For a brief period during the late 1890s, a wave of UFO sightings swept across the United States. Dozens of strange objects were seen sailing through the skies from coast-to-coast.
In November 1896 an object was reported in the night sky over Sacramento, California. It was described as a light with a dark body of some kind above it. It was seen a second time about a week later. Similar reports, usually describing only the light, came from other cities in northern California. Reported movement of the light indicated a slow motion. The dark body seen above it was variously held to be “cigar-shaped,” “egg-shaped” or “barrel-shaped.”
Other reports from the 1890s wave describe a fast-moving cigar-shaped object which glowed and made small explosions, similar to what might be expected from a gasoline engine. Another emitted colored rays of light. An unknown body — a “luminous ball of fire” — circled a mountain in Canada before speeding away. The ship described in an 1896 close encounter in California was characterized as “cigar-shaped.” An object seen in Kansas in 1897 looked like a 30-foot canoe with a searchlight.
Even though Jerome Clark (“The Great Airship Hoax,” Fate, February 1977) exposed this report as a fabrication, the description is still pertinent in its choice of details: In 1897 a strange craft allegedly hovered above a Kansas farmer’s cow lot. It was a 300-foot-long cigar with a carriage underneath and, beneath that, a 30-foot revolving turbine wheel. Windows lined the sides of the gondola and the interior was brightly lit. Another sighting involved a cigar-shaped object with four wings, a searchlight and fan-like wheels. In another report the motion of a light in the night sky was said to suggest “the flapping of wings.” Another farmer reported an airship with flapping wings, while others ascribed hissing sounds to the ships they saw.
Original frontispiece of Robur the Conqueror:
In 1886 Jules Verne published his 31st novel, Robur le Conquerant. As were all the novels he had written to this time, Robur was immediately translated and published in English. In Britain its title became the apt Clipper of the Clouds and in the United States, Robur the Conqueror. Both editions were published in 1887, the year after the French edition. There were also an unknown number of pirated editions issued in this country.
Verne's Albatross encounters a dirigible.
The story opens with a detailed description of what today would be a UFO flap of epic proportions: Mysterious objects have been observed in the sky all over the world, in Europe, Asia and America. Strange lights and sounds are seen and heard by thousands of people. Newspapers on every continent discuss, report and debate the phenomenon, “recording things...false and true, alarming and tranquilizing their readers as the sale required and almost driving ordinary people mad.” Astronomers have no answer to the mystery.
Many of the reports are of aerial flashes of light, lasting as long as 20 seconds. A number of these sightings are by major observatories. During the day the phenomenon manifests itself as a small cloud or vapor.” On one night in the center of the aurora borealis there is seen the silhouette of some enormous, unknown structure “showering off from its body certain corpuscles which exploded like bombs.”
If it is indeed the same object being seen consecutively by different observers in the same night, then its speed must be unprecedented. At the same time that one group of astronomers is “explaining” the sightings as nothing more than optical and acoustical illusions or misinterpreted meteors, another group is hotly arguing for the existence of some unknown flying object in the atmosphere.
It develops that the mysterious object is indeed a giant flying machine, invented by the novel’s anti-hero Robur. He kidnaps three skeptics and takes them on a round-the-world flight (the first UFO abduction?). During this adventure, there are many scenes familiar to students of the 1890s UFO flap, including an instance in which an unknown flying machine races a passenger train!
Verne's Albatross racing a locomotive, by Frank R. Paul:
Although Verne’s book was read widely in the United States (always one of his best markets), his influence was multiplied a hundredfold or more by reason of the virtual duplication of many of his novels, over and over again, by the dime novelists. These were blatant in their use of the Frenchman’s name to sell their near-plagiarisms. “Jules Verne outdone!” boasted the cover of one.
Is it possible that the reports of mysterious airships in the news at the time influenced the writing of Robur? Or was it the other way around? The former idea is improbable since the genesis of Robur is well known and contemporary UFO reports do not enter into it. There are two parts to Robur that must be considered: its description of airship technology and its plot. Some points of the latter have already been described. The story behind the technology it describes goes back more than 20 years prior to the novel’s publication.
