In the post-World War II era, the lives of the American public had begun to change radically: we began to cope with incredible advances in technology, from cars to radios to jets and television. Our collective imaginations were supercharged, and a particular phenomenon began to emerge in the middle of the century: people began to see Unidentified Flying Objects in the skies above.
Raymond A. Palmer was sixteen years old when he came across a newsstand in July of 1926. It was there that he discovered the first issue of Amazing Stories magazine, edited by Hugo Gernsback. Palmer’s biographer, Fred Nadis, noted that he became an instant convert to science fiction. Palmer had been born in August, 1910 in Milwaukee, growing up with an idyllic childhood until the age of 9, when he was struck by a truck and seriously injured. Disabled, he took to books, reading the works of authors such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others, and eventually graduated from High School in 1928. The accident had an enormous impact on his life, and he noted that the “accident that crippled me, made me a hunchback, I became a lone-wolf, a bitterly determined, stubborn man.” [From Nadis’ biography, The Man from Mars]
Discovering Amazing Stories helped Palmer branch out and discover like-minded people who accepted him. He became a devoted reader of the magazine, and began corresponding with fellow fans, which led to a partnership between himself and fellow fan Walter Dennis (Who might have been the inspiration for Clark Kent). Together, they founded the Science Correspondence Club in 1929, and, in 1930, launched one of the first fanzines, The Comet, an imitation of the magazine they revered.
Palmer also began to write his own stories, and in 1930, became a published author when Hugo Gernsback accepted his story, “The Time Ray of Jandra” for Wonder Stories. He continued to publish throughout the 1930s, publishing stories such as “The Man Who Invaded Time” (Science Fiction Digest, October 1932), “Escape from Antarctica” (Science Fiction Digest, June 1933), “The Vortex World” (Fantasy Magazine, 1934), “The Time Tragedy” (Wonder Stories, 1934), and many others.
Amazing Stories changed hands over the years, and when it was acquired by publisher Ziff-Davis in 1938, they hired Palmer to take the helm of the magazine. The publication had been losing readers under its current editor, T. O’Conor Sloane, and Palmer had been recommended as an energetic replacement. He was excited at the prospects, according to Nadis: “You can imagine how I felt. Here at last I had it in my power to do to my old hobby what I had always had the driving desire to do to it. I had in my hands the power to change, to destroy, to create, to remake, at my own discretion.” He made immediate changes to the publication, ultimately saving it.
Palmer would become known as a major editor in early science fiction, eventually leaving Ziff-Davis to start his own publishing company, Clark Publishing Company, which included such magazines as Imagination, Space World, Universe Science Fiction, Science Stories, and Other Worlds. In 1948, he started up a new magazine called Fate, which was dedicated to the paranormal.
Palmer’s interests had begun to shift over the years, and he became fascinated by unexplained phenomena. Fate provided an ideal outlet for these sorts of stories, and its debut issue featured an account from Kenneth Arnold about an Unidentified Flying Object that he had seen. Arnold’s account of his encounter on June 24th, 1947 prefigured the craze of UFO sightings across the United States that followed. He described the objects as “flat like a pie pan” flying erratically.
Nadis described Fate as “a National Geographic for explorers of the anomalous or weird,” and covered the entire gamut of paranormal fixtures: big foot, UFOs, ghosts, and so forth, becoming incredible popular within a close-knit community of true believers. Palmer and his partner, Curt Fuller, drew on the model that had worked for science fiction: “with its chummy editorials, letters, and other features. Just as in the pulps, readers sent in their praise or criticisms of artwork and articles, as well as descriptions of their own paranormal experiences.”
Arnold’s encounter near Mount Rainier, Washington had been an overnight sensation that was quickly followed by another event near a military base in Roswell, New Mexico on July 7th. Palmer invited Arnold to write for his magazine, who supplied a letter to print. The two kept up their correspondence, and authored a book The Coming of the Saucers, in 1952. In 1953, the United States Air Force coined the term Unidentified Flying Object to cover reports of these sorts of sightings.
The rise of UFO sightings came at the same time as tensions between the United states and Soviet Union began to cool into the Cold War. Each side had begun to test nuclear weapons and vehicles that would carry them into orbit. Palmer had found the right niche to carve out a new sort of fandom, one that capitalized on the anxiety of the time. Unexplained sightings could certainly have been military aircraft or something more mundane, but the collective fervor of the day transformed it into something more exciting: aliens from another planet!
Sightings have since continued over the years, while the notion of UFOs and flying saucers never quite circulated back into the conventional science fiction markets from which they had emerged. UFOs found their ways into fiction in other mediums: films. Movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and many, many others capitalized on the movement and entertained audiences throughout the summers in movie theaters across the country. It continued unabated into the 1970s and 1980s with films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) AND 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Shows such as The Twilight Zone (1959), The X-Files (1993), Taken (2002), and the recently released Stranger Things (2016) continue to captivate audiences.
In the 1940s, Palmer was able to tap into the growing idea that there was much that was unexplainable about the world and turn it into a cottage industry that has endured in the decades since. While widely ridiculed by the government and public at large, the notion of UFOs is a romantic one, something Palmer certainly recognized as a storyteller and editor. He wasn’t the creator of the movement, but he did help to morph it into an enduring subculture of fans and true believers. While UFOs haven’t taken root in the science fiction stories that Palmer championed, they have certainly become as big a cultural phenomenon.