Most people do not know that the UFO Myth was preceded half a century earlier by the Great Airship Myth.
In the late 1800s Americans were reading the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and the idea of heavier-than-air flight was gaining credibility. It was in that cultural setting that people in California and Midwestern states reported seeing “mysterious airships” in the night sky in 1896-’97. Newspapers printed elaborate stories of airship sightings and daylight encounters with landed airships. A farmer in Kansas described how he watched his calf being kidnapped by the weird-looking occupants of an airship that hovered overhead.
Hotel visitors in St. Louis held a rooftop party to watch for the mysterious airship. “AIR SHIP SEEN: Thousands of St. Louisans Excited Over the Aerial Visitor,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in an article 30-column-inches long on April 13, 1897.
Speculation had it that the airships were flown by a secretive inventor or intelligent beings from the planet Mars.
Were those “airships” actually angels, demons, or visitors from an occult world? No. They were stars, planets, balloons, hoaxes, and tall tales. (See Donald Menzel’s 1953 book Flying Saucers, Chapter 3, and Daniel Cohen’s 1981 book The Great Airship Mystery.)
The Airship Myth did not live as long as the UFO Myth because radio, TV, motion pictures, and Airship Advocacy groups were not there to exploit it. It died quickly and quietly, but the UFO Myth goes on and on. Both are worth studying as examples of folklore, storytelling, mythmaking, or sensational journalism.
It is important to keep an “open mind,” but even more important to keep an active mind, i.e., to accept the responsibility of judgment and discrimination. As the poet Allen Tate wrote in 1929: “An ‘open mind’ never learns anything because it can’t contain anything.”
In deference to our Flying Saucer correspondent, I prefer to speak not of the “UFO Myth,” but of the UFO phenomenon, although I acknowledge it has mythical dimensions. The truth is, we don’t know whether some of the things people have reported are extraordinary natural or supernatural events. We have no serious hard evidence that they are and have very good reason to believe that they are not, but we also can never prove that they are not.