cover of fate magazine

The cover of the first issue of Fate depicted a highly sensationalized version of Ken­neth Arnold's encounter.

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UFO History: The 1947 Kenneth Arnold UFO Sighting

The date was June 24, 1947, a Tuesday; the time, just before three o'clock in the afternoon. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot and fire-control-equipment salesman from Boise, Idaho, was flying over the Cascade Mountains searching for the remains of a lost C-46 for which a $5,000 reward had been offered.

Arnold never found the missing aircraft, but what he did see put his name in newspapers all over the world. He had just made a 180-degree turn over Mineral, Washington, when a bright flash of light startled him. During the next 30 seconds, Arnold frantically searched the sky for its source -- he was afraid he was about to collide with another airplane. Then he saw another flash to his left, toward the north. When he looked in that direction, Arnold spotted nine objects, the lead one at a higher elevation than the rest, streaking south over Mount Baker toward Mount Rainier. Watching their progress from one peak to the next, he calculated their speed at 1,700 miles per hour. Even when he arbitrarily knocked 500 miles off that estimate, Arnold was still dealing with an impossible speed figure.

The objects, darting in and out of the smaller peaks, periodically flipped on their sides in unison. As they did so, the sunlight reflected off their lateral surfaces -- thus explaining the flashes that had first caught his attention. Arnold wrote later, "They were flying diagonally in an echelon formation with a larger gap in their echelon between the first four and the last five." The lead object looked like a dark crescent; the other eight were flat and disc-shaped. Arnold estimated that the chain they comprised was five miles long. After two and a half minutes, they disappeared, heading south over Mount Adams. The age of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) had begun.

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photo of kenneth arnold

Although strange aerial phenomena had been sighted for decades, it was Kenneth Arnold's report of "flying saucers" over Mount Rainier, Washington, on June 24, 1947, that brought unidentified flying objects into popular consciousness.

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The Arrival of Flying Saucers

The day after his sighting, Kenneth Arnold told his story to two reporters for Pendleton's East Oregonian. One of the reporters, Bill Bequette, put the story on the Associated Press wires. Within days, as similar sightings erupted around the country, an anonymous headline writer coined the phrase "flying saucers." But that name was not entirely original. On January 25, 1878, a Texas newspaper, the Denison Daily News, remarked on a local event that had taken place three days earlier. On the morning of January 22, farmer John Martin noted the swift passage, through the southern sky, of something like a "large saucer." The newspaper said, "Mr. Martin is a gentleman of undoubted veracity and this strange occurrence, if it was not a balloon, deserves the attention of our scientists."

There ­were as many as 18 other sightings of strange flying objects in the Pacific Northwest that same June 24. For example, that morning prospector Fred M. Johnson had spotted five or six "round, metallic-looking discs" about 30 feet in diameter and 1,000 feet above him. He focused a telescope on one and saw that it had tails or fins (unlike those Arnold would observe a few hours later). For the duration of the sighting -- close to a minute -- Johnson's compass needle spun wildly, stopping only after the discs headed off to the southeast.

Actually, sightings of silvery discs had been going on since at least April 1947, when a U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist and his staff had tracked a large, flat-bottomed ellipsoid as it shot from east to west over the skies of Richmond, Virginia. Sightings of similar objects took place the next month in Oklahoma, Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia, and New Jersey. These incidents went unnoted in the local press until after Kenneth Arnold's sighting opened the way to publication of such stories.

By the late 1940s Air Force investigators had taken to calling such things "unidentified flying objects." This was meant to be a neutral term, but skeptics complained that the words "flying" and "objects" implied both craft and intelligent guidance. Everyone could agree, though, that this phrase was better than the silly-sounding "flying saucers," which described only some of the aerial oddities people were reporting in the United States and around the world. Some of these phenomena looked like big metal cigars or fire-spewing torpedoes; others were spheres, triangles, or V shapes; and many were simply bright lights zigzagging across the night sky.

