UFO Conjecture(s)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What were the Airships of the 1890s?

Copyright 2013, InterAmerica, Inc.
“At 5:45 on the evening of August 27, 1783, the inhabitants of the village of Gonesse, ten miles northeast of Paris, noticed what some of them took to be the moon descending from the sky … for most eighteenth-century peasants, even those who lived within striking distance of the metropolis, supernatural interventions were everyday events, but this was something without precedent … As the mysterious object blundered earthward, it assumed the appearance of a gigantic, shapeless bag of red and white silk … the terrified peasants of Gonesse deliberately destroyed the unmanned alien craft … Some took to their heels; others knwlt down and invoked their patron saint.

“Six years before the French Revolution, and outlandish object … The peasants of Gonesse were … right to be wary.”

Now, is the above from the Aubeck/Vallee book Wonders in the Sky or from an arcane UFO site on the internet?

No, it’s from a review in The New York Review of Books [December 5, 2013, Adventures in a Silver Cloud, Page 4] of the book. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes [Pantheon, 404 pp. $35].

Graham Robb, the reviewer, provides excerpts that “explain,” for me, what the Airships of the late 19th Century might have possibly been.

Robb writes that “some of the aeronauts, even those who had serious intentions, behaved like irresponsible superior beings. On a dark November night in 1836, the English balloonist Charles Green, accompanied by an Irish musician and a member of the British Parliament, was floating invisibly over ‘the unearthly glare of the fiery foundries’ of Belgium, close enough to hear the coughing and swearing of the foundry workers. He lowered a Bengal light on a rope until its dazzling flare was skimming over the workers’ heads. Then he urged one of his companions to shout out in Franch and German through a speaker trumpet ‘as if some supernatural power was visiting them from on high.’ He amazed the ‘honest artizans’ trembling like a primitive tribe, ‘looking up at the object of their terrors.’ [Page 4]

“The first American flight was made from Philadelphia in 1793 by the French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, with an ‘aerial passport’ endorsed by George Washington. Vast crowds were entertained by acrobats parachuting from balloons.”

One of Blanchard’s protégées “Sophie Blanchard flew – and sometimes fell asleep – in a small gondola, which [author] Holmes likens to ‘a flying champagne bucket.’”

“It was as though the balloon really had arrived from another planet…” [Page 4]

“…for most balloonists, the main purpose of what Victor Hugo called ‘the floating egg’ was to feed the imagination  and to fill the mind with awe.
“In ballooning, ‘the  boundaries between fact and fiction remain curiously porous…The balloons\ tales themselves often verge on the incredible … Before and after Edgar Allen Poe’s hoax news story of 1844. ‘The Balloon Hoax’ … balloons and the tales attached to them had an air of unreality.

“…Coleridge’s term ‘suspension of disbelief’ takes on a new, strangely literal meaning.” [Page 6]

“[A] mail balloon that almost plunged into Lake Ontario in 1859 eventually struggled on to the eastern shore of the lake …Some homesteaders came to see what had happened and stood about while the aeronauts tried to assemble the wreckage.

“ … an elderly lady … expressed her astonishment at seeing…’so sensible-looking a party [riding] in such an outlandish-looking vehicle. She anxiously enquired where [the crew] came from; and when told from St. Louis, she wanted to know how far that was from there, and when informed it was over a thousand miles, she looked very suspiciously … and said, ‘That will do now.’” [Page 8]

As one can see from reviewer Robb’s excerpts from Holmes’ book, many of the balloon tales are strikingly similar to the Airship wave reports thirty-seven (or so) years later.

Coupling the similarities with the odd story of the semi-secret Sonora Aero Club in Sonora, California, in the late 19th century, derived from the writings of C.A.A. Dellschau, who described the club’s exotic airships called “aeros” [See David Richie’s account in his 1994 book UFO: The Definitive Guide to Unidentified Flying Objects and Related Phenomena, MJF Books, NY] one might attribute the Airship wave to accounts of adventurous balloonists who configured their balloons with technology of the time that allowed them to maneuver in ways that took the indecisiveness out of such travels as those enumerated in Richard Holmes’ book.

This explanation is far better, it seems to me, than that of French skeptic Gilles Fernandez, who attributes the Airship wave to psycho/social factors brought on by newspaper accounts and drawings and the presence of Venus in the night/day sky.

(I’ll provide a more elaborate account of the Sonora Aero Club, upcoming.)



  • What struck me regarding Gille’s original theory that compounded into other theories was the essential critical assumptions that all eyewitness accounts are to treated as being equal which struck me as reductionism at the service of promoting an answer in lieu of one being verifiable. In other words, everyone concerned was mistaken. While I commented in the previous post that some were likely mistaken when it came to steam generation as a source of propulsion, the testimony of the shop foreman for the streetcar system in Sacramento cast doubt on mistaking a searchlight for a planet. What would be interesting is to give some MIT students the project assignment of creating such an airship with only the technologies and materials that were available at that time. I suspect it could be done, despite the fact that some reports were plagiarized directly from previous accounts, but really did not require psychological quirks, rather it seems to be a case of ballyhoo in the service of promoting this town or that in the big city newspapers. The parallels with current events and how they are “handled” theoretically is unmistakable.

    By Blogger Bruce Duensing, at Sunday, November 17, 2013  

  • Excellent post. This is a perfectly reasonable and rational explanation for what hundreds of people observed in the sky over the years. Giles, suck up man, and admit that your "theory" requires a far greater (and unecessary) leap of faith than what Rich has posted.

