Fear of Floating
Diagnosis: Collective Panic Attack. Cause: Count von Zeppelin.
- By Dan Vergano
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
(Page 2 of 3)
On the other hand, some papers were openly skeptical about the reports. The Weekly Dispatch noted that in one case, an airship was seen at Stamford and 20 minutes later over the coast at Southend; “this would give the airship a speed of 210 miles per hour seeing as the two places are seventy miles apart.” For airships of the day, a speed of 40 mph was more like it.
Newspapers also reported cases in which witnesses refuted zeppelin sightings. Daniel Blight told the South Wales Daily Post, “The airship was of quarter-circle shape, with two bright lights, one at each end of it…. I drew the attention to it of Constable No. 440C., who was passing at the time, and no doubt he will report it.” But the paper also quoted Constable 440C. saying that what he saw that night was “a particularly bright star, and it was there again on Thursday night.”
Lord Northcliffe himself eventually called for a halt to the airship craze: In a May 21, 1909 Daily Mail column telegraphed from Berlin, he scolded: “Germans who have so long been accustomed to regard Great Britain as a model of deportment, poise and cool-headedness are beginning to believe that England is becoming the home of mere nervous degenerates.” He added that the airship reports distracted from “the real German danger, namely the progress of the accelerated German naval programme.”
After Lord Northcliffe’s call to sanity, “[t]he airship panic began, by degrees, to subside,” writes historian Alfred Gollin in a journal article about the 1909 scare. Newspapers turned from reporting the frenzy to explaining it; the London Daily Chronicle quoted an official from a “lunatic asylum” ascribing the panic to “aviation insanity,” common among his charges. Another “lunacy expert” told the Morning Leader: “In every thousand men there are always two every night who see strange matters, chromatic rats, luminous owls, moving lights and fiery comets, and things like those.” And a letter writer in the Cambridge Chronicle suggested, perhaps inevitably: “Might not the nocturnal visitor which has so disturbed many of the inhabitants of this peaceful Isle be the invader from a neighbouring planet?”
Some explanations were more mundane. Like the UFO scares later in the century, Clarke says, reports of airships armed with spotlights often coincided with evenings when Venus shone brightly in the sky. In Wales, pranksters released six-foot-wide fire balloons to spark airship reports. And the Northampton Mercury reported a hoax involving an airship model used for advertising motorcars. As for the first sighting, a representative from Constable Kettle’s own constabulary told the Peterborough Express that “for some days and nights before PC Kettle’s vision there was a very fine kite flying over the neighbourhood of Cobden Street.... [T]he kite would have been moored at night, and have a Chinese lantern attached to it….”
“But how do you get over the whirring and beating of engines?” asked the
“Oh, that was the motor which goes all night in the Co-operative Bakery in Cobden Street.”
At least England’s fear of zeppelins was based on real concerns. The same year, other countries that seemed far less vulnerable began getting airship jitters. Says Brett Holman, “People saw [airships] in New Zealand, New England, India, and even parts of Germany.” The zeppelin’s sheer gigantism—something the size of a battleship hanging in the air—seized the public mind. Milk bottlers, tire makers, postcard manufacturers—all brandished pictures of zeppelins. Freud saw them as expressions of sexual fantasies, writing in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1916-1917) that in dreams, “the remarkable characteristic of the male organ which enables it to rise up in defiance of the laws of gravity…leads to it being represented symbolically by balloons, flying machines and most recently by Zeppelin airships.” “[T]he skies were transformed into a collective Rorschach ink blot of the collective unconscious,” says sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of U.F.O.’s & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery. “People see what they expect to see in a search for certainty, especially during times of crisis.”