For the next 45 years, UFOs would be the focus of ceaseless controversy, wonderment, weirdness, fabrication, derision, mystification and, once in a while, serious investigation. Throughout this article, many UFO phenomena are discussed; each story is presented from the perspective of the witness who experienced the event.

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broadsheet depicting 1561 ufo sighting

Nuremberg broadsheet tells of an April 14, 1561, aerial battle involving a variety of strange objects -- globes, crosses, and tubes -- that turned to steam upon hitting the ground (lower right). People viewed the event as a divine warning.

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Ancient and Medieval UFOs

In A.D. 1211 Gervase of Tilbury, an English chronicler of historical events and curiosities, recorded this bizarre story:

There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony.

This tale -- unrelated to any other British legend or supernatural tradition -- is, according to folklorist Katharine Briggs, "one of those strange, unmotivated and therefore rather convincing tales that are scattered through the early chronicles."

In a 9th-century Latin manuscript, Liber contra insulam vulgi opinionem, the Archbishop of Lyons complained about the French peasantry's insistent belief in a "certain region called Magonia from whence come ships in the clouds." The occupants of these vessels "carry back to that region those fruits of the earth which are destroyed by hail and tempests; the sailors paying rewards to the storm wizards and themselves receiving corn and other produce." The archbishop said he had even witnessed the stoning to death of "three men and a woman who said they had fallen from these same ships." Jakob Grimm, a 19th-century folklorist, speculated, "'Magonia' takes us to some region where Latin was spoken, if we may rely on it referring to Magus, i.e., a magic land."

Are these early references to UFOs and aliens? Possibly. But references of this sort are few and far between. Although ancient and medieval records are filled with stories of strange shapes and figures in the sky, little in these accounts elicits visions of UFOs as we understand them today. Many eerie aerial phenomena of an earlier time can now be identified as meteors, comets, and auroral displays.

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illustration of shu rhys leaving with fairies

Some writers claim that traditional beliefs about fairies anticipated today's UFO encounters. Shu Rhys, a 19th-century Welsh woman, reputedly went away with fairies and never returned.

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Old Alien Sightings

Still other accounts of UFOs are rooted in culture, perhaps the result of visions or hallucinations. Just before sunset on April 16, 1651, two women in rural England supposedly witnessed a battle between armies. At the conclusion of the battle there appeared, according to a contemporary account, blue angels "about the bigness of a capon, having faces (as they thought) like owls." Neither wars nor angels in the sky were uncommon "sights" from Roman times to the early modern era. In A.D. 793 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported "fiery dragons . . . flying in the air," and almost a thousand years later, in 1762, a "twisting serpent" supposedly cavorted over Devonshire.

Along with this aerial activity were speculations and reports in popular lore of humanoid creatures dwelling in caves, bodies of water, or invisible realms. These humanoids varied widely in appearance; height alone ranged from a few inches to many feet. They possessed supernatural powers and sometimes kidnapped adults and children. These creatures, unpredictable and easily offended, were so feared that it was considered unwise to even speak their name. They were believed to be, according to one 17th-century account, "of a middle nature between man and angels." To see these humanoids, a person usually had to be in "fai-erie," meaning a state of enchantment. The traditional Anglo-Saxon name for these entities was "elves," now supplanted by "fairies."

Since 1947 some writers, notably Jacques Vallée in "Passport to Magonia," have tried to link fairies to modern UFO encounters with humanoids. But this connection is speculative at best. The reader must be willing to assume that fairies were "real" and then overlook many dissimilarities between fairies and UFO humanoids. Fairy beliefs really have more in common with ghosts, monsters, and fabulous beasts than modern accounts of encounters with UFOs.

Other writers, such as Desmond Leslie, George Hunt Williamson, M. K. Jessup, Yonah Fortner, and Brinsley le Poer Trench, also tried to find evidence of aliens visiting Earth before 1800, but their arguments are weak. Supposedly, extraterrestrials had been here for many thousands of years, leaving traces of their presence in legends and Biblical chapters as well as in such archaeological monuments as Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid, and Peru's Nazca plains. These ideas were picked up and elaborated upon in the late 1960s and 1970s by a new school of writers (most famously Erich von Daniken of Switzerland), referring to "ancient astronauts."

