10 Landmark Moments In UFO History

Zinger Key Points
  • The first film footage of a UFO was Nick Mariana's 1950 footage.
  • The 1974 film "Chariots of the Gods" claimed aliens assisted ancient civilizations.

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee's Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee held a hearing on military reports regarding unidentified aerial phenomena, the government-approved euphemism for unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The hearing occurred because the National Defense Authorization Act required the military to establish a permanent office to gather information on this issue and provide Congress with an annual report and semiannual briefings.

This is the latest milestone in the long and convoluted history of UFOs, which have been part of the American experience since the days of the Pilgrims. Let’s consider some of the landmark events in U.S. UFO history.

1. The First UFO Sighting: UFO historians have never reached a consensus on when and where the first documented UFO sighting occurred. Ancient writings in Europe and Asia include observations of unusual celestial objects that are vague and it's widely considered these could have been comets, meteors or other celestial happenings that were unknown to those civilizations.

What might have been the first UFO sighting in North America can be traced to March 1, 1639, when John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, recorded an event viewed by three men in a boat who saw an unusual light in the evening sky. Winthrop recorded, “When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square. When it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine … Diverse other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place.”

Winthrop added that the three men who first spotted the light later found themselves one mile upstream and claimed they had no memory of how they wound up so far away. Some UFO historians speculate if these men were the first American residents to experience an alien abduction.

2. Read All About It: UFOs first turned up in the media in the Jan. 25, 1878, edition of the Denison Daily News, a Texas newspaper. That edition included an article about John Martin, a farmer who saw a circular object moving "at wonderful speed" across the sky. Martin described the object as being shaped like a saucer, but the phrase “flying saucer” would not take root until nearly 70 years later.

3. Unfriendly Visitors, Part 1: The first person to raise the possibility that hostile extra-terrestrials were flying across the heavens to invade Earth was British writer H.G. Wells, whose 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds” imagined a Martian invasion of the planet.

Wells was not the first writer to offer the idea of intelligent life beyond the Earth — the Greek author Lucian of Samosata included a visit to the moon and interaction with the lunar inhabitants in his novella “A True Story,” published in the second century AD. But Wells was unique in having the intergalactic neighbors arrive on Earth by spacecraft, thus setting up the literary genre involving extra-terrestrial visits.

4. Unfriendly Visitors, Part 2: On Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles adapted “War of the Worlds” as a radio drama for his “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” updating the story to a contemporary American setting and framing the production as a breaking news presentation. But too many people who tuned in after the show began thought they were listening to a live broadcast of an alien invasion and a widescale panic ensued across the country.

While Welles’ “War of the Worlds” would become known as one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time, not everyone knew the story. In February 1949, a Spanish-language version was presented on Ecuadorian radio and it reportedly set off panic in the capital city of Quito.

See Also: Does Elon Musk Believe In Aliens? Here's What He Said And How It Would Impact SpaceX

5. The Only Way To Fly: Pilot sightings of unexplained objects occurred throughout World War II, but the Allied forces were more focused on fighting Nazis than Martians and no priority was given to the reported sightings. After the war, American private pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed to have seen nine UFOs flying past Washington’s Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. Arnold estimated the UFOs were traveling 1,200 miles an hour.

Arnold's report was picked up by the media and soon American newspapers and radio stations were flooded with reports of “flying saucers” and “flying discs.” In his interviews, Arnold noted the U.S. military denied the unidentified objects were part of their fleet, adding the speculation that they originated from another planet.

6. Chaos In The Land Of Enchantment: Roughly two weeks after Arnold’s sighting at Mount Rainier, the Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico issued a press release that it recovered debris from what was described as a "flying disc." Coming so quickly after Arnold’s sightings, some news outlets published stories that the debris belonged to an alien spacecraft.

The Army hastily issued a clarification that the debris belonged to a weather balloon, but the damage was done. The story generated a flurry of speculative coverage but soon died down and was mostly forgotten until the publication of the 1980 book “The Roswell Incident,” which introduced the story angle that alien bodies were recovered from the debris. The story never died down again.

7. Uncle Sam Steps In: In March 1952, the U.S. government responded to a growing level of UFO sightings by launching an investigation into the validity of the reported activity. Two earlier probes were briefly conducted in the late 1940s, but the Project Blue Book initiative that launched in March 1952 and concluded in December was the most thorough, combing through more than 12,600 reports.

Project Blue Book concluded there was no evidence the UFO sightings involved alien spaceships, nor was there proof that a “War of the Worlds”-style attack was ever a possibility. There was also no evidence the objects being reported represented aerospace technology unknown on Earth.

Of course, if people accepted those conclusions, you wouldn’t be reading this article and Congress wouldn’t be hosting its UFO hearings.

8. Lights! Camera! UFO! Beginning in 1947, many Americans began producing black-and-white photographs that were being put forth as photographic evidence of UFOs. These photographs divided popular opinion, with some people stating they were hoaxes and others advocating for their accuracy.

The first motion picture evidence of a UFO was filmed on Aug. 15, 1950, by Nick Mariana, a minor league baseball team manager in Great Falls, Montana, who captured two silvery objects speeding through the sky. Mariana captured the UFOs in 16 seconds of color 16mm film and estimated they were flying up to 400 mph.

The U.S. Air Force examined the film but claimed it only showed the reflection of fighter jets on a training mission. Mariana who later claim the Air Force removed the first 35 frames of the footage that “showed larger images of the UFOs with a notch or band at one point by which they could be seen to rotate in unison” — the Air Force vigorously denied that any footage was removed. The public saw the film for the first time in a 1956 docu-drama film called “Unidentified Flying Objects.”

9. Way Back In The Day: In 1971, the Academy Awards competition for Best Documentary Feature included a German production called “Erinnerungen an die Zukunft” (“Memories of the Future”). The film did not play in U.S. theaters and most Americans watching that year’s Oscar telecast knew nothing about it.

In 1974, a scrappy little film distribution company called Sun International (later known as Sunn Classics) dubbed the film into English and released it under the title of its source text — “Chariots of the Gods,” a book by Swiss writer Erich von Däniken that put forth the theory that the ancient world was visited by extra-terrestrials that provided engineering and technology knowledge to the people of Egypt and Latin America.

Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign, “Chariots of the Gods” became a major box office hit and recast the UFO story into the dawn of human civilization. But while von Däniken never produced irrefutable evidence to back his theories, his notions are still being peddled today on the long-running television series “Ancient Aliens” on the History cable channel.

10. Your Guess Is As Good As Mine: The new congressional hearing on UFOs was sparked by a June 2021 report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence that admitted 143 UFO sighting reports since 2004 have defied explanation. From those 143 reports, roughly two dozen cases involved objects moving at speeds unknown to any Earth-bound air force.

The report did not dwell on whether the unexplained phenomena was evidence of extra-terrestrials, but at the same time, it didn’t bluntly dismiss that notion. Thus, the story continues. Keep watching the sky, folks.

Photo courtesy of RawPixel

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