samedi 11 janvier 2014

Cracking the 1896/97 Airships Mystery? Toward a Psycho-SocioCultural Explanation (Long Version) .

Copyright January 2014.

A Anna...

Acknowledgments: This work was not possible without the previous studies, remarks and findings, as bibliography suggested by the UFO-Scepticisme forum team, and in particulary Dominique Caudron, "Nablator" and "Sébastien". I want to thank the many people who send me newspapers excerpts, suggestions, positive or negative feed-backs and remarks.
I address my warmest thanks to "C. Conrad" who graciously fixed my English and made my thoughts more understandable.


The goal of this paper is to present elements toward a Psycho-Sociological and Cultural Explanation for the famous airship wave of 1896-97. In other words, an explanation without resorting to mysterious or Fortean entities, and one in accordance with the economy of hypotheses principle (Occam's Razor).

After the reading of its article, you may consult an "add-on" at the blog and called "The 1896/97 Aiship wave: A neglected Hypothesis"

Artist's drawing and illustration of a newspaper article about a mysterious airship allegedly seen by a large number of witnesses, The Chicago Times-Herald, 12 April 1897.

Note: the bibliography available at the end of this document consists in printed sources. When the source or reference is available online, text links or notes are used.

Introduction and Overview of the Problem

The first and probably most famous of the so-called airships waves is the great one of 1896/1897.
The problem we face is that there is a large number of reports, mainly in newspapers, of sightings of such aircraft. However, until scientific evidence to the contrary comes to light, man-made airship flights at this time and place (1896/97 in the United States of America) are unknown in the history of aviation.
In other words, there is no historical or scientific evidence for the achievement of flight by such designs in America during the period of 1896/97 that can explain that which was observed.
The research material for the investigator consists of contemporary gazettes and newspapers. Despite some earlier press announcements, the wave really started with the mass sighting of November 17, 1896 around 6-7 PM. A strange light is alleged to have overflown the city of Sacramento in California, and dozens of individuals seem to have observed, allegedly, an airship of egg-shape/cigar-shape design. The second foremost sighting occurred at Oakland/San Francisco (California again), 20th November 1896. These narratives also describe an airship. Such reports were published by newspapers daily, and accounts of airship sightings came from about twenty states by the end of the spring 1897.
The first recorded steerable airship in history was probably constructed by French inventor Henri Giffard (1852). On 24 September 1852, he made the first powered and controlled flight (27 km) from Paris to Trappes, but the wind was too strong and he was unable to return to the starting point. However he was able to maneuver, demonstrating a powered airship could be steered and controlled.

Model of Henri Giffard airship.

In 1884, a French airship again took to the skies, and it is generally presented as the first historical truly controlled dirigible. Called La France, it was designed by two French Army Captains, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs (165 feet long, 2 tons, 12 miles per hour). At least seven flights were performed, and the dirigible was able to return to its starting point five times. It was able to fly a distance of 8 kilometers in 23 minutes.

The “La France”.

In 1897, again in Europe, according to aviation history, Austrian David Schwartz made attempts at or had a successful flight: Schwartz was able to fly an airship on November 3, 1897 (but crashed). His airship was ready September 1896, and a test scheduled for the 27th September, but the test was canceled. Another attempt was made on the 8th of October 1896, the airship was taken out of the hangar, held by cables, but the quality of hydrogen was not satisfactory. According to written accounts, this design's machinery was operable and able to manoeuvre the craft. In Zagreb's newspaper Obzor, we read:
Yesterday, on Thursday, October 8th 1896, Schwarz's airship managed to lift only a few meters above the ground, while the soldiers were holding it with ropes. It is said that the gas used in the airship was bad, and thus the airship could not perform as expected. It was decided that the airship would be filled once again with good gas and tested.
Test flight of Schwartz's airship, 3 November 1897, Tempelhof (Germany).

Next we include here a non-exhaustive collection of dirigible designs and prototypes by Dominique Caudron.

Collection of several airships prototypes by Dominique Caudron. 

James Sledon's prototype (not yet dated).

This image, depicting many different flying machines, is from the Library of Congress, dated circa 1885.

Cropped & detailed version.


Of course, the real “golden age” of airships occurred in 1900, when Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin launched his Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 from a floating hangar on Lake Constance in southern Bavaria.

If we were to propose a likely conventional explanation for the first two sightings at Sacramento and Oakland, it would be highly probable that the subsequent sightings and accounts resulted from similar stimuli in nature, or were the product of a mass or social contamination involving differing but conventional variables. English speaking sociologists prefer the term "mass delusion" rather than "social contamination", noticeable in the works of Australian sociologist Robert E. Bartholomew and (Emeritus) American Professor Erich Goode. Many cases where mass delusion could be involved are presented in an article of the Skeptical Enquirer (2000) online on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry site, with a non-exhaustive bibliography. Bartholomew has been interviewed concerning Mass Delusion, too. This sociologist is the author of many books such as: Panic Attacks, the History of Mass Delusion; Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-hunting; Panics: a Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. We will refer again to Bartholomew, mainly concerning his 1998 book, UFO & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery.

The Theses of Ufologists and Proponents of other Fortean Phenomena

Taking into account the anachronistic variables of the crafts alleged, the sightings during this wave have been "naturally" used as evidence or as data by those investigators defending extraordinary hypotheses, like the visitation of extraterrestrial craft, multidimensional visitors, time-travelers, or as the product of a sentient intelligent being or of an external manipulating agent.

First we must note that the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) was raised by very few contemporary newspapers, but it had been suggested in accounts prior to this time. Gregory L. Reece (2007, p.10-11) quotes the Stockton Evening Mail, 19 November edition (a California newspaper) sourcing Daniel Cohen (1981) and Wallace O. Chariton (1991). The report is that Colonel H. G. Shaw had seen a craft on the ground with three occupants who forced him to embark, but failed because they were not strong enough. The craft took off after the occupants rejoined it. Shaw was of the opinion that, in his view, the beings came from Mars.

The same book reports a St.Louis Post-Dispatch release of the 10th April 1897 about another close encounter by W. H. Hopkins, but concerning Human occupants, a man and a very beautiful woman, both nude. The witness is said to have attempted communication with gestures and signs, and one of the occupants produced a vocalisation which sounded like "Mars". Other examples exist in different newspapers and gazettes.

Extraordinary theses concerning the 1896/97 wave are not lacking in ufology, such as Jean Sider's examples from France, in particular in his French online article L'airship de 1897. More complex extraordinary hypotheses have been formulated here and there, for example by Swiss ufologist Fabrice Bonvin. More complex because this kind of hypothesis calls for terms specifically concocted to apply to ufological reports of this nature, like "mimic" or "elusivity". Such terms or concepts are close to those proposed by Jacques Vallée or John Keel: The source of such a wave or other so-called anomalous phenomena are defended as that which can be imputed to an omniscient intelligence possessing a manipulative or insidious behavior.

The main arguments by the proponents of such theses that reject conventional possibilities of mass delusion for the 1896/97 airship wave are, for example, arguments of a too primitive telecommunication network at this period and an American population with a literacy level too low ... In which case it would exclude all explanations in terms of mass contagion where newspapers and other networks were playing a very strong role. They write:
Insufficient penetration of the communication network and the low literacy rate in 1897 exclude a shared spread of conscious representation of the phantom airship in a predominantly rural population.
We dont recognize this argument as substantive, nor historically valid, merely as fallacious. As Dominique Caudron stated, first, whenever something has been reported in a publication, those who are able to read may recount it for those who can not. Second, even if 10% of a population has reading ability, there are in fact only tens of testimonies at a time, or less, and those knowing the rumor of Airships can repeat and convey it orally and then become protagonists and actors in this contagion. 
With regard to a primitive telecommunication network, the time of these reports is from a period when Telegraph and Rail is at a relative state of the art. The telephone had existed for around twenty years and was more or less well implemented by this time, mainly in California. For example, if we focus on the foremost sighting in Oakland, the San Francisco Call of 22 November 1896 (p.13) – the article is reproduced in all detail – and we read that some witnesses ... have phoned to the Journal! 
The main problem concerning theories invoking extraordinary entities or concepts is that they don't allow for (scientific) verification.

