A view From the Bridge

The rise and fall of the UFO

Posted on behalf of Daniel Cressey

ARC028 - UFO - CoverIt seems amazing that anyone ever believed in them. In the mid-twentieth-century heyday of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), grainy pictures of flying saucers hovering in the sky were a staple even in  respectable magazines such as Time and Life. Volumes were written earnestly detailing the visits of aliens. This novel form of cold war paranoia seemed to seep into the collective psyche on both sides of the Atlantic.

For believe they did. A sizeable section of the public ate up cheap books on saucers and devoured tales of visitors from beyond our planet, whether their intent was good or ill. Fortunately for anyone enamoured of American subcultures in all their garish glory, the speculative-fiction writer Jack Womack has amassed a huge collection of these books, from sex-obsessed adult novels to earnest pseudo-academic treatises. He reproduces many of these gems in his lavishly illustrated menagerie of the tracts, Flying Saucers Are Real.

ARC028 - UFO - MIichael, C - Round Trip To Hell In A Flying Saucer

A 1955 title.

They range from what Womack calls the “finest science fiction cover to ever appear on a non-science fiction book” (The Flying Saucers Are Real by Donald Keyhoe) to the mundane (Richard S. Shaver’s 1948 I Remember Lemuria).

While Womack is deeply invested in these books, he doesn’t spare them. UFO Photographs Around the World Vols 1 and 2, he notes, “offers the most complete compilation of lens flares, camera smudges, film imperfections, blurs and jiggled shots ever published”. Womack points out that British linguist Gavin Gibbons (author of The Coming of the Space Ships (1956) and They Rode In Space Ships (1957)), and others from the UK brought “a wide-eyed if not overly creative spirit to the field”. Gibbons rewrote other people’s UFO encounters, “managing to make their accounts far less interesting”.

This is no attempt to deconstruct the reasons behind the rise and fall of the UFO. Instead, Womack seems to be attempting to understand a bizarre lost cult by collecting the artefacts they left.

We learn of George Adamski, born in Poland in 1891, who ended up founding the “Royal Order of Tibet” in California (and co-writing the 1953 Flying Saucers Have Landed) before setting up an eatery. Adamski’s ‘close encounters’ include a man who claimed to be from Venus — evidenced by the fact that his “trousers were not like mine”. In Britain, Leonard G. Cramp’s 1966 UFOs and Anti-Gravity purported to lay bare the engineering of the flying saucer, complete with detailed blueprints, which he apparently thought revealed an anti-gravity system “similar to one of his own devising”.

Womack describes another book, Flying Saucer from Mars (1954), as written by “Cedric Allingham” — a hoax said to have been perpetrated by a now-deceased British astronomer and his friend. This friend apparently admitted pretending to be Allingham to give a talk to a flying saucer club, during which he wore a false moustache.

Harold T. Wilkins's 1954 text.

Harold T. Wilkins’s 1954 text.

Womack’s book can be as confusing to follow as the arguments of his UFO proponents. The typefaces switch to signal passages from source materials, and covers, photos and drawings abound. Following the huge numbers of authors mentioned and whether they are believers, hoaxers or fictional becomes something of a task. There is no clear logic to this collection of what science-fiction luminary William Gibson calls “testimonials to certain human needs” in the introduction.

Some of the notes accompanying the awesome images are brief and baffling. We read on page 10: “When John C. Sherwood was seventeen, Gray Barker published his book, Flying Saucers are Watching You (1967), a dry account of events during the 1966 Michigan Flap. Barker’s congratulation, post-publication, ‘Evidently the fans swallowed this one with a gulp.’” Who Sherwood and Barker are, and what the “Michigan Flap” was, we can only guess.

Womack’s collection is heading to Georgetown University Library in Washington DC, to be preserved among its special collections. It may stand as a monument to collective lunacy, a testament to how easily people can be led down the garden path, or simply a collection of egregious publishing mistakes. Whichever it is, Womack has preserved a record of something that felt very real to a great many people. These books began emerging, after all, around a decade after the filmmaker and theatre impresario Orson Welles inadvertently frightened an estimated 1.2 million US listeners during his famous 1938 radio broadcast of an adaption of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

Today, the ubiquitous advanced cameras mean the lack of convincing photographs is more and more of a problem for believers. The evidence collected here is as ‘real’ as flying saucers will ever get.

Daniel Cressey is a senior reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @dpcressey. Flying Saucers Are Real is the first book release of New York City publisher Anthology Editions, a partnership between Boo-Hooray Gallery and Anthology Recordings.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


  1. Tyler Kokjohn

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    Tyler Kokjohn said:

    The UFO subject has a rich, fascinating and long history. However, the ‘rise and fall’ description seems inaccurate. Despite risk of ridicule and worse, people continue to report sightings and seek explanations for them. Although mainstream press coverage is far less extensive today, a search of Amazon.com will reveal new works continue to be published suggesting current public interest in UFO topics remains substantial.

