Monday, March 21, 2005

Airships | The Beginning - 1896

The Mysterious Flying Light 11-22-1896

By Frank Warren
The UFO Chronicles

     On November 17th 1896 the Sacramento Evening Bee reported that a man named Leon was building a "flying machine" in Hoboken N.J., and he had told his friends he would cross the continent in two days. In fact, his friends accepted invitations to join him on this adventurous trip, with his new futuristic flying machine. Although Leon was very hush-mouthed about his project, one of his associates claimed that he already perfected the machine and it had risen to a height of two hundred feet in Chicago.

The machine was described as having a wooden centerpiece, fifteen feet long, covered with a thin piece of brass. From the centerpiece there extended spikes of wood three feet long, over which were placed wooden rings six feet in diameter. Over the rings were drawn rubber and canvas sails. In the front there was a rubber balloon, large enough to hold five men and an electric battery, which was to furnish both light and propelling power. The steering apparatus was in the rear.

On November 18th, 1896 the Sacramento Evening Bee reported that an "Aerial Ship" had been seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses bobbing in the wind over their fair city. Did Leon leave early? Was his ship faster then he realized? Had he indeed achieved his transcontinental flight? The Bee went on to say that these eye witnesses stated that the object appeared as a bright light, or an "electric arc lamp," if you will, and that it was "propelled by some mysterious force." Moreover some witnesses claimed to have heard "voices" coming from the object! One witness said he heard a voice say, "lift her up quick, your making for that steeple!"

That article which was of course front page news was the beginning of a wave of sightings that continued through the end of 1897 and became a "national phenomenon." Today UFO researchers refer to that period as the "Air Ships of 1896-1897."

The focus here will be on that very first sighting as reported by The Bee, and later by San Francisco papers. In analyzing the article(s), there are some very interesting observations one can make about our culture during that time period as well as from a psychological standpoint.

First let's understand the flavor of the times: Jules Verne had people's minds churning with his science fiction novels about mysterious inventors creating "futuristic machines," e.g., Captain Nemo and his submarine. Top astronomers of the time ironically were publishing papers on the question of "Mars being inhabited." Cities were being illuminated by the installation of electric lights. Manned balloon flight had been around since the 1700's. The first successful glider flight was made forty-three years earlier. It was nearing the end of the century, and man knew he was destined to conquer the skies–it was only a matter of time.

Having said that, was the sight of this contraption overwhelming for the average man or woman on the street to comprehend? The answer to that, for the most part is mixed. San Francisco papers initially scoffed at the reports of the so-called flying machine. On the 18th, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:
"What is probably one of the greatest hoaxes that has ever been sprung on any community has been started in this city, and yet were it not for the improbability of the thing there would be the best of reasons for believing it true."
On the 20th this was published:
"Are there up in the sky four jolly and intrepid human travelers, paying their respects to Mars, singing quartets to Venus, and saluting the planets generally within hailing distance, or are the people of Sacramento affected with the disease known in polite society as 'illuminated staggers?'"
San Francisco's skeptical attitude changed the next day when they had a rash of their own sightings. In the mean time Sacramentans were still pondering over what they saw. Most people, two days after the sightings said it MUST have been a meteor or a balloon with some sort of light attached to it. The thought of it being some type of aircraft was called "ridiculous" by The Bee.

I find it interesting that even after a hundred years, man still exhibits the same behavioral characteristics. That is to say, when a group of people witnesses something beyond the realm of normalcy, even when the event is clearly seen, it seems they choose to explain it with answers that fall within that realm, e.g., when interviewed by The Bee, Weather Observer Barwick admits that the object couldn't have been a meteor based on the description of the light and the speed of the object, so he goes onto say that it MUST have been a hoax.


  1. Frank:

    The "cotton in the air" explanation for the Farmington armada is another example of silly explanations.

    See - we can agree on something!


    Paul Kimball

  2. Hi Frank

    Could this guy named Leon have been the pilot of the Airship that crashed in Aurora? For some reasons of their own the townsfolk might have claimed the pilot was a Martian even though it was an human body they found in the wreckage.

  3. Mornin' Avinash,

    The only common denominator between the two events is the term "airship," beyond that, nothing else fits.

    Moreover, although some have speculated that the whole story was concocted for "tourism"; airships, were' not common at that time, and were "cutting edge technology"--the point being is that no one need embellish a story about a "crashed 'Martian' airship (UFO)," the excitement and or curiosity would have just as great for one of ours.


  4. Yes that makes sense. An Airship would just have been just as noteworthy in 1897. Regarding the flap of 1896=97 itself, what is your opinion? Do you think it might have resulted from test flights of experimental airships or dirigibles? Or do you feel it was just a hoax or even ET visitors?

  5. Mornin' Avinash,

    The answer to your question (for the most part) is, "all of the above."

    Contrary to popular belief, experimentation with "airships," i.e., powered contrivances had been taking place for decades, e.g., the Marriot Avitor Hermes was tested (by tether) in 1869; patents for various airships assemblage, can be found much earlier then that; to that end, it would be no surprise that some of the sightings were in fact of said, "experimental craft."

    Nevertheless, the "airship phenomenon" of 1896-97 was an "international" occurrence, and by no means can all of the sightings be attributed to the activities of talented inventors of the day.

    It has been proven that there were indeed "hoaxes" in some instances, and I don't doubt that "airship fever" can explain some of the sightings as well; however, as is the case with the bulk of UFO sightings in general . . . a small percentage defy "conventional explanation" . . . in my view, this holds true for these incidents as well.

    Accordingly, it is safe to say IMHO that some of these sightings were indeed UFOs; however, to say with authority, that they were of an "extraterrestrial origin," methinks there isn't enough data (at present) to make that claim in that manner.



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