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The 1896 Airship 'Wave'

"Strange Tale of Sacramento Men Not Addicted to Prevarication ­- Viewed an Aerial Courser as it Passes Over the City at Night." That's a headline from a California newspaper, 1896, and you've got to admit that when they wrote a headline, they wrote it in style. This sort of tale was not uncommon in 1896, and the 'wave' of sightings is often referred to as "The Great Airship Mystery" by UFO enthusiasts. Since my views on this topic are the subject of many a hatemail I've received, I think it's high time to take a closer look at it.

It all began around 1896. Thousands of people across the country began reporting strange objects in the skies, things that looked like fat cigars or balloons. Some people even claimed to have met the crews of these airships, and it wasn't infrequent for a person who spotted a ship to produce some sort of garbage that he claimed had been dropped by the crew. People began producing everything from halves of sandwiches to scraps of metal to pieces of paper and other equipment, claiming that careless aircrews had dumped them over the side of their sky-faring vessels.

Sightings usually followed one of two plots: a person or group of people going about their business either look up to see an 'airship' flying along or they come across an airship that has landed so that the crew can make repairs, have a snack, answer the call of nature, so on and so forth. The second type of encounter is, to me, the more interesting: almost every person who reported such a case said that the crew of the airship told them that the ship was a prototype, a secret project built by some lone, backwoods inventor that had finally invented flight. For whatever reason, over time, the inventor took on the name of 'Wilson' and became integrated into American folklore. Some have called this the 'lone inventor' theory: at the time, the majority of the population believed that sooner or later people would build flying machines, and that the first successful one would be built by some guy fooling around in his garage.

It should be noted that this lone inventor theory is essentially correct: the first airplane was invented by a pair of bicycle mechanics tinkering away in a barn. However, they took baby steps: the Wright Brothers' first ship certainly did not go tear-assing around the country, buzzing cities and bombarding them with junk.

Why was the lone inventor theory so popular? Looking at it in context, I think we have mostly Jules Verne to thank for that. Ten years earlier, he had written a pair of books, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Robur the Conqueror. In the first a lone inventor builds a submarine and goes on some adventures; in the second, a lone inventor builds a flying airship and has himself a wild time cruising around. The lone inventor theory wasn't just something I'm trying to stick onto the case in retrospect; it was an idea that pretty much everyone had heard and subscribed to.

I'd like to go off on a quick tangent: at no time, except for one hoax where local teenagers created the crash site of a "vessel from Mars" do any of the newspaper accounts mention outer space or aliens. Everyone was 100% certain that the airships were the work of some mystery inventor that had discovered a means of heavier-than-air flight. Yet in the modern day, the UFO enthusiast would have you believe that these dirigibles and their clearly human crews were actually space people, come to earth for some nefarious reason. It's a pretty interesting trend: in the 1940s, when modern UFOs first appeared, people thought it was a new phenomenon. In the 1950s, the claim was that UFOs had been watching and visiting us for hundreds of years; in the 1960s it became thousands; and from the 1970s on it has been well known that UFOs have been with us since the dawn of mankind. Make of that what you will.

But back to the matter at hand: what proof do we have that these airships existed? We mostly have newspaper accounts of sightings, which, to be honest, I don't trust as far as I could throw. At the turn of the century, the objective was to sell papers, not report news, and if that meant a reporter had to make up a source, spice up a story, or just plagiarize a high-selling story from a competing paper, he'd do it. Think I'm being too harsh? In 1835 the New York Sun published a completely fictional story about an astronomer who had built a powerful telescope with which to study the moon. The story went on to report that there were all manner of plants and animals there, as well as a race of advanced bat-men dwelling in huts. The New York Times picked up the story and even the New Yorker referred to it as "a new era in astronomy." It's not an exaggeration to say that newspapers of this time are about as reliable as a flat tire. But don't blame newspapers alone: do you recall a little radio skit called War of the Worlds?

Let us assume that the reporters were reporting things factually and accurately: that means the whole case hinges on the credibility of witnesses. In my opinion, if you've got a credible witness, you've got squat. A credible witness and five dollars is worth precisely five dollars. Why do I feel this way? Well, over time, hundreds of people came out of the woodwork to admit their reports had been hoaxes. Many towns had what they called "Liar's Clubs," associations of gentlemen who, due to a surplus of free time, decided to try and outdo each other at telling lies. 'Credible' witnesses such as judges and businessmen eventually came forward and admitted that they'd made up the stories just to spice up an afternoon. I can't blame them for that: 1896 must have been a pretty dull time.

I am not saying, mind you, that every witness was lying. Practical jokers existed back then just as they do now. They'd send up strange-looking kites, homemade hot-air balloons, or hoist lanterns and candles into the air where they knew people would spot them. The people would then go and report that they'd seen a flying ship, strange lights, or an object in the sky, believing every word of it. One newspaper, the Peoria Transcript, even went so far as to send up multicolored kites attached to lamps to 'test the imagination of the people.' The result: a bumper crop of airship sightings. On the ground, things were no different: hoaxers created fake landing sites or even fake crash sites to fool unsuspecting rubes.

Also, take a closer look at the planet Venus, the brightest object in the sky aside from the sun and moon. It can often appear to be multicolored, to move, so on and so forth. Is it a coincidence that the airships sightings hit a peak at times when Venus was most prominent in the sky and, as the seasons changed to make this wanderer of the sky less noticeable, the level of sightings fell? Perhaps, perhaps not. You be the judge.

So how does it all add up? It's well known that a huge portion of the sightings have since been explained as practical jokes or outright lies. The only evidence we have are newspaper reports that are universally in doubt, and the sightings and ideas behind the sightings mirror with great precision popular science-fiction stories of at least one world-famous author that were widely available at the time. Many of the sightings occured when Venus, which to this day is often misidentified as a UFO, was high in the sky. Unless more evidence comes to light, I certainly don't think it's out of line for me to say it doesn't look good for proponents of the 'aliens came to earth and decided to cruise around in crude blimps' theory.

Be seeing you.

First Published in The Triangle, 24 June 2005