It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine: digging for information about mysterious airships that may have been in production during the middle and late 1800s.

Long surmised as being cultural “predecessors” to modern UFO sightings, the majority of the newspaper reports detailing such incidents, particularly those pertaining to a wave of sightings that occurred between 1896 and 1897, have been dismissed as being likely newspaper hoaxes. Skeptically minded researchers have argued in the past what only seemed logical: that the technology to build aircraft similar to dirigibles simply didn’t exist in the nineteenth century, at least on a scale to match the descriptions of aircraft being witnessed at the time.

In truth, many of the airship reports from the 1890s–perhaps a majority–seemed to be riddled with absurdities. One hum dinger from the period involved a farmer who came upon one of the landed ships, whose occupants, a man and a woman who were apparently naturists on the planet they hailed from, were enjoying a bit of nude sunbathing as they indicated to the amazed farmer their extraterrestrial origins. In the midst of such claims, it becomes hard, at times, to hope for a germ of truth to emerge in the midst of silliness, and as is often the case, if any truth were to exist, it becomes overshadowed by the more sensational absurdities that accompany it.

Then there were the reports from locations like San Francisco and parts of Texas, where names of officials and prominent citizens with certain municipalities were given in the newspaper reports, all of whom had purportedly witnessed these “aircraft” themselves. Of course, even minor details such as these, while lending a bit more credibility with their specificity, really are not enough yet to substantiate the airships and their existence.

The big question remains as follows: did the technology to build airships like this even exist in the 1890s? Interestingly, yes, some technology on par with the airships did exist, and in fact, record of a few crude attempts to build such things dates back even further, to around a half century before the reports of aircraft began to appear in the San Francisco area.

Even before hopeful aviators in Europe began constructing their versions of primitive airships in the 1870s, inventor Solomon Andrews had begun pursuing ways to fund the construction of an airship here in the United States. One design he had created dates back as early as 1847, for which he was unsuccessful in gaining financial support to build. However, his project resurfaced again in the 1860s, as discussed in this excerpt from a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery News piece:

While serving with the Union army in 1862, Andrews became convinced that a navigable, lighter-than-air craft would prove vastly superior to the tethered balloons that were used for military reconnaissance. He resigned his commission and, at his own expense, began constructing the world’s first self-propelled, steerable airship. Comprising three cigar-shaped balloons, a rudder, and an operator’s car equipped with moveable weights, the Aereon made its maiden flight on June 1, 1863. Employing the same principle that enables a sailboat to sail into the wind, Andrews demonstrated the Aereon’s ability to travel in any direction as he circled his craft above an incredulous crowd.

Encouraged by success of his prototype, Andrews began an energetic campaign to interest federal officials in the airship the New York Herald called “the most extraordinary invention of the age.” He secured an audience with President Lincoln, petitioned Congress, and even flew a model of the Aereon in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian “Castle” for members of a special scientific commission that included Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. Andrews’s efforts were unrewarded, however, for the Aereon failed to secure government backing.

To put things in perspective a bit, it is interesting that until more recently, information about early aviators such as Andrews had seemed to elude the debates about whether an airship had, in fact, been seen over parts of California and other areas between 1896-97. With the publication of books like Tom Crouch’s The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), some of the more obscure records of early flight in America began to make their way to to wider audiences. Still, the greatest exposure for such obscure bits of history came with the advent of the Internet Age, and the accessibility to information that it provided.

Looking again at the 1896-97 reports, I had previously documented my research pertaining to plans to develop Charles Abbott Smith’s patent for an airship design in an article at Mysterious Universe earlier this year. It seemed, at the time, according to the reports in the press (as well as the actual patent papers still on file) that Smith, a San Francisco inventor, had indeed garnered attention from potential investors; despite the publicity Smith received, it remains unclear whether or not the aircraft ever got off the ground, in the most literal sense (in likelihood, it didn’t. However, I’ll note here that there is an interesting, though obscure, book I hope to read on this subject, The Secret Life of Dr. Charles Abbott Smith: San Francisco’s 19th-Century Airship Inventor by Timothy C. Parrott, which seems a bit difficult to track down).

The well-documented plans for the Smith project, while perhaps a dead end in terms of an aircraft ever being built, may still aid in unraveling whether there had been any truth behind the airship reports that would begin to appear later that year, especially when compared with the largely speculative information often cited in support of theories about the 1890s airships in other literature.

That’s not to say that speculation is always a bad thing, of course. Two authors who have engaged in speculation about the airship mysteries do come to mind that, in my opinion, offer some interesting perspectives on the matter. J. Allen Danalek’s book, The Great Airship of 1897, and Walter Bosley’s Empire of the Wheel II: Friends From Sonora (which I am presently reading), both look at this from the perspective that there may have been inventors working with groups that attained private funding for projects which, carried out in secret, were aimed at building a functional airship.

In Danalek’s interpretation, the project was based outside San Francisco, with independent funding supplied by a secret investor. But why, many have asked, would anything like this have been carried out secretively?

