Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The 1896-1897 Airship Wave – A mini case study

So far my posts dealt essentially with conceptual and theoretical issues. This time I would like to propose an empirical case study that integrates some of the concepts discussed previously.

The wave

The 1896-1897 wave seems to be one of the first reported waves of unidentified flying object. It occurred mostly in Western United States with a few sightings in Western Canada. It is a good case for establishing a wave because in those days there were no planes, or ongoing unverified sightings of UFOs. In essence, the sky was clean. As well, the key element to have a wave was also present: the possibility of sharing on broad basis information about sightings. Otherwise, disparate sightings could not have been construed as being part of a wider phenomenon. By the end of the 19th century, the telegraphic news network was global, with underwater transoceanic cable linking all continents. There was already international news agency distributing information worldwide through the telegraphic network, and lastly the fruits of mandatory elementary education in Western countries could be seen with relatively high literacy rates never seen before. Hence, the objective conditions to have a social object are met.

The first reported sighting was on 17 November 1896 in Sacramento, capital of California. Sacramento and San Francisco newspaper report the news the following day. It is interesting to note that the witnesses talked about moving lights in the night sky. Some of them mentioned seeing an elongated light. This links directly with the post on the materiality of UFOs.

The word “Airship” appears because one of the witnesses claims to have seen helixes in the back, and two men pedaling under the airship. On 22 and 25 November, other sightings of strange lights in sky are reported throughout California. Yet, as of 18 November the word Airship is used by newspapers and is quickly adopted. This phenomenon is very similar to what happened in 1947 when Kenneth Arnold talked about objects wobbling like a “flying saucer.” This links to my discussion about the mixture between subjective and objective elements as an integral part of the UFO phenomenon.

By the end of November, various stories very similar to contemporary UFO sightings start to emerge in the press. A Colonel Shaw said that he met non-human entities (close encounter of the 3rd kind). A man called Indio said that he stepped into a machine (trips in flying saucers). Other stories are about an inventor that will make a statement about his airship in the near future (misleading information). One statement particularly interesting was from the former Attorney-General for California, William Hart, who claimed to be in contact with the inventor, and that he will use it to bomb Havana and liberate Cuba (a Spanish colony then) (a contactee story?). Lastly, one can mention the story reported by the Dallas Morning News on 19 April 1897, stating that the body of a Martian was found and the corps was interred in a Freemason cemetery (UFO crash and ensuing cover-up by a conspiratorial organization!).

As one can see, some very familiar themes emerged during the wave. How much of these sightings can be attributed to genuine psi effect is hard to tell. However, a mixture of hoaxes and genuine psi effects is actually a common feature noted by parapsychologists when studying mediums. It is even possible to think that strange and out-of-character motivations for hoaxing could be an integral part of a psi effect, as it reinforces the belief in the strange phenomenon, which in turn increases the likelyhood of creating further psi effects. A symbiotic relationship between psi and hoaxes cannot be overlooked here.

Some have already looked into some psycho-social effects to explain the propagation of airship story and expanding hoax fashion that occurred after November 1896. As well, it is important to underline that ethics in journalism was not a big priority in those days, and that journalists were certainly important actors in expanding the “size” of the wave. Lastly, some authors proposed that “tubes” were seen in the sky, like Busby, Michael. (2004). Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery. Pelican Publishing.


If the wave was a physical expression of a social psi effect, then one look for a social symbolic meaning; what society’s collective unconscious was trying to express? Two leads could be followed here:
1- Time: what was happening at that time?
2- Geography: was there something particular about California at that time?

The timing of the wave is particularly interesting from a political standpoint. The November 1996 to April 1897 was actually the transition period for the new president-elect, McKinley, to get his affairs in order between the election in the 2nd week of November and the sworn in. (It is to be noted that the transition period was eventually moved to January later in the 20th century).

