Electric Flying Machines:  Thomas Townsend Brown

Gerry Vassilatos


For the enthralled onlookers who reported the mysterious and luminary “aeroships” during the 1890’s, cavernous space seemed to be opening new secrets and potentials for humanity. The whole nation watched the night skies for signs of strange crafts, ships “from an unknown world”. Aeroship sightings swept the country long before the press could reach and contaminate the more susceptible with the furor of panic and mass hysteria. It was the only such mass event in recent time in which unidentified flying objects were sighted, not by media-precipitation, but through direct and continual experience.

The townsfolk and farmland residents of the yet agrarian American Society were bewildered with the source of these sightings. Here was experiential contact, but contact with whom … or what? The first aeroships were ghostlike in appearance. Though fixed in their outward cylindrical form, they often appeared semi-transparent and vague in detail. Their silence was another feature, which positively enthralled those who accidentally beheld their serene aerial passage.

Gossamer fabrications, their solid geometric shapes gradually acquired other mystifying attributes. Like a vision, which forms from mist and slowly clarifies to sharpness with time, the aeroships “became” identifiable as some bizarre craft for transportation. Colored lights, flashing lights, searchlight beacons, turbines, sounds … the sounds came after a sizable population saw the objects, and … vaguely “human personages”.

Those who looked into the stars were the fortunate recipients of a new and fast coming dawn, where dream symbols were actively weaving the future. A new revelation was suddenly permeating the American mind. Books and gazettes were flooded with tales of aerial abductions. Townspeople shared what aerial visions they nightly saw. Local newspapers were astir with the reports. All thoughts turned away from the earth and focused on the stars, looking for signs of the strange crafts and their whereabouts. The “mysterious visitors” who made their nightly, silent aerial courses across Midwestern wheat fields seemed vaguely linked with a lost time and a forgotten world. There was something dreamlike in their nature. Dreamlike, yet solid.

Were they the embodiments of some inventor’s mad schemes, or were they phantasms of the collective symbolic world? Sighted over California, New Mexico, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Omaha, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Delaware, New York, the early sightings of aeroships signalled a new movement in the sea of dreams. Soon, human art would join that movement, producing physical crafts, which mimicked the first “aerial ghost-ships”.

Their movements seemingly had no boundaries or limits. German immigrants had seen these “demonic engines” in their homeland, from 1860 until the 1880’s. Why had they seemingly pursued them across the Atlantic? Who were they and why were they demanding attention? What did these voyagers signify? Traveling over the houses of those who would see them, the ships could be described with greater accuracy. All of them were “cigar shaped” measuring some one hundred feet long or more. Better details were seen than those in which the aeroships “soared overhead at six hundred feet”. There were mystery ships, which came close to the ground, multiple witnesses of high credibility simultaneously seeing the ships land.

Whereas early sightings (1890-1892) were dreamlike and attractively benign, most persons were increasingly frightened by their appearance during the “mid-season” (1893-1896). The strange designs somehow seemed “hostile”, though no hostile activities were ever associated with them. People were gradually sensing an insidious “invasion” of their world. Fearing that hordes of nameless, faceless armies would descend and do harm to thousands, ranchers took note and armed themselves.

All too numerous first aeroship sightings remained in the files of the paranormal, involving mysterious personages of truly unknown origins, languages, and abilities. Fears seemed confirmed when some aeroship shadowy “visitors” were seen during night flaps. Gradually clarifying from shadow to light, these mystery beings were observed by a great number of people. Standing amid intensely brilliant “search lights”, strange figures were seen examining their craft. Certain of these strange figures spoke bizarre languages, hybrids of familiar dialects. In one case, the design seemed “oriental” in design. The aerial visitors seemed human, but their clothing was totally otherworldly and, somehow, futuristic. They certainly “looked different”. Their languages were certainly no identifiable tongue. They came close enough to engage a contact.

Running toward the figures often resulted in their “immediate” withdrawal and ascent. They seemed able to de-materialize and appear overhead in seconds! Intent on remaining elusive, ordinary people were convinced that something supernatural was happening. The “mystery visitors” maintained a curious and dreamy separation from the humanity, which they were stimulating. “They” seemed frightened of meeting and engaging people, as if power would be lost through the contact.

Late season aeroship encounters (1895-1899) changed dramatically. Some farmers and mechanics tried running near the ships, describing them as “canoe shaped crafts”. They were often flooded within with a “greenish or bluish” light. Under the large housing, there were multiple portholes from which downward looking faces peered excitedly. In several cases there were turbine-like wheels, whose slow turning effected rapidly ascending retreats.

In one case, the mystery night visitors hoisted cattle away, strung by the neck with what appeared to be a wire rope. The red aeroship flew off toward the distant hills. Several of the “later mystery aeroships” were actually engaged in friendly conversation, dirigible hovering in plain sight. Aeroships now became “aerialists”, the mystery seemingly solved.

For most, it became obvious that “inventors” were behind the entire phenomenon from start to finish. German inventors! Dirigibles began appearing everywhere. The names Autzerlitz, Eddelman, Tillman, Dolbear, Nixon, and Schoetler seemed to answer the question, which frightened German Americans had asked. But these individuals had also seen the early ghostships, an anomaly which could not find a reasonable answer.

Nevertheless, most people were completely assured that the entire history of aeroships was an elaborate confusion of observations … secret societies, hoaxes, publicity stunts, and the like. Certainly a few of these last sightings were indeed the result of secret earthly aerial “clubs”. Designers and financiers together undertook the early construction of dirigibles. There were several reports of such an enterprise. The device was huge, used hydrogen gas for lift, and sported several advanced osmium-filament searchlights for nighttime travel.

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