To the Heavens and Back – The 1896 Mystery Airships

The Mystery

In 1896, strange reports began to flood police stations and newspaper offices across the United States. They were sightings of something in the air- not a bird, not a cloud… something artificial. Many reports described a machine shaped akin to a cigar, with propellers and an undercarriage. An airship, you’re probably thinking. However, there’s one problem: the first rigid airship took flight in 1900, and was in Germany. So what were people seeing?

A 19th-century UFO

Some modern retellings of the story claim that the airships were similar to modern flying saucer encounters, abduction and all. However, there are no credible reports of this sort. The majority of reports described the viewer peacefully observing the machine from a distance, usually in the wilderness and often at night. And, again, they lacked the speed and lights of many modern UFO stories. The old flying saucer theory is out of the way, so what did the people really believe to be happening?

Mad Scientists

In the years up to 1896, the development of airships and airplanes was in the public eye. Many inventors were scrambling to design a flying machine throughout the late 1800s. Newspapers were reporting on the latest attempts to fly, both locally and nationally. So, it’s understandable for inventors to design a fully working airship in secret, and fly it around at night. And that’s what many believe started to happen in 1896.

Mass Media

Now, about those newspapers. Newspapers in the previous century tended to exaggerate or even use fake stories to make headlines. As the race to make a flying machine got more intense, so did the stories that newspapers churned out. The craze of stories about flying picked up around… 1896. Starting with the San Francisco Chronicle, many newspapers started to tell a story about an inventor flying from New England to California, and later flying back across to New York. From Minneapolis to Maine, Oregon to Idaho, the story was in newspapers nationwide. There is no evidence for this story. However, the story was “reported” so often that many believed it to be true- and therefore justifying their beliefs that they saw an airship the other night. And they bought newspapers to hear where that ship they saw has since ended up.

Change in the times

Again, of course, there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that any such airship was actually created. However, a mixture of different causes all aligning in the 1890’s seem to be what has caused this episode of mass hysteria. The latter half of the 19th century was marked by difficult times due to natural circumstances and the civil war, so American citizens were looking for hope. Secondly, as established, the public was aware that air travel was right around the corner. And finally, the spark igniting the flame was the media. Their exaggerated reporting on unreliable stories seemed plausible to a population obsessed with airships.


Another wave of reports occurred in 1897, and was very similar to the wave in 1896. In the end, it is believed that citizens, fueled by the media, began to perceive any unusual light, cloud, or other object in the sky as an airship in the hopes that they could witness history in the making. You’re probably noticing some similarities to modern flying saucer stories. Back in the day, science fiction stories told of huge airships being flown in secret by mysterious visitors, much like our UFO stories. In the end, if you see something in the sky, don’t assume it’s what others say- use your own judgment.         

Dexter Lansing – George School – DMSF Class of 2027