus" (1903), Lowell states that V.M. Slipher had made the spectrographs which allowed for the determination of the rotation period of Venus, and in "The Tores of Saturn" (1908), Lowell states that C.O. Lampland did some of the "micrometric measurements" which were included in the article.

Lowell was also a prolific writer. In addition to his articles and lectures, he published many books: A Korean Coup d'Etat, (1884), Choson, The Land of the Morning Calm (1885), The Soul of the Far East (1888), Noto (1891), Occult Japan (1894), Mars (1895), The Annals of Lowell Observatory (Vol. 1, 1898; Vol. 2, 1900; Vol. 3, 1905), The Solar System (1903), Mars and its Canals (1906), Mars as the Abode of Life (1909), and The Evolution of Worlds (1910).

Percival Lowell died on November 12, 1916 and is buried on Mars Hill.

From the guide to the Percival Lowell Collection, 1876/1916, (Lowell Observatory)


Loading Relationships


Ark ID:


  • Astronomy--Photographs
  • Voyages and travels--20th century


  • Photographers


  • Europe (as recorded)
  • Mars (Planet) (as recorded)