Human Inter-Individual Variability in Perception, Memorization and Restoration of an Event or Stimulus

For three decades now, it have been presented by UFO-skeptics (mainly French speakers) what we call cognitive transposition mechanisms or processings (projective elaborations and transformations): conventional stimuli are "saucerized" by some subjects. As French Ufologist Michel Monnerie stated few decades ago:
Ufologists, arbitrarily call the minor misinterpretations ‘false UFOs’ and the major ones ‘true UFOs’, and do not realize that there is a perfect continuity between the two series, and that the difference between them is of degree not of nature.
To illustrate this hypothesis that IFO (Identified Flying Objects), False UFO (pre-UFO but to become IFO after investigation) and True UFO (Cases of Flying Objects not yet identified) may in fact be in continuity and only conventional stimuli not identified, and that the difference between them is of degree but not of nature, we made the following figure:

In order that readers better understand what we mean, we use just one example. We state that when individuals are attending, memorizing and recalling the very same stimulus, the estimated parameters (like the size, distance, duration, colors, speed, angular size, etc.) will vary from one individual to another – inter-individual variability – that is what we have represented by this Bell Curve (by commodity). Thus, the UFO corpus should be in fact largely established by these extremes. 
What are we calling extremes here? 
French investigator Robert Alessandri has studied a case where 32 trainee French Gendarmes (a Gendarme is a soldier who is employed on Police duties in France, like Carabinieri in Italia) witnessed the very same stimulus, on the 5 November 1990 in France (the reentry of the Gorizont/Proton rocket body), and the day after, their military drill instructor asked them to report this sighting and questioned them regarding multiple details. In the article, you will find how, despite the same individuals called to the scene for the very same event together, when they are asked to present or estimate different parameters, the inter-individual variability is "strong". For example, 5 of the individuals mentioning a cardinal direction (N=25) are mistaken by more than 70° off the real heading of the reentry (or between them). In regards to the estimated duration, only 3 individuals reported this data: 10 seconds, 15 seconds and 2 minutes. What about the shape? We have 3 hexagons, 5 triangles or delta wings, one individual talks about a V formation, etc.
In other words, individuals witnessing the very same event nevertheless produce different estimations. Alessandri also made a figure summarizing the estimated direction of the object seen on the 5 November 1990 (the space reentry occuring at that time) now taking into account the 435 sightings collected by the investigator Franck Marie. We found more or less a Bell Curve in Alessandri's figure. ENE was the real direction of the space-reentry... 
Is it then possible to state, like some ufologists do, that the extreme variations in reports not in accordance with the real space-reentry angle are evidence of another cause? We dont think so.

The point is that, even though the 32 subjects studied by Alessandri had been called to the scene for the very same event, some individuals reported details totally opposed to the others (by the way, the reader will notice it is the same proportion between the 32 Gendarmes study and the 435 observations collected by Franck Marie concerning "extremes" in the figure about the estimated direction angle). Why? Because there exists this inter-individual variability when individuals perceive, memorize and recall an event or stimulus.

Imagine now that the narratives of the Gendarmes producing direction estimations at more than 70° variance from the others are collected by ufologists in some way (because these persons contacted a group of ufologists or ufologists read their reports, etc.), and if, after an investigation, we propose they have been called to the scene of the space reentry (ENE was the real angle/direction of Gorizont/Proton rocket body space reentry), ufologists will determine that their estimations are around or more than 70° at variance from the proposed candidate. How can Gendarmes have made such an error? This sounds a priori nonsensical, and we suddenly are able to create several solid UFO testimonies, only because ufologists have not factored into the equation the inter-individual variability parameter when people face the same (and conventional) stimulus and provide a description containing parameters (or are asked to give them).

 In reality, such solid reports are here only the products of this variability. UFO reports (or a very large part of them), and the UFO phenomenon itself should be then an epiphenomenon – a secondary phenomenon linked to another one (extremes in Human variability facing conventional stimuli - in reality individuals didn't recognize what they were - and extremes in Human variability when estimating parameters as they are in reality) – and an illusory phenomenon consisting of belief, to accept and assume that the narratives and their contents would be other than the product of this inter-individual variability. A variability which altered this, in reality, conventional or mundane stimulus because it is novel for the observer, or seen under particular conditions or not, and described later, resulting in some extremes, in some over or under-estimations, and sometimes to a "saucerization", by many individuals.
Rossoni, Maillot & Déguillaume (2007) already proposed: 
It generally appears that if a majority of the reports are conforming enough to the reality for anyone familiar with the phenomenon in question to be able to identify it with certainty for what it is, a strong minority moves away significantly (by one or more erroneous details) and some transform to such an extent that the real stimulus is almost unrecognizable.
Famous astronomer Gerard Kuiper wrote:
Again, if one proposes that UFO reports merit scientific inquiry, one must also admit that in no other field of inquiry the scientist is so handicapped by an odd and discouraging assemblage of "data." More than 90% of these reports are found to be hoaxes or poor accounts of well-known or trivial events. Under those circumstances an unexplained residue of perhaps 10% is no basis to believe in miracles. It is more reasonable to assume that this residue is so distorted or incomplete as to defy all analysis.
The ufologists in favor of an exotic hypothesis behind the UFO would then be devoted in totality or in a very large part to this intrinsic product and result of this inter-individual variability concerning perceptions, recall and descriptions. And ufologists themselves project their own expectations, and we have here a retro-active loop, a circularity.

The reasons that drive some individuals to misidentify a conventional stimulus in reality are numerous. They could be ascribed to the observation conditions, because the stimulus is perceived during darkness, or other particular factors (fog, mist, atmospheric refraction, etc.), or because the stimulus is seen fleetingly, or under a non-prototypical angle of vision, or undergone during particular artificial or natural light exposure (and so on).
To support these "projective" cognitive mechanisms (and among many other existing sources), it is possible to evoke the drawings of the October 1963 space-reentry or sociologist and geographer Edgar Wunder's experimental protocoll 1.
Such terms as "projective" cognitive mechanisms come from or have been coined by the SocioPsychological Hypothesis of the UFO Phenomenon (SPH) proposed by several French speaking UFO-Skeptics 2.
The SPH stipulates in particular that when some individuals are facing stimuli they don’t recognize, these subjects’ brains are making projective transformations and elaborations of the stimuli. If media, like those of 1896/1897 selected only such extremes, because of journalistic reasons and motivations for sensationalism, we may have in reality a sort of biased sample of individuals, and a table of the wave and sightings with an internal homogeneity in disguise.
The individuals are thus using their own mental representations of the UFO phenomenon (or airship) or using what is conveyed by the prevailing or surrounding culture, which changes with the times, therefore explaining "the plasticity of the UFO-phenomenon" (Kottmeyer 1993, 1996, 1998, 2001; Binder, 1967).

2 French: by my Belgium friend Jacques Scornaux. by our french UFO-skeptic forum members David Rossoni, Éric Maillot & Éric Déguillaume. by Claude Maugé.
English (old articles) :
The Rising and the Limits of a Doubt by Jacques Scornaux.
Questioning the ‘Real’ Phenomenon by Claude Mauge.
Particularly, it is interesting to take into account the drawings of space reentries to show these projective mechanisms are factual and empirically demonstrated. For example, here are some drawings made by some witnesses who have in reality assisted at different space-reentries and in particulary pp 16/18/21 this pdf. James Oberg shared:

A drawing made by an investigator faithfully reproducing the witness perceptions and descriptions of a Russian witness despite the fact that what he perceived was Kosmos-20 booster space reentry.

A drawing made by a witness despite the fact that what he perceived was Cosmos 2335 space reentry.

If you are curious about how space-reentries produce UFO reports, Tim Printy wrote an article on his site, The Rockets Red Glares: How Satellite reentry's and meteors produce UFO Reports.

German Sociologist Edgar Wunder has performed an interesting experiment too: he projected, using a screen, landscape pictures where a little stimulus without real identification is placed in the sky, and after the presentation of the slides, asked his subjects to draw what they saw. Again, many drawings show that subjects have "saucerized" the stimulus, adding structure(s), windows, propulsion, motors, etc. Such data sounds very interesting for cognitive psychology and as a means to help understand the UFO phenomenon better. In other words, SPH is laboratory testable.
The links are the following (jump to part 2, around 3'20'' and part 3 of course):

Galileo Mystery - Ufos

Add-on. Sébastien translated German to English the pertinent excerpt:

Voice-over: So that there'd always be an earthly explanation. So why would so many people every year see UFOs? This is what thrives PhD. Egdar Wunder. He does research on the experiences of people for which a scientific explanation cannot be found.
Show-host: What are you precisly up to?
Edgar Wunder: We are going to make a little experiment to test how precise the descriptions of such UFOs can be. To do this, I will show the group a picture of a clear winter night. It will last for about two and a half to three minutes. The picture will be visible. From time to time, there will be an object appearing, which you won't be able to classify clearly, well, UFOs as such: unidentified flying Object. And, thereafter I will ask the people to draw these UFOs. We will then be able to see how reliable these drawings are. Will they have really recognize every important details? This is quite exciting. I don't have a clue really of what will come out, but, we'll just see what happens.
Voice-over: Ten people take part in the test.
Voice-over: This is what the picture with object Nr.1 looked like. And this is what the people has drawn.
Show-host: Interesting is indeed, ten persons have indeed seen the same thing, but definitly, it looks like they didn't see the same!
Edgar Wunder: Everything's fine? Ok I think we can have a look.
Voice-over: For three minutes they're looking at a nightsky picture. Two different object appear in the picture. A few seconds each. The group of persons should now draw these objects. They also should guess in which height the objects were located. And how big they were. Edgar Wunder makes an analysis of the drawings. The result is astonishing.
Edgar Wunder: Yes, that was now indeed all the same object and you see now, these drawings doesn't look the same at all.
Edgar Wunder: What that really was, was a miniature hot air ballon. That indeed only had about a size of perhaps one to two meters and was at a distance of, maybe here, about two to three hundred Meters. Not farther. Already a close object can lead to very different drawings.
Edgar Wunder: Now, we see the second object of our experiment. This isn't more than a cloud of lights with different colors, pretty unstructured in fact. But, in our drawings this is what comes out: A horseshoe shaped structure. The persons of the test obviously think that there is a solid object, and not only basic lights; or another person in the test reconstructed the object, so to speak, in their mind as a flying saucer where the lights are obviously the landing lights.
Edgar Wunder: There comes, so to speak, the interpretation in our mind to that and mixes up with what we saw.
Show-host: So what would you say then? UFOs aren't in the sky, but instead they appear in our mind?
Edgar Wunder: For things that doesn't fit our every day life, such as unidentified flying objects, then you must be very very cautious about what it might have been and there's a lot that happens in our mind.