I’ve given this question some consideration as well, and to whether such a project had indeed ever been in the works (that is still a very big if… I want to be clear on that point, as I have still yet to find any credible evidence that presents a substantial, hard link to any airship operations in the 1890s on par with what the infamous, and perhaps fictional news articles of the day were describing, despite what many consider to be at least a few credible reports among them, as discussed previously). To me, it really isn’t that difficult to discern why such secrecy would have been involved, since in many cases, the objective with innovation is to attempt to produce new technology for commercial purposes. In fact, well after the end of the Civil War, Solomon Andrews revisited his airship idea yet again, this time seeking to wrangle funding for what he envisioned as an aerial transit system between New York and Philadelphia. Had the project been seen through to completion, it might have been the first commercial aerial transit to operate in America.

With commercial interests in mind, it does seem possible that any similar project underway in California in the 1890s could have been carried out with at least a fair degree of secrecy, so as to protect the project development and help prevent competitors from capitalizing on ideas made publicly available. In the unlikely event that, for instance, Charles Abbott Smith’s designs had been the project behind some of the 1896-97 airship stories, his plans actually were fairly widely publicized, and as I’ve pointed out, are available for review today… right down to the patent papers, and even the names of companies that had been interested in investment opportunities related to the project. Furthermore, last October the SF Gate featured an article that discussed the “rapture” that erupted in the media (and not just in America) in response to California’s now-obscure history of pre-Wright Brothers aviation experimentation. Knowledge of their existence shows that since there had been numerous individuals attempting to construct airships in California at that time, there may be some merit to the idea of certain inventors working secretly in order to protect their ideas. Still, I would also argue that the existing documentation of these projects from that period, while afforded less attention today, shows that at least the majority of the operations seeking to capitalize on aircraft travel at the time weren’t secretive at all. Finally, I would wager that some of the inferred “secrecy” has been in large part due to modern associations being made between the various airships reported in newspaper accounts of the 1890s, and purported UFO incidents that would be widely publicized beginning several decades later.

The other aforementioned author, Walter Bosley, brings an approach that is a bit different with his Empire of the Wheel II (again, admitting my own fascination with this subject, I’ll tell you I enjoy the book very much, keeping in mind that Walter’s approach is very speculative, which he is very clear about from the outset). Bosley’s premise relies, in part, on the records that emerged some time back, kept by one Charles A. Dellschau, who claimed that he had been a draftsman for a secretive group called the Sonora Aero Club, which operated somewhat under the oversight of a larger entity called “NYMZA”. While many have cast doubts over the legitimacy of Dellschau’s records, Walter’s book does make some interesting inquiries into the affair, and raises some compelling questions about how such a group–if they existed–might have been related to certain other tangible threads that can be traced to the period, which serve as the fundamental element behind the book’s subtitle, “Friends From Sonora.” Following this scenario, the idea that the airships were operating in secret had everything to do with their use in achieving further goals, which Bosley suggests had ties to a German nationalist operation underway at the time.

This is where some curious ideas about possible connections with modern UFOs begin to come to mind. Several commentators, including Bosley, Joseph P. Farrell, Richard Dolan, and a few others, have given consideration to how and, more importantly, why the idea of secret aviation operations carried out over the years might have some relationship with modern UFO reports. Specifically, this entails an idea that there is what Dolan, to my knowledge, first coined as the idea of a “Breakaway Civilization” that operates in the periphery of modern human society, and utilizes funding derived from black budget programs carried out worldwide to achieve incredible technological prowess.

The funding mechanisms for such an operation have become a central focus of the written works of one of the aforementioned authors, Joseph Farrell, over the last several years; arguably, anyone who studies the historical precedent for (and possible implications of) secret financing and black budget funding applied to secretive technologies certainly will find that this is something that does occur in the modern world. Whether or not such funding serves as the underpinnings for an otherwise baffling literature pertaining to advanced, and seemingly exotic aerial phenomena is, while still firmly in the realm of speculation, nonetheless more plausible than the notion of ongoing extraterrestrial visitation to Earth… information about which is purported to be withheld by our governments.

In this scenario, much of what we have called “UFO phenomenon” in the last century, rather than representative of extraterrestrials paying us occasional visits, is actually tied to operations taking place right here on Earth that utilize such secretive sources of funding. This had certainly been among the opinions expressed by Catherine Austin Fitts, president of Solari, Inc., and a managing member of Solari Investment Advisory Services, LLC, when she alluded to such projects in her article, What’s Up With The Black Budget? – The $64 Question.

But what does all of this have to do with airship reports from the 1890s?