In France in 1862 a society was founded to promote the concept of heavier-than-air flight. Verne joined the society in 1863 as its recording secretary. He began writing Robur in early 1885 under the working title of The Conquest of the Air. He based the design of Robur’s Albatross on the work of the members of the society, principally that of Gabrielle de la Landelle, whose “steam air liner” was the prime model. In fact, Verne lists some 70 inventors who contributed to his concept of a flying machine. He gives credit to those who provided the most direct inspiration: Nadar, Cossus, de la Landelle and Ponton d’Amecourt. Comparisons of drawings or photographs of their machines leave no doubt where the appearance of the Albatross came from. There is no evidence that Verne was influenced in any way by reports of sightings of mysterious airships. Since Verne like to make his books timely and often included references to current events, he surely would have mentioned them if he had heard of them.
An 1865 illustration depicting many of the heavier-than-air flying machines being proposed at the time:
As one of the most popular authors of his era, Verne was widely imitated. Every nation had its own “Jules Verne.” Many of these were hack writers filling the demand for the type of novel that Verne had made so popular. Most of them are justifiably forgotten today. Nevertheless, hardly a book publisher or magazine was not running stories and novels of what was then called “scientific romance.” Verne had created a vogue for a new kind of adventure story which was sweeping the world.
Surveying the number of works of interplanetary fiction published in the 19th Century, George Locke (Voyages in Space ) revealed some of the impact of Verne on the English-speaking world. Until 1871 no more than half a dozen interplanetary stories had been published in any one year. After the publication in English of From the Earth to the Moon, in 1871, however, there is an immediate peak. The number continued to climb from that date, reaching its maximum in the 1890s. In just one of those latter years nearly 30 novels involving space travel alone were published. (Is it a coincidence that these were also the peak years of the UFO flap?)
The cover of one of Senerans' dime novels:
The American author most indebted to the French writer was Luis Philip Senarens (1863-1939), who liked to self-describe himself as the “American Jules Verne.” He was the prolific author of hundreds of cheap “dime novels”: 32 pages of closely-printed, miniscule type spelling out the hair-raising but squeaky-clean adventures of all-American heroes such as Frank Reade, Jr., or Jack Wright, the Boy Inventor. Under the pseudonym of “Noname” (the Latin form, “Nemo,” being the name of one of Verne’s most famous characters), Senarens wrote over 1000 stories, ranging from 35,000 to 50,000 words apiece.
Virtually all dealt with some sort of wonderful invention. Many concerned themselves with flying machines: flying boats, the “electric air monitor,” the flying “electric dragon,” the “greyhound of the air,” a flying submarine, the “electric air rocket,” and literally scores of others. Almost all of them were blatantly lifted from the fabulous Albatross. Verne had (allegedly) corresponded with the youthful Senarens for a time and if this is true, one result may have been that “Noname” was able actually to beat Verne into print with some of his hero’s own ideas! (The popular idea that Verne in fact copied Senarens is patently untrue. Publication dates invalidate that idea.)
During the years that Robur was being distributed in the United States, the country was also being flooded by Senarens' and other dime-novel fiction depicting flying machines similar to Verne’s, as well as other imaginative aerial craft. Even though the number of dime novels dealing with flying machines represented a small percentage of all dime novels published, this small percentage still amounted to many thousands of copies in circulation.
The publishing industry was booming at the end of the 19th Century. This was in part due to mechanical improvements in the printing industry in the 1890s, as well as the development of a national distribution system. This made magazines available in railway stations, ferry terminals, candy and cigar stores, street stands, and other places. By 1900 more than 21,000 periodicals were being published, with an aggregate circulation of more than 114.2 million copies per issue. Of these two-thirds were weeklies. “General literature” accounted for 240 titles, “family reading” for 15,000. The publication of “scientific romances’’ was not limited to the dime novels. The glossier magazines aimed at an older, better-educated and more affluent audience — The Strand, The Century, Tit Bits, Pall Mall, Harper’s, Scribner’s, McClure’s — all regularly ran science fiction and many of these stories featured incredible flying machines.
A proposed powered dirigible from 1872:
Additionally, the coming heavier-than-air conquest of the skies was one of the most popular topics of the day. Scarcely a week or a month would go by without some popular magazine’s publishing plans, drawings, photographs and news of a new flying machine. Many were so sensational that they made headlines. It makes no difference for our purposes whether or not any of these inventions ever got off the ground. What is important that they were reported and described in the magazines and newspapers of the time. For example, it is certain that Thomas Edison never had anything to do with the fantastic illustration supposedly showing his design for a flying machine. Nevertheless, this is the way it was reported and the way the American people saw it and — this is the most important thing: it was the way they expected it to look.
