The mass media was a significant cause of the rise of science fiction in the 19th century and the UFO crazes of the 20th century. The invention of the steam press by Koenig and Bauer in 1812 made possible the cheap mass-produced novel and the science fiction genre created by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818. The penny press that emerged in the 1830s flourished on creative stories of strange beings from distant planets. The New York Sun of press pioneer Benjamin Day caused a sensation in 1835 when it ran a 6-part series on "Great Astronomical Discoveries" that described lush green vegetation on the lunar surface with animals similar to bears and zebras, and human-like creatures with bat-wings that could fly. Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke had completely fabricated the "moon hoax" stories, but they were popular and increased circulation. The penny press of James Gordon Bennett published the exotic adventures stories of Jules Verne. The dime novel that emerged in the 1860s included stories such as "The Steam Man of the Prairie" by Edward Ellis in 1865.

Issue no. 45, photo from Galactic

1892/09/24 - The Frank Reade Library began publication of a series of invention stories that ran for 191 issues, the first 5-cent dime novel devoted entirely to science and science fiction. Many of the Frank Reade stories were written by Luis Senarens. It fulfilled a growing fascination in America during the 1890s with technology and inventions such as robots, submarines, airplanes.

1896 - Newspapers carried a growing number of reports of airship experiments, setting off the "Airship Hysteria" of 1896-97. There was an increase in airship patent applications in the late 1890s. Samuel Pierpont Langley tested his first aeroplane model on May 6, 1896. Swedish explorer Solomon Andree made an unsuccessful attempt at an Arctic balloon trip May 31. William Paul crashed his airship Albatross in September. The Sacramento Bee reported Nov. 17 that three New York men would attempt to fly an airship to California, and over the next several days hundreds of reports of airship sightings came in from people around Sacramento. Another wave of hundreds of sightings took place from January to May in 1897. Most of the sightings were at night during the winter months, started in California and spread east, and were fueled by sensationalistic newspaper stories. William Randolph Hearst published an editorial in his San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 5, 1896, critical of this sensationalism: " 'Fake journalism' has a good deal to answer for, but we no not recall a more discernible exploit in that line than the persistent attempt to make the public believe that the air in this vicinity is populated with airships. It has been manifest for weeks that the whole airship story is pure myth." (quoted in Frazier p. 20)

1902 - George Melies produced the first space travel film, using trick photography to send a cannon projectile into the man-in-the-moon's face, in his 14-minute silent film "A Trip to The Moon."

Mt. Rainier 1913, by George Fuller

1947/06/24 - Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine crescent-shaped objects moving at 1000 mph and behaving like saucers skipping across the water, as he was flying his private plane toward Mt. Rainier in Washington. He told his story to the local newspaper and it was picked up by AP for worldwide distribution. Suddenly, people everywhere began to report seeing "flying saucers" using the phrase invented by the AP and printed in the headline of its story. Another newspaper story 2 weeks later added to the UFO scare. "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Area" was the July 8 headline in the Roswell Daily Record, based on the false claim of New Mexico rancher William Brazel that he had recovered the debris of a crashed flying saucer on his ranch 30 miles southeast of Corona NM and turned it over to the government. The Air Force investigated the claim and proved it false, but people believed it was a government coverup at Roswell Army Air Force base. The debris was actually from one of the high altitude balloons used in the classified Project Mogul to monitor Russian nuclear explosions. On Aug. 1 an Army B-25 crashed shortly after takeoff from Tacoma, carrying alleged debris from a flying saucer that Harold Dahl and Fred Crissman had reported exploded near Maury Island in Puget Sound on June 21, but Dahl and Crissman later confessed to a hoax. The Air Force began Project Sign to study such incidents as Maury Island, and issued secret reports that became the origin of the "X Files" and rumors of government conspiracies.

1948 - In December, Project Sign's name was changed Project Grudge and astronomer J. Allen Hynek of Ohio State University was hired to investigate and write reports.

1949 - The term "Unidentified Flying Object" was first used by Project Grudge in the title of a report: "Unidentified Flying Objects - Project Grudge, Technical Report No. 102-AC-49/15-100." The term was popularized by Edward J. Ruppelt who worked with Project Blue Book, the Air Force investigation of flying saucers that replaced Project Grudge in early 1952.

1951 - The feature film The Day the Earth Stood Still was released Sept. 28.

Giant Rock, photo from MBHS

1952 - Radar at Andrews AFB and Washington National Airport tracked mysterious blips on July 19 and 20 and 27. These were among a large number of UFO sightings and newspaper stories in 1952. As a result, the CIA began a special study within the Office of Scientific Intelligence.

1954 - In March, the 1st Giant Rock Convention took place at the California Mojave Desert location where George Van Tassel said he had received psychic messages from UFOs. The annual convention would meet for the next 23 years under the shadow of the world's largest boulder. The first convention was held by 5000 "contactees" who claimed to have made contact with aliens.

1955 - The USAF began test flights in August of the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance plane that reflected sunlight from its silver surface, later painted black. Project Blue Book estimated the 50% of all UFO sightings in the next 15 years were due to the high flights of planes like the U-2 and the SR-71 that began test flights in 1964.

1956 - The feature film Earth Versus the Flying Saucers was released; Gary Barker in his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, used the term "men in black" to describe a government conspiracy that began with the Maury Island incident in 1947; in November, a Universal newsreel showed Santa Clause arriving in a flying saucer at Hess Brothers in Allentown.

