The true, interwoven history of flying saucers in American folklore.
The term “flying saucer” conjures up images of campy science fiction films from the 50s and 60s, with people in shiny metallic suits backed by experimental electronic music. They were something of a national obsession for a while, with “saucers” reported in the sky manned by everyone from Russians to little green men. Air Force pilots chased them to their doom, and occasionally they would crash and spawn legends like Roswell. It turns out that the true genesis of flying saucer folklore is at least as fascinating as any of the fables themselves, and a worthy place to turn our skeptical eye.
Most historians of the strange trace flying saucers back to a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold, who had an encounter while flying his small plane in Washington state on June 24, 1947. His was not especially unusual; UFOs had always been reported, and there was nothing new about aliens; this was nearly a decade after Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Arnold’s story was merely the first time the term “saucer” had been used, when it was reported in the East Oregonian newspaper the next day, on June 25:
He said he sighted nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation at 3. p.m. yesterday, extremely bright — as if they were nickel plated — and flying at an immense rate of speed. He estimated they were at an altitude between 9,500 and 10,000 feet and clocked them from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams, arriving at the amazing speed of about 1200 miles an hour. “It seemed impossible,” he said, “but there it is — I must believe my eyes.”
Arnold’s story was syndicated and made his story famous, at least in the general public’s eye; as far as the UFO literature was concerned, his story made him immortal. Buoyed by the attention, UFO stories began to get traction in the newspapers, like any trending topic. Here’s an example of one from July 8, less than two weeks later:
The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.According to information released by the department, over authority of Maj. J. A. Marcel, intelligence officer, the disk was recovered on a ranch in the Roswell vicinity, after an unidentified rancher had notified Sheriff Geo. Wilcox, here, that he had found the instrument on his premises…After the intelligence officer here had inspected the instrument it was flown to higher headquarters.The intelligence office stated that no details of the saucer’s construction or its appearance had been revealed.
This one may sound familiar to you. It is, of course, the original newspaper article that launched the Roswell canon of alien lore.