THE GREAT AIRSHIP MYSTERY: A UFO of the 1890s by Daniel Cohen


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Though UFOs are widely considered to be a post-WW II phenomenon, in November 1896 (well before the Wright brothers and the zeppelin era) the citizens of Sacramento reported seeing a ""mysterious airship"" flying overhead--characterized by a ""bright light"" (sometimes two or more lights) and a dark, indistinct, cigar-shaped body. Other observers reported wings, wheels, propellors, or (often hilariously) occupants, both human and non-human. The airship uproar spread rapidly up and down the West Coast, then eastwards to Nebraska, Kansas, Texas--and eventually as far as Chicago and Indiana, where reports died out in 1897. Cohen, prolific writer of juveniles on other-worldly subjects, traces the airship's progress from surviving records and also attempts an analysis. Astonishing as it may seem today, journalistic hoaxing was a widespread and acceptable circulation-booster in 19th-century newspapers; and Cohen ascribes the bulk of the reports to this very-earthly phenomenon. Other factors were wishful thinking, mass hysteria, misidentification of commonplace objects (such as the planet Venus), a conspiracy among railroad employees (whose telegraph was the main means of long-distance communication), and the newspaper serialization of Verne's Robur the Conqueror, which features just such an airship. Most of the sightings, are, indeed, explicable in these terms; but Cohen unjustifiably extends ""most"" to ""all,"" while ignoring or glossing over a small number of queer and potentially important points. Could there have been, in particular, a mysterious backwoods inventor? Cohen, after investigating a number of likely candidates, thinks not. Solid exposition, then, but debatable analysis--so the conclusions will not satisfy either UFO believers or skeptics.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Dodd, Mead