Example of Slides used in Edgar Wunder's experiment.

One drawing obtained by Edgar Wunder Experiment. The individual have “saucerized” the initial stimulus.

What may explain cognitively what is happening here?
Projective Transformation: The witness is seeing elements in line with his own "expectations" and is altering the characteristics of the stimulus during the perception. (Such information processing strategies are called in cognitive psychology, top-down processing versus bottom-up processing) or concept-driven processing (versus data-driven processing). It is well known that our knowledge and our culture influence what we perceive in the environment, and influence the retrieval and the recall of the event (by memory processes). Stored information from different sources can therefore complement, anticipate or replace what we see, mainly when the stimulus is not recognized as a "world element" because it’s too ambiguous, too fast, unknown, etc.
Some witnesses then "saucerize" the stimulus and ufologists jump on these tales.
During a UFO wave, for example, a witness is encouraged to watch the sky, and will add a detail or details that create the structure of an observed but not identified stimulus (prosaic/conventional stimulus in reality) in the likeness of a UFO broadcast by the media (see below).

Projective Elaboration: The witness gradually develops a "cultural romance" during perception, adorned with many subjective and false memories (see below). A witness will evoke illusory physical interference of the UFO with the environment, providing psychological and/or physiological effects, an amalgamation of disparate elements close in time and space of the sighting, but having no relation between them in reality.

In other words in the case of the 1896/97 airship wave, did the witnesses project their conscious or unconscious prevailing or surrounding knowledge of airships on another observed object, transforming it into something that looks less and less like the actual stimulus, and much more in line with expectations of airships?

Memory Malleability, Biases and False Memory

The memory illusions are usually the result of errors in the reconstruction of past experiences, but "bugs" may occur following the encoding phase during the passage of sensory information from the working memory or short memory to the long term memory. Facing to the same event, an individual is encoding different items depending on his physiological or emotional state, too. Thereafter, parasitic information may confuse memory (as perception), easily slipping into the remembered episode.
The witness then comes to the intuitive certainty of having seen, heard or done something when he only has "imagined" or more exactly inferred it. These errors may have an endogenous cultural/mental representation (see below) but also be induced by a third party, by mere suggestion; i.e., when interacting with investigators/ufologists/journalists who suggest intentionally, inadvertently or not, what they expect. Yes, the way a question is asked, for example, is likely to blur the memory of the individual who responds. That's why ufologists should use standardized interview procedures as those in criminology or psychology which minimize such well-known biases (cognitive interview procedure, see below).
A false memory, created from scratch, results generally in a source of confusion: the subject correctly remembers the information, but no longer knows where it comes from. Some false memories and dreams are then remembered as real events. The literature concerning false memory in cognitive psychology is really abundant and a very fecund field of scientific study, but Elizabeth Loftus is probably the most famous researcher focused on this theme. These fields of research concerning Human Memory have experimentally demonstrated how our memory is malleable and plastic. In Appendix A, I will shortly present some of the memory effects discovered and studied in cognitive psychology as I did in my book (Fernandez, 2010).

The practice of regressive hypnosis used by some ufologists to bring to the surface so-called repressed memories has also created amazing confabulations (for example, Arndt & Greenberg, 1996; Banaji & Kihlstrom, 1996; Clancy & Pitman, 2002; Clark & Loftus, 1996; Lynn & Irving, 1996; McNally & Clancy, 2005; Orne & Al., 1996; Otgaar, Candel, Merckelbach & Wade, 2009; Ross & Newby, 1996; Strube, 1996; Swami, Pietschnig, Stieger & Voracek, 2011). Hypnosis increases the illusion of remembering and actually makes the hypnotized person more vulnerable to memory distortions and inferences. Some people are described by psychologists as fantasy-prone personalities, convinced of having experienced events that have not actually occurred (Wilson & Barber, 1983; Lynn & Rhue, 1988; Merckelbach, H. et al., 2001). Such people are characterized by a singular disposition to fantasize and sometimes find it difficult to distinguish real events from the products of their imagination: dreams, scenes from movies/books they have seen or read or events they just heard or which were rumored by the media.
Again, to "test" witnesses by psychometric or personality tests sounds like a precious tool for the investigator to evaluate their social and cultural environment, in order to solve these so-called mysteries from UFOs, abductions to other paranormal themes.
The cultural environment provides subjects with images, mental representations that they use to model their interpretation of experiences (see below).

A better understanding of mechanisms of treatment (perception and recognition), storage, organization (memory) and modification of sensory information here should help to refine and complete the SocioPsychological model of the UFO phenomenon. Again, what is interesting here is that it is testable in laboratory conditions with psychological experiments. It changes so-called ufology which is often based on non-testable assumptions, hypotheses, etc.
We could add for our ensuing purpose simple perceptual misinterpretations, hoaxes and mystifications (rare), altered states of consciousness (due to fatigue or sleep paralysis, for example), psycho-pathological experiences (rare too), secret military experiments or objects as source of a UFO sighting (or deliberately provoked "mirage men" approach to hide secret devices), and even rare or poorly known geophysical phenomena (plasma sprites, elves, etc.). 

Psycho-SocioCultural Hypothesis applied to the 1896/97 Airships Wave

We will now present evidence that before the airship wave started (November 1896) with the two foremost sightings (Sacramento and San Francisco/Oakland), cultural imagery of Airships was pre-existent at that time, but more so in California where the wave started, and this pre-existent material appeared in the same media "recording" the wave: the area newspapers. Local California people may have been already "prepared" culturally to see airships which made it possible for them to see what they wanted to see or were expecting to see.

We then suggest that the two foremost sightings (San Francisco/Oakland 20 November 1896 & Sacramento 17 November 1896), as other “famous" ones, highly met potentially matching and explainable conventional stimuli.

With this evidence, we propose that local people saw what they expected to see and that the two foremost sightings had a potential conventional candidate (conventional stimulus they transposed, elaborated upon and transformed due to the favorable surrounding and prevailing cultural ambiance and expectations at the time and place of such sightings). We suggest that these two sightings, described by newspapers in California and other States, launched a mass delusion (psychosocial contagion, see later) which resulted in the 1896/97 Airship wave.

Social psychology has in several studies demonstrated the tendency for individuals to conform (Asch,1956; Krech, Crutchfield, & Ballschey, 1962) and it is probably particularly the case here. Social psychology has shown how it is common that individuals, even though they were not told to agree specifically between themselves or even though cautioned about influence, changed or shifted their judgment to the common normative one (Sherif & Harvey, 1952). Social influence appears when emotions, opinions, or behaviors are affected by others. Conformity is the behavior of matching attitudes, beliefs, and acts to group norms. Human Sciences like social and cognitive psychology studied what was termed the “normative social influence”, the conformity to the influence of a majority due to informational social influence. This means that individuals tend to adopt the behaviors of the majority of a group (to not be left out, for example). The individuals “really” do not believe the majority, they simply comply in order to be accepted. Several studies pointed out the informational social influence: when a situation is ambiguous, individuals have a tendency to conform to the majority because it is a source of information. In other words, if an individual is unsure as to the correct answer or behavior, he then tends to believe the majority opinion (or behave accordingly). The majority opinion is internalized by individuals in order to be “right”.

