flying saucer

The modern phenomenon of UFO sightings dates to 1947. While occasional reportings of unusual objects in the sky date to the early 20th century, both the modern UFO craze and the term flying saucer date to this year.

On 24 June 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing several high-speed, unidentified flying objects near Mount Rainier in Washington state. This produced a spate of such “sightings” in the following days. Initial reports described these objects as “shaped like a pie plate” and within a few days this description morphed into flying saucer. From the Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1947:

The area over which the “flying saucers” were reported seen widened to Southwestern New Mexico today.

Interestingly, Arnold claimed that he was misquoted by Oregon journalist Bill Bequette and that the objects were not saucer-shaped. The Chicago Daily Tribune of 26 June 1947 carried Bequette’s initial wire-service report that quotes Arnold as saying:

They were silvery and shiny and seemed to be shaped like a pie plate.

Arnold later disputed this description, stating that they were shaped like boomerangs or bat-wings. He claims to have said that the objects moved like a saucer skipping across water and that Bequette misinterpreted this. At the time of the sighting, Arnold made drawings of the objects he saw and these confirm that Bequette misquoted him. But this correction was too late. The idea of saucer-shaped alien craft had wormed its way into the public consciousness and subsequent “sightings” dutifully conformed to the saucer-shaped prototype of a proper alien craft.

This is the first example of a common phenomenon in UFOlogy, where descriptions of aliens or their craft tend to conform to the descriptions given in the most recent stories in the media. For example, after the movie E.T. debuted, many descriptions of allegedly real aliens looked remarkably like the protagonist of the Spielberg film.

(Sources: Proquest Historical Newspapers; “Mass Delusions and Hysterias,” by Robert Bartholomew and Erich Goode, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2000)

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