the original ufos

People have been seeing weird, saucer-shaped objects in the sky half a century before the UFO craze took off in America.

steampunk airship

Ever since the UFO craze began, researchers have tried to pin down exactly when the strange lights started crowding our skies. So far, they’ve managed to narrow down the time range to between the Neolithic era and the end of World War 2. But strangely, as ufologists talk about visitors from Nibiru and Foo Fighters, they don’t mention the mysterious airships spotted across the United States from 1896 to 1907 in sporadic bursts.

No one knows exactly what those airships were or who was piloting them, although one theory suggests that mechanic John Keely designed a new airship using some sort of electromagnetic propulsion and rejected by the military, decided to fly it across the country to demonstrate its abilities. The problem is that Keely was a fraud who pitched the engineering equivalent of snake oil to wealthy investors and the Keely Motor Company never produced a viable product. After Keely’s death in 1898, his lab was exposed as an elaborate sham. Hounded by skeptics and the scientific press for fourteen years, it’s unlikely that Keely would build the first flying machine powered by the engine everyone said he couldn’t build and keep it a secret. And who would fly it on and off for the next nine years?

On their own, the mystery airships are intriguing. Combined with other UFO stories, they show an interesting trend. The airships were described as huge blimps or zeppelins shining bright lights on the people below. During the next round of UFO encounters, the objects in question (the Foo Fighters) were described as fireballs erratically streaking across the sky. One of their other pet names was actually Kraut Fireballs in reference to their probable Nazi origin.

Then, in 1947, businessman Kenneth Arnold reports seeing crescent shaped UFOs “skipping like saucers over water.” The tabloid which reported his account, Fate Magazine, called them flying saucers. The common assumption is that the subsequent reports of disk shaped craft are evidence that the phenomena was cultural rather than factual. Arnold reported a formation of crescent shaped objects. Flying saucers was misreading of his account. Clearly, people were just seeing things. Maybe so, but when we move into the 1950s, we find the USAF working with disc shaped aircraft. UFO reports are typically disks.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the UFOs become triangular, just when the Air Force is testing triangular stealth jets. Of course this trend doesn’t capture every UFO sighting out there. Most reports talk about nondescript bright lights zooming around the sky and many are a case of mistaken identity. But when an object truly seems to behave like it’s being controlled and there are hundreds of people witnessing the same events, the shapes given to the flying objects fit with the predominant shape of test aircraft at the time. Blimps and zeppelins at the turn of the century, rockets and missiles of WW2, disk shaped craft of Project Silverbug in the 1950s and recently, modern stealth jets.

To see if this trend holds true, it would be interesting to see whether descriptions of UFOs seen up close will change to take on the primary characteristics of the newest trend in jet design. So let’s pull up our chairs, grab our binoculars and watch the skies. Maybe we’ll see another set of mystery airships screaming by at hypersonic speeds…

# astrobiology // john keely / mystery airships / ufo / ufology


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