Sure, drawing connections between the two seems to be a bit of a stretch, but I will admit that I have wondered about this possible–though perhaps tenuous–relationship myself. In essence, it comes down to this: reports of highly-advanced aircraft, perhaps even those dating back to the nineteenth century, might indicate more about operations occurring since that time which have been privately or covertly funded than many of us realize. If we were to lend any credence to claims by those the likes of Charles Dellaschau, it has been inferred for some time now, and rather explicitly, that there have been secret groups involved with advanced aviation technologies that date back to the 1850s. Perhaps there have been others since then, just as well.

One element that draws the most criticism, of course, is the question of why such technology, if it truly exists, has never appeared to engage itself with worldly affairs during such periods as wartime. Some books have been written about the subject of UFOs appearing during periods of conflict, such as Mack Maloney’s aptly titled UFOs in Wartime, in which the author suggests an actual increase in UFO reports in conjunction with wars. However, during discussions I’ve had with Maloney, he has asked, for instance, if Germany had been building anything akin to “flying saucers”, then how come their access to such advanced technology didn’t turn the tides of war in their favor? Generally, the theme appears to be that these aircraft, while occasionally documented by credible sources, and even afforded attention by world military organizations, seem to carry out their operations mysteriously… and rather conveniently, well apart from the concerns of humanity and the rest of the world at large.

Indifferent, to an extent, and perhaps even plainly detached from humanity… and yet, strangely invested in Earthly happenings. Indeed, this might be a way to describe UFOs… especially if they are to be interpreted as a valid, tangible phenomenon of our modern world, rather than a mixture of myth and tangibility woven around various secret aircraft programs employed since the dawn of the Cold War era. And if there is truly any connection whatsoever between them and those fantastical “mystery airships” of yesteryear, it would seem that they are no more merely a “modern” phenomenon of the last few decades, than they are likely to represent anything so foreign to us as alien visitors, either.

Perhaps we need not compare the two at all, in truth. I only bring the notions of “Breakaway Civilizations” and UFOs into the discussion here because of how they relate to the broader speculative narrative about secret aviation technologies over time. But one thing is certainly clear: with the broader availability of historic data that we have been able to access in recent years, the more likely it has begun to seem that some of the airship flaps of the 1800s might have actually had some basis in fact. Perhaps rather than merely being media hoaxes, or even the early, pre-steampunk counterparts to our modern UFOs, some of the airships of the 1800s could point to evidence of the real exploits of intrepid inventors, whose aim had been to conquer the skies, and perhaps also to revolutionize human travel and transportation along the way.

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7 Comments

  1. I’ve never understood why the bulk of these reports has never been taken at face value in their essence, if not in every detail.

  2. 120 years later and still no evidence is simply a lack of evidence, not a lack of plausibility! Of course, im not a french liberal arts major who transcribes jules verne books for a living and firmly believes that everyone in the 1890’s read jules vernes books and either hallucinated these events or simply made up their own in that context. As far as ufos go…im a fermi follower…no one gets past the great filters. Im prepared though, to give a handful of avid and if neccessary, secretive american inventors the benefit of at least some doubt. JV be dammed!

  3. the reason it’s not taken at face value, is because the people that encounter these ships or UFO always described the beings as people that look just like us.

  4. Parrott’s book is easily available. It is self-published, Print-on-Demand. You have only to contact him.

    I spent 5 years researching Dellschau and wrote an unpublished biography. Contacted several Dellschau researchers, most of whom are no longer with us. Research included much on the ground in Sonora and time with a now deceased person who was one of California’s most knowledgeable gold rush historians, historians – even considering Kevin Starr.

    Bosley writes well and is very readable, but as regards Dellschau, he is more than a bit off in his evaluations.

  5. My grandfather was a child in Marion County Alabama during the period of the airship sightings. He told us about seeing an airship, more than once, flying over the countryside. In fact, he and his brothers would go out on summer nights on a hillside and wait to see it. He said they could always here it coming because it had engines that made noise but also because it played music. He described it a metallic and cigar-shaped with electric lights and windows similar to portholes, through which they could see faces of people. He and his brothers always waved to the people and whomever they were, they waved back. When my grandfather first mentioned this, it was in the 70’s and a story had been printed recapping the old tale of the crash in Aurora, TX. He saw the story on the news and told my mother that it sounded like what they used to see in Alabama. My mother didn’t believe him at first, but a few weeks later, she had the opportunity to speak privately with my grandfather’s surviving brother. When asked about seeing an airship as a kid, he laughed and said he hadn’t thought about that in over 80 years – but he then told the same story as my grandfather. He also hummed what he could remember of the music it played to them and said that, as a child, he thought it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When my mother asked them both why they didn’t think the whole thing was strange, they said they lived so far out in the country, they just thought that was something big city folks did.

    1. Author

      Patti, that is a very interesting story… thank you for sharing it! Stories like these still fascinate me, and I can’t help but wonder if there might be further evidence that will emerge one day, which helps shed light on whether certain predecessors to modern aircraft were indeed being constructed as early as the latter half of the 19th century.

  6. Cool paper but it not explain the 16 -17 & 18 centuries repotsorts of objects flying in the sky …. there was not planes made at those times.

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