Another important point regarding cognitive psychology is that studies indicate that during ambiguous situations or stimuli (like when scanning the sky in evening or in dark conditions, with the expectation to see airships as it is articulated by the media or by a particular surrounding or prevailing culture):
inference can perform the work of perception by filling in missing information in instances where perception is either inefficient or inadequate" (Massad, Hubbard & Newston, D., 1979 quoted by Bartholomew and Howard, 1998).
Or, as Rossoni, Maillot & Déguillaume (2007) wrote:
When we do not know what we see, or if we already believe we know what we will see, then our perception can be easily distorted.[...] In general, the prevailing culture does not drive people to see things they do not know how to interpret, but provides them the contrary: an interpretation grid for the things they do not recognize.
Massad, Hubbard & Newston (1979) concluded that individuals may differ in their initial perception of an event as the result of differences in prior expectations, and that the resulting biased sample of information they acquire may limit their retrospective reinterpretation of the event. Selective perception in cognitive psychology is the personal filtering (and then selection) of what we see and hear so as to suit our own needs and expectations. Much of this process is psychological and often unconscious.
Fernandez (2010) mentioned the Halo effect which is similar: The halo effect has to do with judging or evaluating a person, place, event or even a mark by a single trait or experience. This overall impression can be good or bad but will prejudice our further involvement with the stimulus. The Halo effect has been studied for long time in cognitive and social psychology (Back, Wiley & Sons, 1977; Bourdieu, 1979; Maisonneuve, 1966; Moscovici, 1979; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1971).
There are probably many cognitive biases in play to generate such a mass delusion, like attentional bias, which is the common tendency to focuse attention on emotionally dominant stimuli in one environment and to neglect relevant data when making judgments of a correlation or association (Sass & al., 2010) or well studied availability heuristic which is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater availability in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be (Bless, 1991). Discussions or newspaper readings drive individuals to an availability cascade, which is the self-reinforcing process studied in psychology in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through repetition in public (or media) and which is occurring and increasing (Timur & Sunstein, 1998). The tendency or effect to do and believe things because many other people do or believe the same thing too has been studied in psychology, the main fields of research called group-think (ie: Tsoukalas, 2007) and herd behavior (ie: Raafat, Chater & Frith, 2009).
If people have a high level of belief in a conclusion, they are biased toward the thing or stimulus they are evaluating (Klauer, Musch, & Naumer, 2000).
Probably the main bias we can evoke here is confirmation bias, generally summarized as the tendency of individuals to favor information that confirms with their own beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, and they tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position and make illusory correlation.

A Pre-Existent Cultural Imagery

Of course, Jules Verne's novel Robur the Conqueror is considered as one the most famous examples of pre-existent cultural imagery of airships. It is easy to find it and it has already been presented.
For example, the following was from 1892 (in La Vie Electrique, so France and Europe):

But the next is 1887 from an early edition of Clipper of the Clouds by Jules Verne:

But we will present other cases (among many). For example, Dominique Caudron studied the number of occurrences of the term "airship" in the collection of newspapers in the Library of Congress. From 1836 to 1895, he found 2071 occurrences. For the year 1896, 446 and for the year 1897, 1492. In others words, there is more or less the same amount of "airship" occurences before the wave than during the wave in the newspapers recorded.
In 1893, 3 years before the wave, there was this illustration by Frank Reade, Jr.:

In California (where the wave will start), we found this airship imagery in The Herald (Los Angeles), October 29, 1895, page 9:

As this one, The morning Call, San Francisco,California again, 15 Oct. 1892:

The next one is from The Morning Call, (San Francisco [Calif.]), 30 Sept. 1892:

The following was in The Morning Call, (San Francisco [Calif.]), 08 Feb. 1891:

From The San Francisco Call, (San Francisco [Calif.]), 02 June 1895:

The Helena Independent, (Helena, Mont.), 03 April 1892 (the same image is pictured in Pittsburg Dispatch. (Pittsburg [Pa.]), April 03, 1892 :

The Morning Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 02 March 1895:

The following picture illustrated A Dash to the Pole, An imaginative Romance of Arctic Exploration written for The Dispatch by Herbert D. Ward (in Pittsburg Dispatch., April 17, 1892):

Same, but in Pittsburg Dispatch (Pittsburg [Pa.]), 03 April 1892:

Same "novel" 's illustration, but in Pittsburg Dispatch., May 22, 1892:

In the Evening Star. (Washington D.C.), August 03, 1895 :

In Pittsburg Dispatch. (Pittsburg [Pa.]), 10 April 1892:

In The Herald. (Los Angeles [Calif.]), 07 Nov. 1894:

The National Tribune. (Washington, D.C.), 03 Aug. 1893:

In the Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 04 Nov. 1893:

The Morning Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 17 Dec. 1893:

In The Washington Times., April 21, 1895:


 Trouve's mechanical bird (called the "French Edison", 91 patents):

The Star. (Reynoldsville, Pa.), 05 Oct. 1892:

The Stark County Democrat. (Canton, Ohio), 03 July 1895:

Fort Worth Gazette. (Fort Worth, Tex.), 17 Sept. 1894:

Some prevailing imagery /projects of the airship (pictured in The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 25 Nov. 1896:

Carl Erikson's invention, proposed a couple of years before the airship wave:

Norvegian John Alfred Jonasson's Machine he claimed would fly and proposed a couple of years before the wave: 

In The Star. (Reynoldsville, Pa.), 02 Oct. 1895:

Pittsburg Dispatch. (Pittsburg [Pa.]), 02 Nov. 1890:

Pynchon's airships drawing and patented November 1893

Hurlbut's airships drawing and patented September 1894.

As readers may note, a very important "popular airship's imagery" existed before the wave in the very same media who thereafter recorded the wave of airships, and related testimonies. Readers must take into account this imagery has been reproduced in many more newspapers than the ones cited here.
Reading the pre-wave articles or illustrations (many are reproduced in this article), I have been interested how the airships were announced or presented like "a total revolution", full of promise and probably then driving some people to high hopes and [unrealistic] expectations. And this, concerning two main areas: use in warfare and fast transportation (like exploration of the Pole, etc.).
We suggest, then, this prevailing imagery and hope may have generated several cultural mental representations before the wave and led some people to believe they saw real airships, but in reality they were misinterpreting prosaic/celestial stimuli through their psycho-sociocultural cognitive filter.

What about in 1896 and before the wave that year?
Very interesting for our concern, there is this picture, appearing very shortly before the wave and in California, exactly where the wave started, in The San Francisco Call, 1 September 1896. Did it help generate the wave?

Our research indicates that C.A. Smith applied for a patent April 1896, granted August 1896 (but we don’t endorse or think that such machines ever flew for several reasons: the development of various prototypes by inventors was not advanced enough to explain the wave, see after). Curiously for our concern, Charles Abbott Smith was a resident of San Francisco and then California, we read:
Be it known that I, CHARLES ABBOTT SMITH, a citizen of the United States, residing at San Francisco, in the county of San Francisco and State of California, have invented, certain new and useful Improvements in Aeronautics; and I do declare the following to be a full, clear, and exact description of the invention, such as will enable others skilled in the art to which it appertains to make and use the same, reference being had to the accompanying drawings, and to the figures of reference marked thereon, which form a part of this specification. 
We reproduce a picture of his Airship coming from his patent:

In the very same page of The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 01 Sept. 1896 reproducing C.A. Smith, Carl Erickson's Flying-Machine machine was illustrated too:

The very same newspaper pictured another electric airship the month before, in The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 23 Aug. 1896. One hundred miles an hour is claimed (!)...

C.A. Smith "invention" received publicity in the same Californian newspapers which would "record" the first airship's sightings. The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 14 Aug. 1896:

The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 10 Aug. 1896:

Or in The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 20 Aug. 1896:

Previously, in The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 29 Feb. 1896:

Another example how airships articles prevailed in California, The Record-Union. (Sacramento, Calif.), 19 July 1896:

C.A. Smith in The Dalles Times-Mountaineer. (The Dalles, Or.), 22 Aug. 1896:

Another popular imagery of airship prevailing in California and newspapers, The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 26 July 1896:
The Herald [ (Los Angeles [Calif.]), 19 Jan. 1896

There is supporting evidence that a surrounding and prevailing cultural imagery of airships pre-existed the wave during that time (just before the wave itself) and in the very same place (California) where the wave started, and in the very newspapers which fostered the propagation of the wave. 

You will find others sources supporting this cultural imagery in the next lines.

 The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 28 June 1896.

 Another example, The Norfolk Virginian. (Norfolk, Va.), 06 June 1896.

  The Norfolk Virginian. (Norfolk, Va.), 15 Aug. 1896.

 The story of Jan Holodnock, figuring in several newspapers, but here an excerpt of Hopkinsville Kentuckian. (Hopkinsville, Ky.), 03 April 1896.

Another rumor or inventor no-success flight in The Salt Lake herald. (Salt Lake City [Utah), 22 Aug. 1896. The story appeared in several newspapers.

The Dalles Daily Chronicle. (The Dalles, Or.), 12 Aug. 1896.

 Popular airship's imagery, Chicago Eagle. (Chicago, Ill.), 09 May 1896.

The Sun. (New York [N.Y.]), 24 Aug. 1896.

 Promising Airships and Warfare in Popular imagery, Fort Worth Gazette. (Fort Worth, Tex.), 09 Feb. 1896.

Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 23 May 1896.

 Hooo, really? The Kinsley Graphic. (Kinsley, Kan.), 06 March 1896.

 The Morning Times. (Washington, D.C.), 12 April 1896.

The Morning Times. (Washington, D.C.), 16 Aug. 1896.

A Potential and Conventional Candidate for the Two Principle Sightings (Sacramento and San Francisco/Oakland)?
The following excerpt represents San Francisco/Oakland's sighting in the very same newspaper as that of the previous C.A Smith picture, and the text published on 22 November 1896, p. 13. Notice the object disappeared S.W.:

We created a reconstruction of the sky with Stellarium software for this 20 November 1896, 17H30 Pacific Time (i.e., the Charles Ellis sighting):

Venus, the “Queen of UFOs” (see future references), is there, moving more and more toward the horizon, finishing her course. Notice that the accounts never mention Venus, or use her as a landmark...
What about the famous Sacramento sighting of 17 November 1896 and what are the witnesses stating in the newspapers? We find the following quotes, the ship "moved slowly away in a southwesterly direction …"; "Toward the southwest …"; "Moving in a southwesterly direction …"; "Its southwesterly course …".
Again Venus appears as a highly potential and conventional candidate for the sighting.

