The Great Airship Delusion

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The 1950s, 60s, and 70s were perhaps the golden age of UFO sightings in the United States. Futuristic advances in technology, thought-provoking science fiction, deep government distrust, and copious psychedelic drugs all combined to produce widespread visions of otherworldly airborne objects.

But this wasn't the first time that thousands of Americans were astonished by strange events in the sky. Between the 1880s and early 1900s, Americans from California to Boston were convinced they saw "airships" and flying "machines" buzzing the skies. Mind you, many of these accounts came out well before the Wright brothers flew the world's first powered aircraft over a distance of just 120 feet. Some airship sightings described great dirigibles with passengers onboard. Others simply reported moving lights in the night sky. One even told of an alien craft more than 150-feet long, completely featureless apart from its rudder.

Some journalists and newspapers were skeptical, but many more published the accounts uncritically to captivated readers. In the winter of 1909, during what can only be described as an "outbreak" of airship sightings in New England, tens of thousands of people claimed to see all manner of flying objects performing feats no aircraft of the day came close to accomplishing.

"It all began on 12 December, when prominent Worcester businessman Wallace Tillinghast told a Boston Herald reporter he had invented the world's first reliable heavier-than-air flying machine," Stephen Whalen and Robert E. Bartholomew recounted in the New England Quarterly.

Over the ensuing weeks, airship sightings flooded in, which newspapers gleefully reported with little skepticism. The reports in turn prompted even more sightings. It was a chain reaction of delusions.

"The great airship episode peaked in a frenzy on Christmas Eve," Whalen and Bartholomew described. "On that night there were thirty-three separate reports, spreading from Massachusetts southward to Rhode Island and Connecticut, northward to Vermont and Maine, and as far west as New York. In Boston, 'thousands upon thousands of people... stood on sidewalks, street corners and squares... hoping for a glimpse of the flying machine.'"

But just days later, sanity returned. Astronomers debunked a number of reports, explaining that the airship lights people thought they saw were really stars, meteors, or planets. Journalists also uncovered that many accounts were simply lies.

"Newspaper editors, drawing on the popular theories of French psychologist Gustave Le Bon, began to attribute the sightings to individual primitive impulses activated in emotional, group situations and producing a form of temporary irrationality or madness," Whalen and Bartholomew wrote.

Le Bon was absolutely right.

"We now know that all these incidents were hoaxes and mass delusions," Yale neurologist Steven Novella wrote in his recent book The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. "There were no airships. Drawings of the alleged 'aeroplanes' by eyewitnesses resemble quaint notions of contraptions with flapping wings, not the planes that were eventually developed."

Notice also how all of the sightings were affected by culture and the technologies of the day. In the late 1800s, Americans were hearing of inventors feverishly working to create flying machines. Thus, they saw airships. One of the few reported alien spacecraft supposedly had a rudder, which would have been useless for space travel! Years later, influenced by science fiction and the nuclear age, Americans saw flying saucers, instead.

"What these and many other similar incidents reflect is the constructed and unreliable nature of perception, memory, and belief. They are the products of expectation, cultural influence, and psychology," Novella wrote.


This post was inspired by the recently-released book The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, by Steven Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, Bob Novella, and Evan Bernstein. Those uninitiated to scientific and skeptical thinking will find Skeptics' Guide to be an engaging and in-depth introduction, while current practitioners will get their BS detectors honed and feel their love for rationality reinvigorated. Both groups will undoubtedly return to the Guide again and again to help navigate a world increasingly ignorant to fact.

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