THE INTERPLANETARY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION

Interplanetary Development Corp quit claim deed

Additional articles with connections to the Hayden Planetarium can be found at:

Interplanetary Tour and The Complete Book of Outer Space.

Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 24, 1969. It didn't take long for the Moon's owners to make themselves heard. The next day an article syndicated across the country fortunately carried this reassuring news.

Pub owner Charlie Mertz [of Wickham, Englang] says he has decided not to prosecute Apollo 11 moon walkers Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin for trespassing on his property.

Mertz claims he became a lunar landlord in 1957 when he bought lot no. ao8454 from the Interplanetary Development Corp., of New York.

Mertz wasn't alone. Matt Mercurio of Richmond, IN, also had a deed for giving him rights to the Sea of Tranquility, the very area where the astronauts landed. So did Earl F. Bickmeier of Newbaugh, IN, on the other side of the state. And Mr. and Mrs. Roy Rutledge of El Paso. Canadians John Doherty of Ottawa and Mrs. Ronald Anson-Carter-Wright of Toronto proudly showed off their deeds. Not to mention Robert Hutchinson of St. Louis, Patrick Prunty of Willowick, OH, S. Edward Burrier of Corvallis, OR, Bertha Martin of Riverside, MI, Royden S. Meise of Salisbury, MD, and seventeen-year-old Nancy Munie of Belleville, IL, all of whom got written up in their hometown newspapers. The City of Baltimore had a whopping five-acre claim, a gift from loyal citizen James Margaritis.

They were hardly alone. The Interplanetary Development Corporation sold 20,000 acres before it quietly went out of business. That number could have doubled or tripled but, in a sure sign it wasn't a scam, the seller decided he was making too much money. Robert R. Coles was an unsung hero.

Coles, born in 1907, joined the staff of the Hayden Planetarium around 1936, or at least that's when the first of dozens of articles bearing his name and affiliation began appearing in newspapers and magazines. Coles was the go-to guy for any nifty, picture-laden Sunday-supplement presentations about the earth and space. He quickly climbed the ladder to the top, moving through positions of assistant curator and assistant chairman before becoming Hayden Chairman in 1951. One of his last acts before leaving in 1953 was co-authoring with Frances Frost a children's book titled Star of Wonder, based on the Planetarium's Christmas show.

1955-11-25 West Pam Beach [FL] Post

Coles was one of those people not satisfied unless he had several projects going at once. He loved history as much as he loved space, probably because his home, Glen Cove on Long Island, had been founded by one of his ancestors in 1668. He lived in a house built by his grandfather. In 1954 he created the Little Museum in his home, a tribute to Glen Cove history, and put out booklets like The Geology Of Long Island and The Long Island Indian. Today The Robert R. Coles Long Island History Collection is housed in the Glen Cove Public Library.

Coles' house must have been sizable, because he devoted a second room to a space museum. You probably couldn't find another space museum anywhere in America outside of the pages of a science fiction magazine, but the world failed to beat a path to the door of a private house in a small town. Used to spreading the word about space to the thousands who passed through the doors of the Hayden every year, Coles chafed from the lack of an audience.

 

Being the head of any organization means being the one responsible for ensuring that the money rolls in. Coles had been part of that at the Hayden with an unearthly successful gimmick. The Planetarium captivated America by letting newspapers and magazines reprint a form to reserve a spot on the first interplanetary rocket. (see Interplanetary Tour.) Tens of thousands sent in their cards, adults and children alike, while the instructional planetarium shows played to packed houses for years. Never dreaming that lightning could strike twice, Coles nevertheless formed a plan with which to further the cause. Always the educator, and foreseeing the looming space program, Coles created a brochure that offered info about our satellite.

And he had a gimmick for promoting it.