    By Blogger Dominick, at Sunday, November 17, 2013  

  • Rich:

    As I understand it, the Sonora Aero Club (SAC) was, at best, a bunch of guys who got together every few months to collectively fantasize about flying and then go for drinks afterwards. There is no indication that they individually or collectively had either the intellectual or physical resources to actually build and fly anything.

    I used to make drawings like the SAC did when I was about 5 or 6 years old, and they seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time--unencumbered as I was by any actual knowledge or experience. It took about 4 or 5 years of graduate school at Stanford to be able to create a design that could be shown mathematically to satisfy all the equations for Weight, Lift, Drag, Propulsive Thrust, balance and control, etc. After another 30 years or so of employment as a professional aerospace engineer designing and test flying both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft, I think I can distinguish between competent designs and incompetent ones. To cut to the chase, I don’t think the sketches and collages shown in the SAC literature represent designs that could actually fly.

    So, I wouldn’t bet the farm that the SAC specifically had any role in creating anything that was seen flying in the skies of California.

    That is not to deny that someone in late 19th century California might have been surreptitiously building and flying lighter-than-air craft, just that it probably wasn’t the SAC.

    By Blogger Larry, at Sunday, November 17, 2013  

  • Larry,

    I agree pretty much. I wasn't promoting the idea that the Sonora Club was responsible for the Airship sightings.

    I mentioned the Club as I plan to do a piece on it, and think the mind-set of the era was similar to that of of the aeronauts (balloonists) that Holmes' book covered extensively.


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Sunday, November 17, 2013  

  • This explanation is far better,

    A somewhat puzzling statement considering the complete lack of evidence supporting the existence of the SAC. Will a new Dream Team be able to unearth fresh evidence ?

    Not convinced of Gilles's hypothesis either.

    By Blogger Yvan D., at Sunday, November 17, 2013  

  • Gilles Fernandez deleted all his comments, which messed up the litany here, so from here on out we won't be accepting any of Gilles' comments or postings.

    His skepticism is irksome anyway, and based on ignorance.


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Sunday, November 17, 2013  

  • You should not ban people you disagree with, unless or until they become 'dangerous' in the sense they are threatening (as a terrorist), extremely racist (Ku Klux Klan, etc) or in favor of the abuse of children and/or the elderly.

    I know it can de difficult in that there are borderline cases and types who get boring and tiresome.

    Gilles certainly does not fall into any of these categories.

    By Blogger cda, at Monday, November 18, 2013  

  • CDA:

    I like Gilles. And I took time to make two of his reports here readable, his English being so poor.

    But by deleting his comments here, which were just stupid, causing me much aggravation to remove entirely and correct the thread was irksome, but then I see he removed me as a Facebook friend for some reason.

    Gilles is irrational, more than I am.

    His skepticism is just awful, cute but ignorant.

    I'm not banning him.

    He banned himself.


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Monday, November 18, 2013  

  • I stopped by to read further comments on this post and was fairly flummoxed to find your comments hopscotched across the deletions by Gilles..and the first thought to cross my my mind was this was an example of evangelistic petulance on his part, which then became another knee jerk reaction form yours truly..What did Gilles expect? I enjoyed his one track mind in regard to the subject matter and would have further enjoyed his comments as a way to "play" ping-pong with them which always makes for variety..and an enjoyable past rime.
    Another odd thing is that there is more often than not, a lack of consensus here which, considering again, the subject matter should not come as a surprise and should be, for the sake of the debate welcomed...but.. I cannot help but think sometimes the subject matter seems to bring out folks who lack a sense of an arm's length balance toward it as none of us ( I would hope) take it overly seriously.

    By Blogger Bruce Duensing, at Monday, November 18, 2013  

  • I'm not sure exactly why Gilles deleted his comments (and me from his Facebook friend-list).

    But I conjecture that he finally realized that his comments, like his views, are not academic or even sensible.

    They lack cogency which I've attributed to his poor English usage and understanding but looking at his Facebook photos, I see a man who has ego problems.

    And when he puts in a jerky comment here, he gets piled on, which deflates his French-forum supported image as a skeptical dilettante.

    (He was ousted once from the French forum he now frequents and lauds, but I don't know why.)

    Anyway, his goofy ego needs conflict with my own so one of us had to go.


    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Monday, November 18, 2013  

  • In reply to Bruce there are plenty of people who do take ufology extremely seriously, although they may well not contribute to this forum.

    In my younger days I looked forward to the great revelation, which I seriously thought was coming quite soon. It did not and as time went by I began to see the funny side of UFOs and the lunacy of some of its serious proponents.

    But it is still a semi-serious subject, which has expanded into all sorts of related avenues (and some unrelated ones).

    But, yes a sense of humor is certainly needed. You don't know whether to laugh or cry at some of the stuff that permeates this subject. I am thinking mainly of the conspiracy angle and some of the dotty pronouncements of the 'dream team' brigade.

    But I shall shut up now. It is time for me to get serious - about other matters.

    Unrelated topic:
    How many knew that JFK, Aldous Huxley and C.S.Lewis all died on the same day - yes the very same day? Any thoughts of conspiracy here?

    By Blogger cda, at Monday, November 18, 2013  

  • Off topic...as usual for CDA but I shall bite: the conspiracy comes from an insane God.

    By Blogger RRRGroup, at Monday, November 18, 2013  

  • Really interesting stuff, RR, thanks for posting. I agree with Larry's doubts, but your hypothesis is at least plausible. And in those days, you could get away with a few perhaps slightly inebriated experiments and the iPhone camera was not yet invented...

    By Blogger Sapient, at Wednesday, November 20, 2013  

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