Edison's purported flying machine:
Lucius Parish, in Ronald D. Story’s The Encyclopedia of UFOs (1980), describes the typical 19th-century UFO: “cigar-shaped, apparently metallic, with wings, propellers, fins and other appendages. At night, [such objects] appeared to be brilliant lights, with dark superstructures sometimes visible behind the lights.” Compare this description with those of aircraft depicted in fiction or in reports of the work of inventors. Compare, too, many of the airship reports with events described in Verne’s novel and in other fiction of the period.
Why do the mysterious airships of the 1890s so uncannily resemble the airships imagined by Verne and his contemporaries? Why does their sudden appearance coincide with the proliferation of the “scientific romance” in which such machines are described in detail? Why does their appearance match the descriptions of actual airships being built or designed at the same time? Why do so many of the events and circumstances described in Verne’s novel show up later, duplicated during the flap? While I have not read all of the many dime novels describing flying machines, I wonder how many of the incidents they report also anticipated reported events.
Why the sudden change in descriptions of UFOs? Why during this brief period in the 1890s are UFOs described as looking so specifically like airships?
Why are the descriptions of the inhabitants of these machines, when they made an appearance, so prosaic! They speak colloquial English, wear contemporary clothing (one aeronaut was seen sitting on his flying machine, fishing, wearing a “checked hunting suit”!) and have normal human needs.
And why are the needs of the airships themselves so ordinary! They seem to have been in constant need of repair, oil, tools, fuel and water.
Perhaps we are wrong to try to lump all of the observed sightings under a single explanation. Perhaps there are three interrelated ones. The first group would include those that resembled the widely-published schemes of inventors who were busy working on the problems of either heavier-than-air flight or the dirigible balloon. For one example, many of the airships of the flap strikingly resemble the model airship developed by Marriott in 1869. It is worth noting that it was once tested successfully in California.
Marriot's flying machine:
A second group consists of those that closely resemble the aircraft described in fiction. This group also includes observations of machines that either couldn’t have flown or couldn’t have been controlled, had anyone actually tried to build one.
The third and smallest group comprises those machines virtually identical in description to dirigible balloons actually constructed and flown, either in the United States or in Europe.
All three groups could be either imaginative interpretations of anomalous and amorphous phenomena, simple “band-wagoning,” or even outright hoaxes. In other words, nothing that we haven’t seen taking place in so many modern UFO reports. Those of a century ago are different only in using 19th-century visual references. It is also possible that the third group could include genuine reports of sightings of real dirigible balloons (or free balloons with the distinctive cigar shape of the dirigible).
When you read a report about how some bumpkin was visited by aeronauts who described themselves as “Martians” or visitors from “a land beyond the North Pole,” can’t you just hear some balloonist laughing himself silly?
For thousands of years people have been seeing aerial phenomena they cannot explain. In the early history of mankind, these strange things were seen as manifestations of the gods: they looked like angels, devils, chariots or the gods themselves. In the latter part of the 19th Century strange things in the sky purported to resemble the aerial craft then so much in the news: they looked to people like dirigibles and ornithopters. In this century, what are probably the very same things in the sky — whatever they really are — are described almost invariably as spaceships.
Of course there are a great number of exceptions to this generalization, but it does seem true that to a large degree UFOs typically look like what the percipient expects them to look like. In the religious and warlike atmosphere of biblical and medieval times, anything unfamiliar in the sky had to be, almost by definition, a sign from God or the devil — and it was interpreted that way. Bombarded from all sides by heavier-than-air ships — both fictional and semi-fictional — the people of the last century described the strange things they saw in the sky as looking like the very aircraft they expected them to be.
Today, whenever anyone sees something inexplicable in the sky, the immediate thought is “interplanetary spaceship.” To how great a degree are the descriptions of UFOs being colored and shaped by preconceptions? If it is not unreasonable to suppose that these are the same types of phenomena that have been observed through the ages (whatever these phenomena may be), perhaps it is something a little more amorphous and vague that most observers might believe. How many sundogs, perhaps, were given wheels, wings, propellers or disc shape by the expectations of the observer, who believed these were the features it must have? This may be the most important lesson to be learned from the 1890s UFO scare.