Which, admittedly, was borrowed rather than original, not that anyone but a historian would care. Nevertheless history fascinatingly says that several people had used it earlier, most recently and successfully by advertising man Bruce Baker. In late 1954 Baker needed a gimmick to goose sales for Quaker Oats, sponsor of the radio show Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The sugarless cereal was never a kids' favorite, yet they were the prime demographic for the program. Premiums were the usual way of getting kids to nag their mothers into buying cereal, but they had constraints. Kids had to want them, parents hated small stuff that made noise or got lost or stepped on, companies demanded that they be cheap. Baker finally had his golden idea. Give the little monsters a deed for one square inch of Sgt. Preston's Yukon, tying him to them forever. As Jack McIver put it in an article for Canadian Magazine:

The kids would actually own a genuine piece of Canadian Gold Rush land. Sgt. Preston land. Yukon King land. They’d go crazy trying to get them! Quaker Oats would conquer the cereal market! The world!

Quaker Oats, naturally, thought Baker was a lunatic, but they tried it. The deed had been carefully parsed by their lawyers, promising nothing tangible via baffling legalese. They also incorporated The Klondike Big Inch Land Co. in Illinois to own the 19.11 acres of misbegotten Klondike land the company purchased. Something about the promotion clicked with America. Few giveaways garnered more national attention in 1955. In a few weeks Quaker sold every box of cereal they could stuff a deed into, more than 20,000,000 of them.

Coles followed the Quaker scheme almost point by point. (And why not? Baker carefully copied an earlier scheme to sell pieces of Texas. The similarities between the American public and a goldfish with a three-second memory are frighteningly numerous.) He formed the Interplanetary Development Corporation (IDC), and wrote out a deed that promised everything and guaranteed nothing. Yet he was one of the tiny handful of space experts in the country, more familiar with the Moon's terrain than he was with Upstate New York. When he talked up the Moon on his deed, he included the Sea of Tranquility, the prime landing spot that the serious experts at NASA would later choose for Apollo. The actual ground acreage fell inside the Copernicus crater, which he plotted out on the other side of his brochure so that people could use a telescope to study their land. As Jack McIver might have written: Its educational! It's fun! It's futuristic! Buy one now!

Not having any need to shell out money for moon land, Coles could generously offer buyers a full acre - 6,272,640 square inches - for a mere American dollar. Maybe, if he was very lucky, he could sell enough deeds to repay him for the cost of printing up the brochure. The teacher learned a lesson the hard way. No one cared two moon cents about his brochure, which got mentioned only as an aside in the most thorough newspaper articles. Owning a deed! to the Moon! on the other hand...

1969-01-09 Newbaugh [IN] Register

As someone who had spent years dealing with ignorant questions about space, Coles should have known never to underestimate the stupidity of the American public, or, for that matter, their cupidity. Coles' promotion was a genial professorial joke. His deed offered beach rights to the Sea of Tranquility and fishing rights to the Sea of Nectar. It proffered the right "to engage in Winter sports in the Lunar Alps." Never mind that none of these three sites were anywhere near, let alone in, the Copernicus crater. To double (quadruple?) down on the absurdity, not a single square inch of the moon was land that either Coles or the IDC ever owned or ever hoped to. The deed had the legal foundation of a mug proclaiming the bearer to be the World's Greatest Grandfather.

Nobody cared. Americans translated the pitch into words they understood. They equated lunar seas and mountains with the ones on Earth. They literalized "beach" and "fishing" and "sports" into real activities they could partake of. They certainly understood what mineral rights were and took them very seriously in an age that saw a worldwide hunt for uranium ore. And they believed that a signed deed delivered them ownership whatever the language. Once again, Americans went nuts.

Quaker spent money on ads in 93 newspapers. Coles needed no such expense; the world came to him. As soon as he filed the claim in the City Clerk's office in Glen Cove, newspapers pounced.

1955-12-08 Stanberry [MO] Herald-Highlight

The first article I can find on the IDC is dated November 17, 1955. By November 22, the press was already reporting that 4,500 eager and obviously very long-term investors had forked over their dollars. Two days later the aforementioned James Margaritis wore a "space helmet" with a built-in two-way radio for his presentation of the five acres he intended to become a municipal moon park. Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Allessandro formerly accepted the deeds but turned down an offer to become a lifetime member in the "Lunar Civic Association."