Venus was evoked in the San Francisco Call, 25 November 1896:

San Francisco Call, 26 November 1896:

In conclusion at this stage, pre-existent cultural imagery and prevailing/surrounding culture regarding the airships had emerged just before the wave and in the very same place, California, and with the complicity of Californian newspapers where the two foremost sightings took place and where future sightings would be recorded and conveyed. For the two, Venus appears as a good stimulus or candidate for the actual stimulus that caused some people to have projected what they wanted to see – Airships. "A la Kenneth Arnold" in the case of the 1947 UFO wave, these two foremost sightings were largely made tangible as airborne vehicles by newspapers.
Everything was in place to generate a mass delusion like an UFO Wave, except individuals saw airships and not “flying saucers” (there was no flying saucer cultural imagery prevailing during this period, of course). Pre-eminent UFO-skeptic Philipp Klass (1986, p.103-104) defined a UFO wave as it follows (we can replace UFO by airships):
Once news media coverage leads the public to believe that UFOs may be in the vicinity, there are numerous natural and man-made objects which, especially when seen at night, can take on unusual characteristics in the minds of hopeful viewers. Their UFO reports in turn add to the mass excitement which encourages still more observers to watch for UFOs. This situation feeds upon itself until such time as the news media lose interest in the subject, and then the "flap" quickly runs out of steam.
Or as Tim Printy states:
People are just not knowledgeable about the night sky to determine what they are looking at is not a UFO. There are satellites, bright planets, highflying aircraft, bright meteors, and other phenomena that the casual observer just does not understand. Once it is planted in their minds that strange objects in the sky are probably UFOs, then it does not take much for individuals to link the event with the newspaper stories.

 Excluding Real Airship(s): the "peak night" of the 25 November 1896

A crucial problem for the proponents of the hypothesis of real man-made airships is to explain the several sightings for the single night of 25th November 1896. It is an argument proposed by French investigator “Sébastien”. James L. Cambias wrote in The Amazing Airship of 1896:
The peak night was November 25, when it appeared in eleven places around the state, including Auburn, Chico, Fresno, Hayward, Napa, Oakland, Pasadena, Petaluma, Sacramento, San Lorenzo and Visalia.
So, these sightings were spread over an area of around 700 km on the very same evening! One real airship cannot explain eleven sightings (at least) over such a large area and in the same evening. How can a single airship be sighted in these eleven locations at the same time? How can the man-made airship proponents deal with this? None of the dirigibles recorded at this time by Aviation History could manage more than a few miles' circuit. It would not be for at least another twenty years that a ship existed which could fly from San Francisco to Chicago. In the case of real airships, there would require the involvement of several airships to explain such a number of sightings and apparatus launched the very same evening, all around California.
It sounds like pure fiction, so another explanation is needed. The excerpts from newspapers concerning these eleven places and sightings will be added later.
This peak night thus tends to exclude definitively the hypothesis of (single) man-made airship(s) as responsible for these 25 November mass sightings, so it reinforces our celestial candidate, like the mass delusion hypothesis (see below): The airship delusion was first and foremost a "newspaper phenomenon" as Cambias and ourselves suggest. Again, there is not real airship(s) recorded and having flew in 1896/97 and in USA (and California) in the aviation history. We must wait post-1900 for this accomplishement.
“Sébastien” created a map of the sightings coverage on this 25 November 1896 evening/night:

Some people had possibly seen what they were expected to see (caused by prevailing imagery and wishful thinking about airships), but the newspapers may have been giving their readers what they wanted to hear too, by making up reports of airship sightings (retroactive loop). As Cambias stated, if this sounds like questionable ethics, it should be recalled that journalism was much more freewheeling in the nineteenth century, as hoaxes were common ...
Cambias wrote too:
The slow progression of airship sightings across the continent may not be the movement of any vehicle, but the propagation wave of newspaper stories inspired by similar accounts in nearby towns.
So when people saw Venus shining brightly in the night sky, their thoughts naturally turned to airships. On the prairies, there may have been a strong element of wishful thinking involved. At the time, the railroads had a near monopoly on transportation in the great plains, and controlled many state legislatures. A new form of aerial transport would end the reign of the rail barons.

Mass or Collective Delusion

In Chapter 10 of the book Ufos & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, Bartholomew and Howard (1998) defined the concept of Mass Delusion in Sociology or Psychology usage. They wrote:
The word “delusion” is used by psychiatrists to describe a persistent pathological belief associated with serious mental disturbance, usually psychosis. Sociologists and social psychologists use the term “collective delusion” or “mass delusion” in a different sense, to describe the spontaneous, temporary spread of false beliefs within a given population. Excluded from this definition are mistaken beliefs that occur in an organized or ritualistic manner. This term is also a common source of confusion since it is often used as a catch-all category to describe a variety of different behaviors under one convenient heading.
There are several types of mass delusions, four of which have some association with UFOs: immediate community threats, community flight panics, wish-fulfillment, and small-group scares. Mass delusions differ from prominent religious myths and popular folk beliefs in that the former occur in an unorganized, spontaneous fashion, although they may become institutionalized. Examples of such institutionalization include forming organizations intended to confirm the existence of alien visitors.
History is replete with examples of group delusion, many of which may seem humorous to those outside the historical or cultural setting. For instance, in 1806 near Leeds, England, people became terror-stricken, believing that the end of the world was imminent after a hen began laying eggs with the inscription “Christ Is Coming.” Masses of people thronged to glimpse the miraculous bird until it was discovered that the eggs had been inscribed with a corrosive ink and forced back into its body. This is one of many examples from Charles Mackay’s 1852 classic, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Unfortunately, the outcomes of group delusions are often more sinister: Nazism, mass suicide, moral witch-hunts, hunts for real witches, Communist infiltration scares, the Crusades, and unfounded fears about the casual transmission of AIDS, to name but a few.
While some historical episodes of collective delusions are legendary, modern occurrences are remarkably similar. The four types of delusion mentioned above all involve a rapid spread of false-but plausible-exaggerated beliefs that gain credibility within a particular social and cultural context. They can be positive and take the form of wish- fulfillment, but are more often negative and spread by fear. Rumors are an essential ingredient common to each category of delusion. As people attempt to confirm or dismiss the accuracy of these unsubstantiated stories, everyday objects, events, and circumstances that would ordinarily receive scant attention become the subject of extraordinary scrutiny. Ambiguous happenings are soon redefined according to the new definition, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many factors contribute to the spread of delusional episodes: the mass media, low education levels, the fallibility of human perception, cultural superstitions and stereotypes, group conformity, and reinforcing actions by authority figures, such as politicians, or institutions of social control, such as police or the military.
Neuroscientist Steven Novella on-line article UFOs: The Psychocultural Hypothesis, along with the excellent article by David Clarke, The Airships Wave of 1909 defend such a SPC approach too. You will probably find a similar SocioPsychoCultural approach in terms of Mass Delusion in Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium by Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode.
Another excerpt from Bartholomew & Howard (1998), a book full of information and defending a very similar approach, presenting an important amount of historical sources and academic and scientific papers to support the thesis. For example, the two authors state:
Since an observer’s mental outlook at the time of the sighting is of key importance, the context of the episode is very significant. The 1896–97 airship sightings occurred amid widespread rumors that a flying machine was on the verge of being perfected. Many Americans believed that such a dramatic achievement was at hand, and their emotions were stoked by speculative and often fabricated newspaper stories. As people began searching the skies for confirmation of the airship-invention stories, they expected to see airships, and did see them. Whereas modern sightings consist almost exclusively of “flying saucers” from outer space, citizens in 1896–97 were predisposed by popular literature of the era to see airships. The overwhelming majority of reports occurred at night and described ambiguous lights viewed at a distance. It is not surprising that given these circumstances, residents interpreted information in ways that were consistent with their view of the world.
Studies on the fallible nature of human perception and the tendency for people in group settings to conform are especially applicable1. The human mind does not gather information like a videotape recorder. Humans interpret events as they perceive the world and often come to opposite interpretations of the same event witnessed under nearly identical circumstances, as anyone who has watched a hotly contested sporting event can attest. Perception is sometimes based more on inference than on reality, allowing for interpretations that often differ substantially from what actually exists. Research on autokinetic movement is applicable to such situations, as it concerns problem- solving dynamics2. The variance of interpretations from what actually exists is especially noticeable with the perception of ambiguous stimuli or conflicting patterns of information within a group setting, which will result in members developing an increased need to define the situation, depending less on their own judgment for reality validation and more on the judgment of others for reality testing.
When the stimulus situation lacks objective structure, the effect of the other’s judgement is pronounced. In one study of social factors in perception utilizing the autokinetic phenomenon, an individual judged distances of apparent movement first alone and then with two or three other subjects. This unstructured situation arouses considerable uncertainty. Even though they were not told to agree and were cautioned against being influenced, the individuals in togetherness situations shifted their judgement toward a common standard or norm of judgement. The influence of various individuals differed, and the emerging common norm for judgement was in various instances above or below the average of individual judgements in the initial session alone3.
Research on the “autokinetic effect” is of more specific interest as it has been shown that individual judgments tend to agree in a group setting while observing the common stimulus of a pinpoint of light within a dark environment. This effect is well known among social psychologists and was first demonstrated in 19364. Individuals in situations lacking stable perceptual anchors begin to feel a sense of uneasiness, then anxiety as they have a heightened need to visually define or make sense of the light. In group settings, individuals will attempt to reduce the anxieties created by an uncertain situation.
A viewer in a completely dark room seeing one pinpoint of light experiences a visual stimulus without its normal attendant visual context. Up, down, back, forward, far and near, exist in relation to other stimuli and when this frame of reference is missing, the light is free to roam in one’s perceptual field. It is for this reason that considerable random motion will be experienced by anyone viewing the light5.
1 S. E. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority,” Psychological Monographs, 70 (1956); D. Krech, R. S. Crutchfield, and E. L. Ballschey, Individual and Society (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).
2 R. Turner, and L. Killian, Collective Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 35.
3 M. Sherif and O. J. Harvey, “A Study in Ego Functioning: Elimination of Stable Anchorages in Individual and Group Situations,” Sociometry 15 (1952): 272–305.
4 M. Sherif, The Psychology of Social Norms (New York: Harper and Row, 1936).
5 R. Beeson, The Improbable Primate and the Modern Myth” in G. Krantz and R. Sprague, eds., The Scientist Looks at the Sasquatch II. (Moscow, Idaho: University Press of Idaho, 1979), p. 180.
During highly ambiguous situations, such as people scanning the night-time skies for an imaginary but plausible airship,
inference can perform the work of perception by filling in missing information in instances where perception is either inefficient or inadequate.” (C. M. Massad, M. Hubbard, and D. Newston, “Selective Perception of Events,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 15 (1979): 513–32.)
From the same book, we find this excerpt :
It was within this context that a telegram appeared in the Sacramento Evening Bee of Tuesday, November 17, 1896, in which a New York entrepreneur claimed that he would pilot his newly invented airship to California, which he vowed to reach within two days. That very evening the first recorded sightings of the cigar-shaped airship occurred as hundreds of Sacramento residents reported seeing it. (In "Voices in the Sky, People Declare They Heard Them and Saw a Light", Sacramento Evening Bee, November 18, 1896, p. 1).
This is again another element or fact supporting our main hypothesis that pre-existent cultural imagery from previous publications and pre-wave newspapers may have lead people to see what they wanted and expected to see, Airships, where in reality it was other conventional stimuli. It appears, as already presented, that Venus is a good candidate for such misinterpretation in the case of the two foremost sightings, a celestial candidate which some people may have elaborated upon and transformed by the cognitive mechanisms we have mentioned.
Note that we are not the first to think this, 1896/97 contemporary astronomers already did so, read for example this on-line article by Tim Printy, Venus: The Queen of UFOs, where you will find some newspaper excerpts pointing toward a celestial solution, like the following one.