1957 - The Frisbee became a popular toy in suburbia, named after 19th century Connecticut baker William Russel Frisbie who put his name on the bottom of pie tins that were thrown in the air by generations of kids. In 1948, WWII veterans Warren Franscioni and Walter Frederick Morrison decided to make a toy disc out of plastic that would not dent like the metal pie tins, and added a curved edge for easier handling, and named their toy the "Flying Saucer" because of the recent popularity of UFO sightings. They formed a company called Pipco and began to sell the toy on their own. Al Capp mentioned the plastic "Flying Saucer" in his Li'l Abner comic strip in 1950, but sales never took off. Morrison formed a new company and sold the disc as the Pluto Platter in 1955. The Wham-O toy company licensed Morrison's product and on January 13, 1957, the Wham-O Pluto Platter went on sale. Rich Knerr of Wham-O was selling the Platter in the east when he saw Ivy League students "Frisbie-ing" with the old pie plates. He renamed Morrison's Platter the "Frisbee" and registered the trademark on May 26, 1959.

Devil's Tower, Wyo. by W. H. Jackson

1957 - In January, Billy Lee Riley released "Flying Saucer Rock-and-Roll" with lyrics drawn from the growing subcultures of UFOs and rock music: "Well, the news of the saucer been a-flyin' around/I'm the only one that seen it on the ground/First thing I seen when I saw it land/Cats jumped out and they formed a band." The song was recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis and became one of the foundations of the new rockabilly genre. Riley's band was renamed the Little Green Men (Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, Roland Janes on guitar, J.M. Van Eaton on drums).

1959 - The U. S. Army and Air Force funded development of the Avrocar VZ-9 "flying saucer" by Avro Aircraft Ltd. of Canada. The test models of the 18-ft. diameter saucer failed to achieve controlled flight Nov. 21 and again in 1960 and 1961 caused the cancellation of the program Dec. 1961, and the last model was donated to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

1959 - "The Twilight Zone" TV series written by Rod Serling began Oct. 1 on CBS-TV, until 1965

1961 - Betty and Barney Hill claimed to have been abducted for 2 hours by aliens from Zeta Reticulli while driving back to their home in Portsmouth NH from Canada on the night of Sept. 19. Betty reported the incident to Pease AFB in New Hampshire, and the base confirmed tracking an unknown object at that time.

1962 - "The Jetsons" began on TV as a Hanna-Barbera animated cartoon.

1963 - "The Outer Limits" premiered Sept. 1 on ABC-TV, on air for two seasons until Jan. 16, 1965.

1973 - A surge in flying saucer sightings took place. The next year, NBC broadcast The Disappearance of Flight 412 - film clip.

1975 - On Nov. 5 a group of loggers in northern Arizona saw a bright light from a strange craft. One of the loggers, Travis Walton, disappeared and five days later reappeared near the town of Heber and told a story of being tested by strange beings five feet tall with big heads and eyes. The story was told in the 1993 film Fire in the Sky.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

1977 - Steven Spielberg directed the feature film Close Encounters of the Third Kind that portrayed flying saucers and aliens landing and making peaceful contact with humans at Devil's Tower, Wyoming.

1979 - When the National Enquirer switched to color, Generoso Pope launched the Weekly World News tabloid that took over the old black-and-white press. Pope had inaugurated the modern tabloid era in America in 1952 when he bought the New York Enquirer from Hearst for $75,000, and by 1958 reached a national circulation of 250,000. In the 1960s he began to sell the Enquirer in supermarkets to middle age women with a growing emphasis on celebrities. A cover story in 1969 on Jackie Onassis increased circulation by 300,000, and ten years later weekly circulation reached 5 million. In 1981 Pope hired Eddie Clontz to run the Weekly World News, and the paper became what Clontz called "the last true tabloid in America," making up stories about Bat Boy and aliens visiting Bill Clinton, offering in almost every issue some story about UFOs or abductees or space creatures.

1980- The newspaper Wiltshire Times was first to use the term "crop circles" to describe what had appeared Aug. 15 in an oat field near Westbury in the UK county of Wiltshire. Reports of such swirling crop indentations had been growing in number since the early 1970s. In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley admitted creating many of the circles. Along with crop circles, there are 900 stone rings in the British Isles. The Stonehenge megalithic ring in Wiltshire county has been a magnet for UFO stories, including the account of a British Centurion tank that disappeared in August 1957 after its crew reported a large silver cigar-shaped object over Stonehenge.


1993 - "The X Files" began an 8-year run on TV with FBI agent Fox Mulder played by David Duchovny investigating UFOs and aliens. The 1998 feature film portrayed a government conspiracy and a plot by aliens to colonized the earth.

1994 - The Air Force released a 1000-page report denying the existence of aliens or UFOs at Roswell, but a Gallup poll showed 71% of American people believed in a government coverup.

1996 - The feature film Independence Day was released July 3 as a modern version of H. G. Wells's 1898 novel War of the Worlds, this time with computer-generated special effects of giant alien saucers annihilating entire cities, and the recovery of a captured alien craft at Area 51 that was used to plant a computer virus in the mother ship.

2002 - The feature film Signs was released July 29, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

2004 - The TV series "The 4400" about the return to earth of 4400 abductees premiered July 11 on the USA network.

2005 - Tom Cruise, the star of the 2005 film War of the Worlds released June 29, declared in press interviews his belief in the existence of aliens.


revised 7/20/05 by Steven Schoenherr at the University of San Diego