Many of the subsequent articles were by columnists delighted to discover a uniquely Space Age scheme to mock. Yet, Coles managed to break through to educators. A few schools used it as a genuine teaching tool.

1955-12-24 Richmond Times-Dispatch

Then the problems mounted. New York Assistant Attorney General John Trubin jumped in as soon as Coles' name hit the papers. "[D]espite some of the ludicrous aspects of this case," Trubin said, "if some of the people are being victimized - even for small sums - the case is not funny." He issued subpoenas and launched an investigation. (Nothing legal ever resulted. Presumably, Cole made the case he was selling his brochure about the Moon for the dollar, with the deed as a free extra.)

More deliciously, at least to the papers, Harry Hall of Miami Beach struck just as quickly. His beef? He not only owned the Moon but had been selling land on it before Coles.

"My wife is the cause of my owning the Moon," Hall explained. "Eleanor's that rare type of beauty who had young men offering her the Moon all her life. Only I, however, was able to give it to her." Maybe you'll have guessed that the smooth-talking Hall sold insurance for a living. For sheer unctuousness, though, he was topped by the Unifax syndicate, which sent out a picture of the handsome couple listing Elanor as his "space wife."

1955-11-24 Pasadena [CA] Independent

Hall put a small ad for his Lunar Fantasies Corp. in Army Times early in 1955 and received 2,000 orders. Buyers got a much better deal from him than from Coles: Hall sold 100-acre plots for a dollar. He didn't need to worry about running out of land since his claim was to the entire Moon surface.

Coles probably didn't know about Hall; a thorough scour of the internet and newspaper databases finds no mention of his name or scheme until he responded to Coles' publicity.

Even so, Coles must have known that his claiming the Moon wasn't any more original than the land scheme. Certainly some enterprising reporter must have contacted the Hayden in 1937 after Arthur Dean Lindsey made a startling claim. Lindsey thought big, bigger than Coles, bigger even than Hall.

Lindsey claims possession of the moon, the sun, all the other planets except the world and anything else “in the region upward or in any other direction from the city of Ocilla, Ga.” He filed deeds of claim at the recorder of deeds offices in Irwin county, Ga. He exhibited receipts showing he sold the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans to three persons in Pittsburgh and New York.

No article manages to ferret out the amount he fleeced out of his prey, although he was dead broke just three months later, trying to eke out a living displaying his pet porcupine. (Bathos!) His mistake almost certainly was in holding back the Moon from sale, saying he intended to keep it so "young folks can continue their courting."

1937-06-22 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Coles might also have stumbled across the claim of Jenaro Gajardo Vera, who put his name into circulation a few months before Coles, as reported by Roderick Bowen [Google translated from Spanish]:

The lawyer, painter and poet, Jenaro Gajardo Vera , born in November 1919 in the small Chilean town of Traiguén, creator of the "Interplanetary Telescopic Society", in an act of genius, declared himself the owner of the Moon on September 25, 1954, after appearing before the Notary of the southern town of Talca, César Jiménez Fuenzalida, who asked to record that he declared himself the owner of the natural terrestrial satellite, describing its measurements and limits.

Jenaro Gajardo Vera with moon claim

And it's beyond belief that he didn't know of the “Elves', Gnomes', and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society” and their claim on the Moon.

Little Men cartoon Mimosa 18, May 1996

The "Little Men" - a name adapted from the wonderful, if now forgotten, comic strip Barnaby, comprised a small group of science fiction fans in Berkeley, CA. As with most fans in the era - although with time their ranks would include several professional writers - they were space-happy, enthusiasts and proponents of space travel. They and their ilk in the then tiny world of science fiction would be the core audience for the space symposiums that the Hayden ran three times in the early 1950s. As a publicity stunt, the Little Men laid claim to a triangular plot in, where else, the Sea of Tranquility, and presented it to the United Nations, the only organization they felt could be responsible. The UN and everybody else ignored them (lack of jurisdiction was always raising its ugly, reality-shrouded head) but finally in early 1952 they succeeded in getting the newspapers to run "get a load of this" articles.

