15 January 2024


Chris Aubeck. Saucers. Tracing the Origin of Disk-Shaped UFOs. Aubeck, 2023.

Flying saucers first arrived on the scene in 1947, we all know that. Well we are all wrong, they have been around since at least 1885. And as soon as they arrived on the scene people started shooting at them. Fortunately this did not start a 'war of the worlds', as being shot at was what these paricular flying saucers were designed for.
Created by an Ohian inventor called George Ligowsky, who was inspired by seeing boys at the seaside skipping shells across the water (sound familiar?) these 'flying saucers' were what we now more usually call 'clay pigeons', used in competitive shooting contests. As well as their sporting use, flying saucers were also used in military training, particularly for aerial gunners.

One of the people who was keenest on this form of target practice was the chief of the US Army Airforce - General Henry H. Arnold. Aubeck comments: "Within a mere span of two and a half years, the public's association of 'flying saucers' shifted from one Arnold to an entirely different Arnold." 

The Authorised Version of ufology has it that Kenneth Arnold never actually described the objects he saw on that fateful day in 1947 as "saucer shaped", and the term derived from a misquotation by a journalist who conflated his description of their movement with their physical appearance.

The process by which Arnold's graphic phrase was quoted and misquotated is laid out in some detail. The reporter Bill Bequette is usually blamed for falsely using the phrase 'flying saucer' to describe the shape rather that the motion of the objects, but the truth is rather more complex. Bequett actually used Arnold's 'bat-like shape' description in his original report for the East Oregonian newspaper. It was a later report by Associated Press that omitted the 'bat-like' description but kept the saucer analogy from Arnold's initial statement, This was the version that most Americans read and assumed that it referred to the shape of the objects.

But it is fair to point out that Arnold himself described the objects in different ways at different times, including as looking like a 'pie plate', which clearly indicates a flattened, disc-shaped object. He spent some time revisiting and revising his description of what he saw, at times describing then as crescents, bat-shaped and half-moons, and produced sketches whch varied from a 'flying wing' to an almost complete circle. I was also surprised at reading about how many other UFO sightings Arnold reported, sometimes many years after the original event.

But once the phrase 'flying saucer' was out there, by whatever process, there was no going back. Maybe it was because of the familiarity of the shooting targets or just because it sounded so cool, that it quickly became attached to almost any celestial anomaly. The attractive catchiness of the name was soon demonstrated by the way the flying saucer was exploited commercially. Aubeck presents newspaper advertisments from the late forties and early fifties using 'saucers' to promote anything from savings banks to car dealerships, jewellery and confectionary. And a particularly sickly-sweet form of sherbert confectionary is still marketed under that name today.

But although the name was everywhere, reports of actual flying saucers weren't. Aubeck finds that reports of flying discs form only a tiny percentage of UFO reports overall, and most of those were from the early days of the phenomenon. In the [US] National UFO Reporting Center's analysis of 145,500 sighting reports from 1980 to the present, just under 6% reference a disc or saucer shaped object, and a more recent analysis by the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office [AARO] finds that only 2% of cases collected since 1996 have been of saucer shaped objects

And when did you last see a report of a 'disc-shaped' UFO? So passé. Now we are more likely to read of flying triangles or 'tic-tacs', both shapes which can easily be conjured from a vaguely described phenomenon. Some people seem to find it remarkable that any combination of three lights in the sky will form a 'flying triangle'.

But what of the pre-history of UFOs, surely there are some there? Well of course there were the airships in the 1890s and the 1900s, and mystery airplanes in the 1930s, and ghost-rockets in the immediate post-WWII era. And before the airships there were phantom sailing-ships (vide the Magonia logo), balls of fire (still a popular theme), as well as cigar-shapes, shields, spears and an infinite variety of geometric shapes. Searchers for pre-Arnold saucers claim to have found descriptions of saucers in documents and artworks from earlier centuries, but as Aubeck points out "Unexplained events served religious and political agendas . . . a critical and nuanced reading is required" [1]

The only place where flying saucer shaped craft were found in any great numbers pre-Arnold was in the SF pulps of the 1930s. Here they quite consciously introduced to represent futuristic craft which were unlike anything ever seen previously. They were something truly alien, but that they also referred back to the high-speed spinning clay-pigeon targets that many people were already familar with, showing that they were seen as an aerodynamically effective shape. 

Maybe prompted by such thoughts some aircraft designers were beginning to look at whether circular or near-circular craft could be a realistic proposition. Just a month before Arnold's experience the popular magazine Mechanix Illustrated carried a report about the 'Flying Flapjack'. This was a vaguely circular propellor-driven craft, the invention of Charles Horton Zimmerman, who had, with a number of other designers, been working on the concept of circular winged aircraft since the nineteen thirties.

In 1942 he produced a prototype called the Skimmer, which seemed promising, and in 1943 the US Navy commissioned a prototype. Although successful in test flights it was scrapped almost immediately, the development of jet engines making it obsolete. The prototype version, the XF5U-1, was suggested at the time as perhaps being what Arnold had witnessed. Aubeck quotes the almost prophetic final senstence of the Mechanix Illustrated article: "Don't be amazed when one of these days you hear a whirring sound from the sky and see a blurred circular object scaling across the heavens, at a speed never before attained by man." It looks very much as though 1947 was 'flying saucer time', to adapt Charles Fort's famous phrase.

What becomes obvious from reading this book is that the appearance of the 'flying saucer' phenomenon was the result of an unlikely series of incidents centred around one flight by one pilot. What if on that day in June 1947 Arnold had taken off in his CallAir A-2 ten minutes earlier or later? Would the whole huge UFO/UAP circus that surrounds us now ever had happened? It seems unlikely that it would. Kenneth Arnold provided a category which allowed a wide range of stimuli to be combined into the social construct known as the UFO phenomenon.

Chris Aubeck has produced a meticulous historical account with hundreds of examples, often very amusing, of the growth, world-wide spread and eventual decline of the 'flying saucer' meme. Kenneth Arnold's achievement, in just one casual phrase, and by being in the right place at the right time, was to create a phenomenon which took on a life of its own, and went on to change the world in some small way.. This well-illustrated book documents that process clearly and entertainingly.
  • John Rimmer

[1]  For an example of this, see John Harney's explanation of a strange aerial phenomenon at the time of the English Civil War: 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article and presentation of the work of Chris Aubek.