Or Cambias, in his 1996 article, The Amazing Airship of 1896, already had written:
The most likely culprit is the planet Venus. During the winter of 1896-97 it was visible in the evening sky, and was at its maximum brightness on March 23 - just at the height of the airship mania. Many of the airship reports were on cloudy or overcast nights. The bright disk of Venus shining through moving clouds might appear to be an airship in flight.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew again defends a SocioPsychoCultural approach in The Illinois UFO Mania of 1897, Why We Should be Leery of Modern-Day UFO Reports and wrote concerning the 1896/97 Airship wave the following explanation which is a good summary of the approach and interpretation we are defending, too:
What is the most likely explanation for the sightings? In the heat of excitement, did witnesses suddenly lose rationality and take on a herd mentality? Were they purely imagining things? Very few witnesses are likely to have created their perceptions from pure imagination alone, but were likely misperceiving existing objects their environment such as stars and planets. I think we need to look no further than basic theories of social psychology. Human perception is highly unreliable, and influenced by a one's "mental set" at the time of an observation. Stars and planets often appear to move, change colors and flicker, and misidentifications of stars and planets are the most common explanation for contemporary UFO sightings. By examining the historical context of UFOs over the past two centuries, we are afforded a fascinating array of similarities including close encounter cases. The only significant difference between these two periods is the UFO form. During the 1897 wave in Illinois, people expected to see airships, while today they expect to see saucer-shaped UFOs. In each instance, residents saw, or thought they saw — exactly what they expected.
In the excerpts presented by Bartholomew coming from the Chicago Tribune, we find:
Carlyle, Ill., April 15. -- (Special.) -- The airship was seen this evening travelling rapidly in a northwesterly course. 
And we also have: 
Hillsboro, Ill., April 15. -- (Special.) -- ... the airship was seen in the western heavens by a number of reputable citizens last evening.
Quincy, Ill., April 15. -- (Special.) -- The Wabash passenger train which arrived here at 10 o'clock tonight raced for 15 minutes with the alleged airship. They first sighted the thing near Perry Springs, 52 miles east of Quincy... All of the passengers saw it, but all they could see was two lights, one white, the other red.
Venus (with Mercury) is visible in the North-West at very bright magnitude, low on the horizon...

Sky reconstitution, 14 April 1897, 19h30 local time. Magnitudes : Venus -4.2 & Mercure -1.1 

It is possible that for a short period of time this evening (and that is what is reported, for example - a 15 minute sighting by the train passengers - ), this “extremely” bright celestial phenomenon near the horizon, slowly moving toward the NW, was interpreted as something (an airship) that was at low altitude. The train was moving in the right direction. Like police officers in pursuit of a planet (the Condon Report of Georgia sightings involving Venus is a good example), the train passengers would believe they were following (or being followed by) the planet Venus (or more exactly Venus misinterpreted as an airship).

Example of planets conjunction, as illustration: From left to right, Saturn, Venus, Mercury and further right, Pollux. 

Same, but clockwise from top, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter.

Another example: A sighting taked place in Omaha, Nebraska, the 29 March 1897 evening. Jerome Clark reports:
Traveling slowly, and close to the ground, it disappeared to North-West...
Again, Venus is matching:

Kansas City was the theater of mass sightings finishing around 9.30 in the evening, too. At this point, the local newspaper had already published the explanation of the "mass delusion". Venus sets exactly at this local hour. Kansas City Star, March 28 stated:
The planet Venus, which is now 26 million miles from the earth . . . has been taken by credulous correspondents in various parts of Kansas for a fully equipped airship cruising among the clouds within a mile of the earth’s surface. These correspondents, with more imagination than astronomy, have telegraphed stories to various Kansas City and St. Louis newspapers describing the monster . . . Some of the correspondents say that this harmless planet, which  is the nearest neighbor of earth, is an airship for the British War Department, spying through the country for fortifications. Friday night members of one family in Kansas City, Kan. declared that they saw the strange craft of the air with the blazing beacon light. The story passed from mouth to mouth and last night hundreds of people of  the city viewed the planet with awe, and the question on every lip was: ‘Have you seen the airship?’ Many of the people actually believed that it was an airship. It disappeared from view about 9:30 o’clock.
The famous sightings on 1 April 1897 taking place in Missouri and Kansas (starting Kansas City – Missouri - evening local time) indicate a course from West to North by the object. Venus was appearing "suddenly" after sundown and was coursing West to North at this period in the evening... Some reported strange movements, but the autokinetic effect and atmospheric refraction phenomena (such as the presence of clouds and wind) may explain it, thus some “exaggerations”.

Another excerpt (in San Francisco Call, 18 November 1896) mentionning a S.W and evening (18h30) sighting in Biggs (California). 

Venus is again a potential candidat to explain this account (very bright , -4.11 magnitude):
Sky reconstitution for Biggs (California) 18h30 local time.

IFOlogy is rich in cases where celestial objects have been misinterpreted for airplanes, balloons or dirigibles. For example, Dominique Caudron studied several old cases where celestial objects were involved:  April 1905 in Cherbourg (France), 1913 in Galicia (Eastern Europe), August 1914 in Paris (France), Summer 1915 in Russia, February 1916 in Rouen (France), etc.

Galicia Event, reconstituted by Dominique Caudron.
Let us give the last word to Robert Bartholomew, who stated in Collective Delusions: A Skeptic's guide:
These sightings serve as a projected Rorschach inkblot test of the collective psyche, underscoring the promise technological advancement during a period of spiritual decline.

Real “Man-Made” Airships?

Because the SocioPsychological and Cultural path seems to be well marked out by different points, facts and evidence, some people should be legitimately inclined to object and suggest it may be possible that real Human-created airships like the ones alleged by witnesses could have flown. In fact, it is not a possibility unexamined or previously proposed in the literature. For example, the recent book by Michael Busby, Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery, defends such an hypothesis.