And immediately fell into the same trap as Coles. Their announcement also riled an earlier claimant, this one with a startling lineage. Alexander F. Victor was the Victor in RCA Victor, the inventor of the talking machine and founder of The Victor Talking Machine Co. Then a feisty 84 he shouted (the reporter's word) that "Their claim is illegal. Don't be surprised if I take this to the Supreme Court." Another word for his mental state might be better suited for his other quote. "I made contact with the moon two years ago and got exclusive title." Contact? Whatever. The long distance charges must have been hefty because he charged $1,000 for each acre. We don't seem to know how many acres he sold.

1955-11-25 Circleville [OH] Herald

The distractions drove Coles crazy. He told reporter H. D. Quigg that his big mistake was failing to write "This is a joke, son" (paraphrasing the catchphrase of the blustery Senator Beauregard Claghorn on Fred Allen's radio show) in big letters across the claim.

Some people got the joke, fortunately. Lowe's Theaters in New York City sent out deeds to promote the biggest science fiction movie premiere of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet. A little return card came with it reading:

 

Please reserve one seat for me on your first passenger rocket to the Moon.

Please do NOT reserve a seat for me on your first rocket trip.

Undecided.

My favorite follow-up was the product of the Davis Agency in Ottawa, which advertised on February 28, 1956, that all those whose birthday was the next day, Leap Day, could drop by for a free acre. They weren't taking much of a chance of losing money. Simple arithmetic says that only about 200 people in Ottawa were likely to have a Leap Day birthday and most likely only a handful would rush over the next day. The ad clearly was intended for the rest of humanity, who would have the rest of the year to part with their one Canadian dollar.

1956-02-28 Ottawa Citizen

Despite exceeding his wildest dreams, Coles soon found that being a runaway success brought as much burden as bounty. He finally had to hire a mailing service to respond to all the thousands of requests, leading to embarrassing situations when some people received nothing for their checks, and he had to make good. By 1957 he had had it, and shut down the Interplanetary Development Corporation forever.

Poor timing. Just a couple of months later the Soviets send up Sputnik and the Race to the Moon was officially on. Thousands of the gullible public who had put their deeds into safety deposit boxes in anticipation had glints of forthcoming gold in their eyes. Coles shared some dry wit on their chances with United Press's Claire Cox.

We are just waiting to see if the Russians are going to claim our property…

If the Russians get there first, they might steal our valley from us. Then the land would not be worth anything. If we get there first, the land may be worth 10 times its present value.

You can pay your money and take your choice. …

Maybe I’ll settle up there, myself, some day, when we get commuter service to the moon.

1959-02-05 Miami Herald

Proof that the buyers took the deed far more seriously than Coles kept popping up in newspapers around the country. Coles himself was partly at fault. He had written "Whatever you do, hang on to your deed. You never can tell what exciting possibilities it may bring your way in the world of the day after tomorrow." He should have known that some would take him at his word.

 

"A Baltimore restaurateur yesterday urged the Eisenhower administration to protect the rights of Americans citizens who hold titles to properties in space," reported the Baltimore Sun in 1958. Yes, that's the same James Margaritis who turned out to have bought two extra plots on the Moon next to the ones he donated. "It's the best property I have," he said. "I don't want it loused up by a lot of crazy hot-rod rocket pilots, Russian, American, or any other kind."

Later that year, John B. Van Dyke, Jr., of Beckley, WV, announced he was subdividing his acre into building lots, although he was keeping the mineral rights.

An unidentified man strolled into the Yuba County, CA, Recorder's Office to officially file his acre of land in 1959. One slight hitch. Yuba County handled only land actually sited in Yuba County.