    With advanced camera equipment everywhere certainly someone should have proof positive by now. Just what would a completely convincing photograph look like?

    The UFO issue will be with us for a while longer.

  2. Jeff Ritzmann

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    Jeff Ritzmann said:

    I always find it interesting that when it comes time for the mainstream scientific community to discuss the UFO problem that it instantly trots out the old, long debunked ‘contactee’ nonsense, and pick the myriad of low hanging fruit by way of visual data put into the lens flare and other optical artifacts category (that even UFO proponents don’t buy into).

    There’s a difference between the pop-culture UFO crowd (i.e. the spaceman bunch and new age space brother woo crowd) and those studying the phenomena from objective points of view. Admittedly, these more critical researchers are a minority, and aren’t exactly as vocal as their ‘woo’ counterparts – but the work being done on truly anomalous aerial objects is as solid as can be for a transient phenomena – with zero funding or support from anyone.

    The facts as I see it (and I’ve worked with research scientists before) are that as a scientist, to engage in what society has been taught to view as a marginal study is to lose funding, suffer being ostracized by peers, and often loss of position within the scientific community.

    All this, for a phenomena that hasn’t been studied in any serious fashion by the scientific community. It’s dismissed out of hand. And science heaps derision on grass roots researchers who study – what the scientific community won’t study,

    See how that works? When there’s a phenomena that doesn’t fit neatly into the preconceived scientific notions – science ignores it in totality. Even worse, what if the phenomena is studied and requires a reevaluation of current scientific modeling? No, it becomes a target for jokes and articles like this, which further label it in the scientifically interested public as unworthy of study, and relegates it to a sociological cult. This is how you gain serious funding? By being intellectually apathetic?

    Funny how that works.

    But the fact is this: more scientists are starting to see the impossibly strange and complex nature of the phenomena (and what surrounds it), and are becoming involved in relatively quiet research projects. Articles like this may provide interesting sociological data on the last great pushes against the open minded, objective study of the UFO issue if nothing else.

  3. Blanche Northcutt

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    Blanche Northcutt said:

    It’s amazing to me how people back then believed the silliest of ideas! I was going to object to this article and say that it belongs over at the Weekly World News or some such place that reports on ‘little green men,’ but then I dug into the piece and quite enjoyed it. No doubt it will raise the ire of UFO buffs, but thankfully fewer and fewer of them are around nowadays since common sense seems to have won the debate over ‘flying saucers.’

  4. David Halperin

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    David Halperin said:

    I agree with Danel Cressey’s basic premise: UFOs do not exist. His snide, contemptuous tone is unfortunate, however, and does a disservice to an important religious and psychological phenomenon of our time. UFO believers are mistaken, in my opinion. They are not and never were a “bizarre lost cult” or participants in a “collective lunacy.”

    As a teenager in the 1960s, I was a committed “UFOlogist,” much of my adolescent life dedicated to unraveling the mystery of the flying disks. Later I became a professor of religious studies, with special expertise in religious traditions of heavenly ascent and otherworldly journeys, along with the “wheel” visions of the prophet Ezekiel. Of course this was my old UFOlogy in more respectable guise.

    Now approaching my seventieth year, I recognize as a continuous thread in my life the quest to understand these “visitors” from our inner psychic space, and what they mean for us, our civilization, our humanity. In this respect, yes, flying saucers are real. They are no joke. Attention must be paid.

    David J. Halperin, Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  5. Whitley Strieber

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    Whitley Strieber said:

    I have had close encounter experiences and UFO sightings for years, and have written extensively—and notoriously—about them. However, I would agree with the author of the book that making assumptions about the origin of these experiences and sightings is premature. They do deserve study, primarily because of the powerful cultural impact they are having.

    The reviewer, in contrast to the author of this interesting book, seems unaware of just how much impact the continuous barrage of unexplained sightings and close encounter reports is having. His assumptions mirror, in my opinion, the general reaction of the scientific community. This is unfortunate because, inevitably, the absence of serious study is enabling an assumption to build that UFOs are spaceships that contain aliens who sometimes come out and bother us.

    What is really happening, though? I can point to a lifetime of experience and say with assurance that we don’t know. It might be worth finding out, I would think.

  6. Erol Faruk

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    Erol Faruk said:

    On September 22nd I posted a link to physical evidence for UFOs which – apparently – is still awaiting moderation! Can I ask what is the issue for revealing that UFOs are actually a serious scientific problem?! Or does it not ‘fit in’ with the knee jerk response of constantly wishing to heap ridicule on this topic!