Serious UFO researchers -- not to mention astronomers, archaeologists, and historians -- rejected these speculations, which in their view grew out of ignorance and distortion. Critics charged that there was no evidence to support so radical a revision of history and that such speculations deliberately slighted the role of human intelligence. Still, von Daniken's books had an enormous impact on impressionable readers.

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UFOs in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, accounts of UFOs took on a more believable tone.

As day dawned June 1, 1853, students at Burritt College in Tennessee noticed two luminous, unusual objects just to the north of the rising sun. One looked like a "small new moon," the other a "large star." The first one slowly grew smaller until it was no longer visible, but the second grew larger and assumed a globular shape. (Probably the objects were moving in a direct line to and from the witnesses or remaining stationary but altering their luminosity.) Professor A. C. Carnes, who interviewed the students and reported their sighting to Scientific American, wrote, "The first then became visible again, and increased rapidly in size, while the other diminished, and the two spots kept changing thus for about half an hour. There was considerable wind at the time, and light fleecy clouds passed by, showing the lights to be confined to one place."

Carnes speculated that "electricity" might be responsible for the phenomena. Scientific American believed this was "certainly" not the case; "possibly," the cause was "distant clouds of moisture." As explanations go, this was no more compelling than electricity. It would not be the last time a report and an explanation would make a poor match.

Unspectacular though it was, the event was certainly a UFO sighting, the type of sighting that could easily occur today. It represented a new phenomenon astronomers and lay observers were starting to notice with greater frequency in the Earth's atmosphere. And some of these sights were startling indeed.

On July 13, 1860, a pale blue light engulfed the city of Wilmington, Delaware. Residents looked up into the evening sky to see its source: a 200-foot-long something streaking along on a level course 100 feet above. Trailing behind it at 100-foot intervals cruised three "very red and glowing balls." A fourth abruptly joined the other three after shooting out from the rear of the main object, which was "giving off sparkles after the manner of a rocket." The lead object turned toward the southeast, passed over the Delaware River, and then headed straight east until lost from view. The incident -- reported in the Wilmington Tribune, July 30, 1860 -- lasted one minute.

During the 1850s and 1860s in Nebraska, settlers viewed some rather unnerving phenomena. Were they luminous "serpents"? Apparently not, but instead elongated mechanical structures. A Nebraska folk ballad reported one such unusual sighting:

Twas on a dark night in '66 When we was layin' steel We seen a flyin' engine Without no wing or wheel It came a-roarin' in the sky With lights along the side And scales like a serpent's hide.

Something virtually identical was reported in a Chilean newspaper in April 1868 (and reprinted in Zoologist, July 1868). "On its body, elongated like a serpent," one of the alleged witnesses declared, "we could only see brilliant scales, which clashed together with a metallic sound as the strange animal turned its body in flight."

Lexicographer and linguist J.A.H. Murray was walking across the Oxford University campus on the evening of August 31, 1895, when he saw a:

brilliant luminous body which suddenly emerged over the tops of the trees before me on the left and moved east-ward across the sky above and in front of me. Its appearance was, at first glance, such as to suggest a brilliant meteor, considerably larger than Venus at her greatest brilliancy, but the slowness of the motion . . . made one doubt whether it was not some artificial firework. ... I watched for a second or two till [sic] it neared its culminating point and was about to be hidden from me by the lofty College building, on which I sprang over the corner . . . and was enabled to see it through the space between the old and new buildings of the College, as it continued its course toward the eastern horizon. . . . [I]t became rapidly dimmer . . . and finally disappeared behind a tree. . . . The fact that it so perceptibly grew fainter as it receded seems to imply that it had not a very great elevation. . . . [I]ts course was slower than [that of] any meteor I have ever seen.

Some 20 minutes later, two other observers saw the same or a similar phenomenon, which they viewed as it traversed a "quarter of the heavens" during a five-minute period.