The issue of the day was a potential war against Spain. McKinley was personally against the war, as well as the religious voters who supported him. But the tension was mounting, as William Hart’s statement can attest. The famous journalist Joseph Pulitzer (from whom the famous literary award’s name is coming from), and William Hearst (inventor of Yellow journalism), among others, led an active campaign since 1895 to launch a military attack against Spain to liberate its colonies. The incident of the USS Maine, which blow-up, became the pretext for an American invasion of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The rapid American conquest had a significant symbolic impact. The US was now really playing the great powers’ game. A major collective identity change happened. As noted in a previous post, shifting identity seems to play an important role in poltergeists. Hence, it appears that the time is socially significant.

The geographical dimension seems more subtle here. William Hearst, an important actor in the period that leads to the American-Spanish War, owned several newspapers, including one in California, the San Francisco Examiner. Interestingly, when the wave started, the San Francisco Examiner was one of the most sceptical about the wave. It is difficult to assess how much personal impact he had on the editorial line of the Examiner, but this in line with poltergeist phenomena where the conscious mind rejects the physical message produced by the unconscious mind. Self-denial is an important part of poltergeists.

Another criteria emerging from geography is the issue of who might be the central person. Where Californians more unconsciously worried about a potential war with Spain? This is very difficult to assess. However, it is interesting to note that Hearst had a life-long interest in airships. He personally ensured that his newspaper covered the Arctic trip of the airship Italia in 1928 (which ended in a tragedy). He also provided funding for the Graf Zepplin world tour in 1929. Without finding a “social” central person, it is at least possible to find one individual who had a number of attributes of a central person, key to understand poltergeists.

Could a single individual be behind a UFO wave? Or could it be that a single individual can give the tone to social psi events? These questions cannot be answered at this time, but it opens new perspectives on our understanding of the collective unconscious.

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet


Atrueoriginall said...

Hi there again. It's interesting that you spoke about the airships.

I happen to have a Dallas CBS news video on my blog, which I think you would like if you haven't seen it yet.

The first video that appears is the actual story (which takes place directly after a short Stephenville comment).

There is an additional video there (second picture from the left), which is also worth your time. It's an 11 minute, off-the-cuff interview with author Wallace Chariton about the Texas Airship.


Eric Ouellet said...

Thanks for the info. I will have a look.

tanshihus said...

Eric: after some thinking about it, I looked up the history on skyscrapers, tall multi-story buildings of at least ten floors with an internal steel skeleton. The first one I believe was located in Chicago. The listing for air-ship sightings in the U.S. start before this airship 'wave' that you're writing about in this article. What's interesting is that skyscraper construction only predates these earliest UFO sightings by about a decade. I began to wonder if a mirage could be formed with only a horizontal band of air reflecting an image so that only a thin slit would be visible to the observer on the ground. The effect would be of a long tube of glass and stone veneer floating in the air which would be at least the length of a city block. The report would be even more familiar if office workers were to use lanterns and lamps for illumination. There were several reports of people looking out of the windows of such airships. Let's see if I remember what that's called in chaos theory...would an objective phenomena producing a subjective effect in the observer still be called an attractor?

Eric Ouellet said...

Hi Don,

This is an interesting idea that I did not look into. Change of physical perspectives, when they become more common should create new collective phenomena, and it might have influenced the airship stories.

With the late 19th c. airship wave, it is important to note that the original witnesses in San Francisco reported strange lights in the sky, not airships. The "airship" expression was an addition by the newspapers that reported on that shortly afterward. Many witnesses were farmers, as one would expect from that era, and they were seeing things from the ground. Some provided detailed accounts of "airships", while other offered no details (and maybe they just saw strange lights in the sky). Could it be possible that the word "airship" was used as "flying saucer" was used in the 1950s and 1960s to report all kinds of weird things in the sky that were not necessarily saucers? Then, when pressed by journalists to offer more details about the "airship", they made it up? We are now used to the word "UFO" which is a bit less clear on the shape and offers more room for variation, although it is still implying something solid, "an object". In a sense, it could be an attractor, in the sense that those words become an obligatory passage point for something to be reported? After all, the original chaos theory is based on "reported" standardized data about weather, like temperature, barometric pressure, etc.