The poor man obviously picked the wrong county. In that oddly busy moon-claim year of 1954, county recorder Roger G. Laveen of Maricopa County, AZ, had no such compunctions when Harold Rothman of the Sunnyslope neighborhood in Phoenix entered a claim for 100,000 acres of moon land, a "One mile strip adjacent to the Atlas Mountains, running the length of the mountain chain for 150 miles." Laveen seems to have lost no time getting on the phone to the local paper because by the next day a reporter had made touch with Rothman, whose grip on the earth seemed all too precarious.

 

Intensive reading of the Revelations [sic] and the Book of Moses has convinced me that in the not too distant future we may be on the moon. Certainly, I have nothing to lose by putting in my claim on 100,000 acres now. It might be rich in uranium – who knows?

C. L. Sparks, county assessor, told the newspaper that he would be asking for a huge increase in his budget, since he clearly had to visit the site to formally assess the claim.

 

There's an odd coda to this story. A month after the Apollo landing, random people in Sunnyslope starting receiving phone calls from a man who told them that if they had answered the phone by saying "Rothman's Shoes," they would have won a deed to a 200-acre ranch. He then hung up and called again. Primed, they called out "Rothman's Shoes." "I'll be right over," said the man. It was, of course, Harold Rothman, who handed over a deed transferring 200 acres of his moon claim to them. They never figured out why.

Also in 1959, reality punched an additional unexpected hole into their claims. The Russians landed a moon rocket inside the area defined by Coles' deed. Back in 1955, staff writer Mary Ellen Wolfe obtained an acre on behalf of the Dayton Journal Herald and began what became a decade-long coverage of their far-flung property. "The question now is," she wrote in 1959, "Will Mr. K. {Khrushchev] and his Moonmen recognize this prior claim? Or has that old Russian adage - 'The Moon belongs to everyone' now been disproved?"

In 1963 she returned with even more exciting news: she had bought 100 shares in a proposed Moon hotel! They were purchased from Richard Shelburne, executive vice-president of his namesake hotel in New York City. Shelburne, unlike Coles, did not think small:

In 1972 we hope to have a Celestial Stock Market where our shares will be traded. Then if you care to sell, they can be exchanged for Moon Currency according to Celestial Market Value.

Shelburne was a hustler in the tradition of A. Dean Reynolds. Two years earlier, he had gotten notice for sending out promotional cards promising the holder a free week at the Shelburne Hotel in 1972 if he hadn't already been enterprising enough to set up a hotel on the Moon. Prodded by a recipient of one of the cards, a newspaper in 1972 tried to ask Shelburne if the promise was still good. The owners of what by then was called the Shelburne-Murray Hill Apartment Hotel brusquely told the reporter that Shelburne had disappeared and none of his cards would be honored. Perhaps he decamped for the Moon. Certainly, no mention of his name ever sullied the nation's newspapers after that date.

Ms Wolfe returned in 1965 when the Ranger VIII satellite was sent to photograph the Sea of Tranquility for the scheduled Moon landing. Her files had gotten scrambled, though, for she referred to the deed she bought from a Robert R. Coleman. Maybe such a transgression explained why she wasn't around to celebrate the 1969 landing for the Journal Herald, having transferred across state to the Toledo Blade. (No offense to Ms Wolfe. More likely, there was no direct connection between the two events. Besides, whenever bad info sneaks into my work, I blame the editor.)

Many, many more claims to the Moon were made after Coles; hustlers to the present day continue to sell Moon property. It's true that the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty forbids governments from claiming property outside the Earth, but neglected to ban claims by individuals. The question remains: What gives such individuals rights to property they've never set foot on? The answer is: Nothing. You're paying for worthless pieces of paper.

Coles, quite properly, sold you information, which is always worth something. He quietly stepped out of the Moon business and continued expanding his research on Long Island history until he died in 1985 at the age of 77.

Robert R. Coles

July 13, 2020

EK

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