But in 1896 events turned up a notch: The world experienced its first great explosion of sightings of unidentified flying objects. The beginning of the UFO era can be dated from this year. Although sightings of UFOs had occurred in earlier decades, they were sporadic and apparently rare. Also, these earlier sightings did not come in the huge concentrations ("waves" in the lingo of ufologists, "flaps" to the U.S. Air Force) that characterize much of the UFO phenomenon between the 1890s and the 1990s.

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illustration of 1896 ufo hoax

The UFO wave of 1896 and 1897 sparked great interest as well as many hoaxes. A Chicago newspaper noted an April 11 report, based on what proved to be a faked photograph.

Intercontinental U.F.O. Galactic Spacecraft Research and Analytic Network Archives

Airships in America

Between the fall of 1896 and the spring of 1897 people began sighting "airships," first in California and then across most of the rest of the United States. Most people (though not all) thought the airships were machines built by secret inventors who would soon dazzle the world with a public announcement of a break-through in aviation technology leading to a heavier-than-air flying machine.

More than a few hoaxers and sensation-seeking journalists were all too happy to play on this popular expectation. Newspaper stories quoted "witnesses" who claimed to have seen the airships land and to have communicated with the pilots. The pilots themselves were quoted word for word boasting of their aeronautical exploits and, in some instances, of their intention to drop "several tons of dynamite" on Spanish fortresses in Cuba. Any reader with access to more than one newspaper account could have seen that the stories conflicted wildly and were inherently unbelievable. We now know that no such ships existed in human technology, and no standard history of aviation ever mentions these tall tales.


But other UFO sightings appear to have been quite real. Most descriptions were of a cylindrical object with a headlight, lights along the side, and a brilliant searchlight that swept the ground. Sometimes the objects were said to have huge wings. An "airship" was observed over Oakland, California, just after 8 P.M. on November 26. One witness said the object resembled "a great black cigar. . . . The body was at least 100 feet long and attached to it was a triangular tail, one apex being attached to the main body. The surface of the airship looked as if it were made of aluminum, which exposure to wind and weather had turned dark. . . . The airship went at tremendous speed" (Oakland Tribune, December 1, 1896). Witnesses in California numbered in the thousands, partly due to the objects' appearances -- sometimes in broad daylight -- over such major cities as Sacramento and San Francisco.

By February 1897 meandering nocturnal lights were also sighted in rural Nebraska. One of these lights swooped low over a group of worshippers leaving a prayer meeting: It turned out to be a cone-shaped structure with a head-light, three smaller lights along each side, and two wings. Such reports became the subject of newspaper articles around the state, leading the Kearney Hub on February 18 to remark that the "now famous California airship inventor is in our vicinity." In short order sightings were logged in Kansas, and by April across a broad band of middle America -- from the Dakotas and Texas in the west to Ohio and Tennessee in the east-the skies were full of UFOs.

­But the skies were also full of planets, stars, lighted balloons, and kites, which impressionable observers mistook for airships. Newspapers were full of outrageous yarns: A Martian perished in an airship crash in Texas. "Hideous" creatures lassoed a calf and flew off over Kansas with it. A "bellowing" giant broke the hip of a farmer who got too close to his airship after it landed in Michigan. These stories reflect a powerful undercurrent of speculation about extraterrestrial visitors.

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In the 1950s George Hunt Williamson (left) allegedly received radio communications from extraterrestrials. He was one of the most influential figures in the contactee movement.

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UFO Sightings Before Roswell

The wave had run its course by May 1897, but cylindrical UFOs with searchlights would continue to be seen periodically for decades to come. A worldwide wave of UFO sightings took place in 1909 in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the eastern United States. As late as 1957 an "airship" was seen over McMinnville, Oregon.

