Volume 34
Issue 4

Well before Bruce Wayne started zipping up his Batman suit in 1939, the “man-bat” was already popping up in Western dialogue.

It started with a telescope. In 1834, British astronomer John Hershel owned the largest of its kind, measuring an impressive 20 feet in length. Equipped with his telescope and curiosity, Hershel dedicated many of his nights to the South African sky, writing scientific reports based on his findings.

But at the hands of Richard Adams Locke, Hershel’s factual reports quickly morphed into fantasy. In August of 1835, Locke published several stories in The New York Sun claiming Hershel had made a life-changing discovery—indeed, that life itself had made it to the moon. According to Locke, animals of all varieties could be found dotting the moon’s hidden meadows—cranes, oxen, even blue goats. But nothing proved more impressive than the man-like creature adorned with robust bat wings. Dubbed Vespertilio homo, or “man-bat,” the creature was a walking—and flying—fantasy, a myth made real.

Though written for the purpose of ridiculing some of the more extravagant astronomical theories of the day, Locke’s satirical series quickly gained traction. The hoax voyaged across oceans and continents, and helped launched The Sun as the most well-known newspaper in the world. The story became so widespread that The Sun’s owner forbade Locke from retracting the story. Instead, fantastical images were published alongside the print, feeding the public’s hunger for more on this intriguing “discovery” and perpetuating the myth further.


You can find out more about this and other imaginative tales, plus the scientific discoveries that inspired them, in the Fantastic Worlds exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. To plan a visit, head to americanhistory.si.edu.