Another investigator, Louis Winkler, PhD (and MUFON Consultant) seems convinced that real airships did fly in 1896/97, in an article titled The not-so-mysterious Airships of 1896/97. We are not convinced by his theory, which appears as an argumentum ad populum: the hypothesis of inventors testing some prototypes was popular. And? No evidence sensu stricto has been presented of such real manufactured flying airships. Investigator Don Berliner has also criticized Winkler's article and we support his rebuttal. For us, the possibility of real Airships that some inventors may have actually built and flown (in California and in 1896/97) is not supported by evidence and seems fictional. Again, as already underligned, there is no historiographical evidence in Aviation History that we know of to support this.

The SteamPunk Empire site has published a book review concerning Michael Busby's thesis and, again, the possibility of real airships is not really endorsed. There is in Magonia, too, a review and critique of Michael Busby's book and his hypothesis of real Airships having flown.

J. Runyan wrote a very interesting book review and rebuttal regarding Busby's hypothesis that such airships may have flown in commentary appearing in the Amazon on-line bookshop:
The author's thesis is that the spate of "airship" sightings during 1897 is attributable to two or three man-made  lighter-than-air vehicles of an advanced design for the times. He concludes that they were constructed by a secret cabal of genius inventors, and flown for a period of months until they each met with an accidental destruction over the sea. He rejects the possibilities of mass hysteria and hoaxes, and concludes that it is not necessary to invoke other explanations, such as that they were extraterrestrial vehicles.
Among his remarks, he addressed the technical aspects, and we found it really interesting. He pointed out the patent impracticability of the designs, a crucial question Busby never deals with in his book. Runyan wrote:
For example, by their rough dimensions, these airships' gas envelope capacities, compared to mid 20th century  designs that actually carried passengers, are several orders of magnitude too small to lift any useful load, much less  a handful of aeronauts described as living in comfort, with beds, dining tables, cooking stoves, and electric lights and heating(!).
 An airship 150 feet long may sound pretty grand, until you consider that the Hindenburg was 800 feet long and 135 feet in diameter! An airship that is 5 times the length of another does not carry 5 times the load, however: it carries about 125 times the load, because the volume of lifting gas increases as the cube of linear dimensions. Given that about 100 people, including crew, were flying on the Hindenburg in a state of comfort similar to that ascribed to the 1897 airships, the latter would have room for about 1/125 as many people, or about 60% of a person! I guess the heating bill would not have been too steep after all.
He examined the “electricity” problem:
The storage battery technology of the day consisted of heavy glass jars full of acid, with electrodes of suspended  copper and lead bars or plates. Any such battery sufficient to power the ships could not possibly be lifted by their tiny gas capacities. Even ignoring the batteries, any late-19-th century electric motors powerful enough to drive an airship to 100 mph cruise speeds could not be lifted by them, either.” […]  To think that these airships' propellers (or their flapping sail-wings that are also reported) could push them to over 100 mph is beyond laughable. There is no diplomatic way to say it: the 1897 airships' propulsion systems would not work any better than their lift systems - that is, they would not work at all, not even remotely.
Busby argues about “Dr. Solomon Andrews' "Aeron" lighter-than-air craft” and achievements occurring in the mid-1860's, witnessed by numerous professionals in public demonstrations. But there is no trace at all of the lineage of Andrews' dirigible balloon in the 1896/97 airship designs.

Probably supporting projective transformation and elaboration mechanisms, there is the case of Captain Hooton (April 1897), who was a locomotive driver (Iron Mountain Railroad Company). We suspect a hoax. Curiously, his airship looks like a locomotive. Jean Giraud made an artist's impression of his airship (following picture), while we find another one in the Flying Saucer Review (1966, Vol.12, n°4, p.14), reproduced next.

Captain Hooton Airship, drawing by Jean Giraud.

 From Flying Saucer Review, 1966, Vol.12, n°4.

French Investigator Dominique Caudron exhumed a photograph of one of the locomotives used by the Iron Mountain Railroad at this time. The presence of a “dome” close to the “cabin” compared with his airship drawing and the real locomotive is an interesting detail (among others)...

However, the most famous hoax of the 1896/97 airships wave probably is the "Aurora" one:

It seems that "fire balloons" (similar to Chinese Lanterns) should have been sent by "prankers", and such balloons may be responsible of some accounts. Read for example this excepts of the San Francisco Call, 26 November 1896:

Or, in the San Francisco Call 23 November 1896:

In the San Francisco Call (5 December 1896), a "skeptic" dismissed real airships and evoked "fire balloons" too:

Sometimes, the proponents of real airships point to Charles August Albert Dellschau and the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau was a butcher by trade who, after his retirement in 1899, filled at least 13 notebooks with drawings, watercolor paintings and collages depicting fantastical airships. To be succinct, his work seems to be the story of the activities of a sort of secret group of flight enthusiasts or private/secret club, who met at Sonora in California in the middle of the 19th century. According to him (and only him!), one of the members discovered the formula for an anti-gravity fuel (NB Gas) and the goal of this secret group was devoted to building the first navigable machines (called Aeros) using this NB Gas for lift and propulsion ...
So, some suggest that such designs could be the airships seen in November 1896/1897.
But there are several problems. Probably the first is that exhaustive research has been done (to find records, voting rosters, death records, etc.) and nothing has been found to corroborate the real existence of this secret group and their machines, except gravestones where were found several surnames Dellschau used.
That's why some researchers suggest that, like "outsider artist" Henry Darger and his works, Dellschau alone created the idea of the Sonora Aero Club as pure fiction. Dellschau could be then regarded as one of America's earliest visionary artists, certainly nothing supports the idea that machines he depicted could have flown.
His work sounds more like a documentation or artistic view of the optimism concerning flight technologies. It is only artwork and to speculate that his club could have been able to design and build such airship(s) is not supported by evidence.
The other problem is that Dellschau's collages incorporate newspaper clippings ("press blooms") of the then-current news articles about aeronautical advances and disasters, and there are depictions of airplanes or things post-1896/97. When proponents of the Sonora Aero Club avenue explanation for the airship 1896/97 wave use some his artwork to support their thesis, they rarely present these other drawings.
For example, this one is often used, because it depicts “airships”:

Collection of Stephanie Smither, Texas

But the others using “press blooms” seem to indicate creation of his artwork took place after 1896/97, because they include “planes” or real airships recorded by aviation history (see next pictures):

Courtesy Stephen Romano, Brooklyn.

Courtesy Stephen Romano, Brooklyn.


At this stage of the investigation, the psycho-sociocultural solution appears to be the most economical hypothesis to solve the 1896/97 mystery, in the sense it is not calling into play exotic entities such as aliens, time-travelers, multidimensional voyagers, sapient beings manipulating us, and so on. 
The other "conventional" alternative hypothesis, defending the idea some inventors may have manufactured the airships and thus some of the 1896/97 reports would be in reality perceptions of these actual craft, are lacking the provision of any real scientific evidence to support the claim, as these airships (patented or pictured here and there) are technically “impossible”, a fiction. There is none airship recorded by the aviation history having flown in 1896/97 and in America.

Baldwin Dirigible (USAF photo), the US Army first dirigible (circa 1907/1908).

One American dirigible "Strobel"  (1908).

Post scriptum 1 : The missing Witnesses as future Hints.

"One curious feature of the post 1897 airship waves was the failure of each to stick in historical memory. Although 1909, for example, brought a flood of sightings worldwide and attendant discussion and speculation, contemporary accounts do not allude to the hugely publicized events of little more than a decade earlier." (Clark 2000, 123) .

“With a single unsatisfactory exception*, no eyewitness was ever interviewed even in the 1950’s, when some were presumably still living."(Clark 1998, 37).

*The "single unsatisfactory example" Clark cites is a former San Francisco Chronicle employee interviewed via telephone by Edward J. Ruppelt in 1952. Ruppelt wrote that the man "had been a copy boy ... and remembered the incident, but time had cancelled out the details. He did tell me that he, the editor of the paper, and the news staff had seen 'the ship', as he referred to the UFO. His story, even though it was fifty-six years old, smacked of others I’d heard when he said that no one at the newspaper ever told anyone what they had seen; they didn’t want people to think they were 'crazy.'
From: The Amazing Airship of 1896 by James L. Cambias.

Appendix A: Some Memory Effects.

We will list (non-exhaustively) some key-words connected with the false memory syndrome and human memory in order that readers realize that human memory is fallible and this has been scientifically demonstrated with abundant fields of research, mainly in cognitive psychology.

False Memory: Cognitive psychological term designating the creation of erroneous memories that the individual will however consider as real and this with a perfect good faith (Brédart, 2004; Loftus, 1979, 1980, 1993; Loftus & Hoffman,1989; Loftus & Ketcham, 1997; Loftus & Pickrell, 1995; Roediger,& McDermott,1995; Schacter, 2002, 2003). 