Witnesses reported other kinds of UFOs, too. One such report came from U.S. Navy Lieutenant Frank H. Schofield, who served as the Pacific Fleet's commander-in-chief in the 1930s. Standing on the deck of the USS Supply on February 28, 1904, Schofield and two other sailors watched "three remarkable meteors," bright red in color, as they flew beneath the clouds toward their ship. The objects then "appeared to soar, passing above the broken clouds . . . moving directly away from the Earth. The largest had an apparent area of about six suns. It was egg-shaped, the larger end forward. The second was about twice the size of the sun, and the third, about the size of the sun. . . . The lights were in sight for over two minutes." (Monthly Weather Review, March 1904)


Far eerier stories lurked in the background. Only years later, when it was possible to talk about such things, did they come to light. One account surfaced more than 70 years later. In the summer of 1901, a 10-year-old Bournbrook, ­England, boy encountered something that looked like a box with a turret. Two little men clad in "military" uniforms and wearing caps with wires sticking out of them emerged through a door to wave him away. They then reentered the vehicle and flew away in a flash of light.

Similar events seem to have been occurring regularly over the early decades of the 20th century along with the less exotic sightings of strange aerial phenomena. These pre-1947 "close encounters of the third kind" were remarkably identical to the post-1947 reports in that the creatures who figured in the encounters were almost always held to be human or humanoid in appearance. In Hamburg, Germany, in June 1914, several "dwarfs" about four feet tall were seen milling around a cigar-shaped vessel with lighted portholes; they then ran into the vessel and flew away. In Detroit during the summer of 1922, through windows along the perimeter of a hovering disc-shaped object, 20 bald-headed figures stared intently at a suitably bewildered young couple. At Christchurch, New Zealand, in August 1944, a nurse at a train station noticed an "upturned saucer" nearby. She approached it, looked through a rectangular window, and spotted two humanoid figures not quite four feet tall. A third figure stood just outside an open door. When this humanoid saw her, the being "drifted" through an open hatchway, and the "saucer" shot straight upward.

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Charles Fort, the first ufologist, wrote the first UFO book: "The Book of the Damned," published in 1919.

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Charles Fort, the First Ufologist

Although these strange sky objects were reported with increasing frequency, the press and the scientific community treated each sighting as a one-time occurrence. There was no sense that such events, far from being isolated, were part of a larger phenomenon. Even the airship wave of 1896 and 1897 quickly passed out of the public's memory. But an eccentric American writer, Charles Fort (1874-1932), finally put it all together, becoming the world's first ufologist.

Born in Albany, New York, Fort was working as a newspaper reporter before age 20. Determined to become a writer, he traveled the world searching for experiences to write about. In South Africa Fort contracted a fever that followed him back to the United States. He married his nurse, Anna Filing, and embarked on a career as a freelance writer. Fort spent hours on end in the library pursuing his interests in nature and behavior. While paging through old newspapers and scientific journals, he began to notice, among other repeatedly chronicled oddities of the physical world, reports of strange aerial phenomena. Taking voluminous notes, he eventually turned out four books. The first three --The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), and Lo! (1931) -- dealt in part with UFO reports.

An intellectual with an impish sense of humor, Fort was fond of constructing outrageous "hypotheses" that could "explain" his data. But beneath the humor Fort was trying to make a serious point: Scientists were refusing to acknowledge that the world was full of weird phenomena and occurrences that did not fit with their theories. "Scientific" attempts to explain away such strange events as UFO sightings were laughably inadequate; their explanations, Fort wrote, were no less crazy than his own. "Science is established preposterousness," he declared. "Science of today -- superstition of tomorrow. Science of tomorrow -- superstition of today."

Behind the joking, however, Fort suspected that sightings of craftlike objects in the air indicated extraterrestrial visits to the Earth. Yet he also understood humanity's resistance to such a fantastic, even threatening notion. In a letter published in the September 5, 1926, issue of The New York Times, Fort offered some prescient observations. Extraterrestrial beings would not have to hide their activities, he wrote, because if "it is not the conventional or respectable thing upon this earth to believe in visitors from other worlds, most of us could watch them a week and declare that they were something else, and likely enough make things disagreeable for anybody who thought otherwise."

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