Memory Conformity: Matching of the memories of one individual with those of another individual(s), in a discussion between them for example (Wright, Self, & Justice, 2000). This bias may happen to a collection of accounts when the speech and discussion about it have been oriented, consciously or not.
Memory conformity is a particular case of the effect(s) of information presented after an event incorporated into the recall of the event. The post-event information is integrated by the individual into his memories despite the fact they are in reality external. When evoking or recalling his memories, the individual has the impression that this external information is part of the reality he is evoking, despite this information being transmitted later than the event he is recalling. Daniel Bernstein et al. have demonstrated such effects in the recall of old events (Bernstein, Whittlesea, & Loftus, 2002; Bernstein, Rudd, Erdfelder, Godfrey & Loftus, 2009).

Restrospection bias: Memory bias consisting of conforming ones' own memories to the judgments, behavior, opinions, states and beliefs of the observers of your narration (as witness) or of people recording it. By conformity and suggestion/suggestibility, the initial memories are contaminated (Conway & Ross, 1984). 

Imagination Inflation: Effect demonstrating that if we demand individuals to imagine hypothetical events, we increase the confidence level and veracity that such individuals will have later in judging such events as having really happened to them, and are not hypothetical, but real (Garry, Manning, Loftus & Sherman, 1996).

Suggestibility: When an individual integrates into his memories erroneous elements coming from external sources conveyed by the surrounding culture or by other individuals in his environment. 

Revelation Effect: In a recognition test, the error committed when an observer misjudges items (like figures, objects, letters) which are degraded, distorted, disguised, or revealed step by step or which must be uncovered, to be old, despite the fact they are not in fact older in reality (Watkins & Peynircioglu, 1990).

Impoverished Relational-Encoding: Hege & Dodson's validated hypothesis to explain how distinctive information reduces the false memory elements. Distinctive or different information interferes with the relational or associative information which is the main base to create or induce false memories.
In other words, distinctive and different information must be presented in order for the individual to block his relational, emotional or associative ones, in order to become and to remain objective (Hege & Dodson, 2004).

False Recognition: Erroneous recognition in the sense we recognize elements, but they are not part of memory (Norman & Schacter, 1997).

False Recall: Idem, but this time, concerning memory recall and not only recognition (Roediger & Robinson (1997).

Hotspot: This term designates the detailed memories of the more intense moment of emotional distress concerning a traumatic event (Grey, & Holmes, 2008).

Cryptomnesia: A sort of involuntary plagiarism or copy, when an individual attributes an idea to themselves, despite it have been produced by another person(Brédart, Lampinen & Defeldre, 2003).

Boundary extension illusion: Memory distortion effect involving restoration of the memory of a picture, landscape, photography, etc. but with a greater extent at was it is in reality, as if in his memory, the individual opened a greater view angle to add new details in the new memory-created space (Intraud & Richardson, 1989).

Misleading information or misinformation: Erroneous information presented to an individual after a study phase and from researchers evaluating the effect in the creation of false memories (Loftus, ibid.).

DRM paradigm: Developed first by Deese (1959), but made famous by Roediger & McDermott (1995), DRM Paradigm (thus Deese-Roediger-McDermott) consists of asking individuals to study different words which are semantically associated with each other. Results show that the indiduals afterward recall or recognize words not presented, due to possessing some associated or semantic link with the words actually presented.

The memory is then easy to contaminate or be contaminated. Memory is not a sort of instantaneous photography of the initial stimulus or event the individuals are recreating during interviews or in recall in general. There exists a complex interaction in the memory mechanism by several factors and variables: cultural ambiance, one's imagination, the observers or interviewers, mnemonic degeneration due to the time, the protocol used to record memories, etc.
The memory is then easy to contaminate or contaminated. Memory is fare to a sort of instantaneous photography of the initial stimulus or event the individuals are restoring during interviews or in the recall in general. It exists a complex interaction in the memory mechanism between several factors and variables: The cultural ambiance, his imagination, the observants or interviewers, mnemonic degeneration due to the time, the protocol used to record memories, etc.
Scientific literature demonstrates that to imagine autobiographical events, despite the fact they are fictive, may lead individuals to believe they have lived these events (Garry & Polaschek, 2000). To present falsified evidence or proof may drive innocent suspects to believe they are responsible of a crime they have not committed (Nash & Wade, under press).
Psychologists Robert Nash & Wade (in press 2) have been interested by the relative contribution of the imagination and falsified evidence on the development of autobiographic false memories or beliefs. Individuals observe and must reproduce different actions created by an extra of the scientists. They afterward visualize falsified video records, which suggest these individuals have performed supplemental actions they have not actually accomplished. Two weeks later, the participants are submitted to a recall test of the actions and the results show that the presentation of falsified evidence is powerful enough (as imagination) to provoke false beliefs and memories that support unreal actions or facts.
That is why, among other things, witness testimonies must be recorded using standardized protocols in order to control, avoid or minimize such biases. It is essential to invoke or evoke possible other biases in order to verify if they were or were not at play, and this to validate, determine the degree of similarity between what is recreated by memory and the initial stimulus or event. This method is developed and is called the cognitive interview (Demarchi & Py, 2006). It's a procedure to record memories from witnesses or victims, and there exists an abundant literature showing and demonstrating that we recall more accurately using this cognitive interview process than by standard methods (Ginet, 2003).

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2 commentaires:

Jack Brewer a dit…

Bonjour Gilles,

Merci pour votre message approfondi et instructif. Vous présentez des faits convaincants et intéressants appui de votre hypothèse que Vénus était la principale source des rapports en question. Quelques commentaires:

Parmi les pièces les plus solides de la preuve, à mon avis, étaient les articles cités dans laquelle il a été déclaré Venus avait été mal identifié comme un dirigeable. Alors que les opposants de votre hypothèse peuvent discuter avec vos pensées globales en la matière, vous en effet démontré que, dans au moins certains cas, il a déjà été prouvé de façon raisonnable. Il a ensuite ne peut être soutenu que si oui ou non toutes les observations ont la même ou une explication similaire.

Par exemple, l'information a été présenté sur plusieurs observations rapportées en Californie. Vous avez démontré que ces observations ont eu lieu de nombreux miles de distance. Par conséquent, il se fait de soi que des témoins ont été influencés par quelque chose (comme Vénus) qui était assez haut dans le ciel que tous pouvaient voir. On peut aussi considérer qu'ils auraient pu être effectuées par une variété d'explications, mais ce que ces explications pourraient être devient de moins en moins probable, la plus extraordinaire.

N'importe quelle manière nous pourrions choisir de regarder les dirigeables signalés, la charge de la preuve incombe toujours ceux qui font des revendications. Il devient donc leurs RESPONSABILITÉS aux circonstances actuelles documentées qui appuieraient leurs croyances et suppositions.

J'apprécie particulièrement votre volonté de considérer les gens ne comprennent pas toujours exactement ce qu'ils voient, peu importe comment convaincus qu'ils peuvent sembler. Recherches menées par des professionnels a démontré que cela soit le cas, encore et encore, mais beaucoup de gens continuer à accepter pleinement que si tout ce que nous avons sont des rapports d'une circonstance ou d'une autre, nous n'avons pas vraiment quoi que ce soit, sauf parler. Alors que les découvertes commencent par parler et d'idées, à un moment donné, ils doivent se matérialisent en plus, et, bien sûr, le plus extraordinaire de la revendication, la plus concluante la preuve doit être. OVNI et dirigeable promoteurs doivent prouver leurs croyances.

Merci encore pour votre travail à ce sujet. J'ai hâte de vous présenter plus d'essais pour la communauté ufologique.


Gilles Fernandez a dit…

Hello Jack,

Many thanks for the reading of this text about the 1896/97 Airships wave at my blog.

I think the parts concerning why (or possibly why) some people legitimately misinterpret stimuli they dont recognize for what they are and then are making inferences about, is probably the part which interested me the more (for the writing itself of this article and its motivation, as concerning ufology in general) - aka the SocioPsychological and Cultural approach/model of the UFO phenomenom (and connexe as abductions).

I regret to have (yet) not enough academic resources to have well explained (or trie to explain) that 19th century medias (here newspapers) are not the same as today, and some reports, etc. must be taken with an extrem caution (or historical -re-contextualization of such medias).
I mean that "Celestial candidats + surrounding airships imagery and cultural expectations" are not (imho) the only variable(s) explaining the "reports" or to put in "the equation" to conventionaly explain this wave and to have the "big picture".
But it is quoted among the lines (for example, if we read Cambias).
As to not have (yet) devoted more lines about the April 1897 "change" in the wave, where neswpapers are or seem more "sensasionalist" in the reports we have (and then "ufologists" mainly presenting/jumping on such april 1897 excerpts when presenting the wave - like French ufologist Jean Sider -). Maybe in the future.

For the burden of the proof, I agree of course with your remarks. Mainly for the thesis of real man-made airships and succeeding in flight(s) at this period and area. Concerning the exotic ones, they appear for me very "poetic" (I like to read such productions and I respect their proponents), but only! They are not substantiate by what need extraordinary claims (concerning evidences to proove them)...

Very best regards,