Fear of Floating

Diagnosis: Collective Panic Attack. Cause: Count von Zeppelin.

Two decades after the scare, a zeppelin over the Thames was a fact of life. Here, the Graf Zeppelin, a commercial passenger ship, plies London’s skies. (NASM (A-48287-A))
Air & Space Magazine

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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
Express reporter.

“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.”

At the beginning of the century, de Syon says, “people had a sense the world was changing, and the airships were a harbinger of things to come.”

A second wave of sightings would afflict the United Kingdom in 1912 and 1913, and then the story takes a grim turn. In World War I, zeppelins did reach London. “The Zeppelins have come at last,” reported the January 1915 London Graphic, “for three of them visited the Norfolk coast on Tuesday night and dropped bombs in the darkness. ‘The Graphic’ anticipated an air-raid so long ago as May 22, 1909, though the present raid was made more fearsome by explosive bombs which killed four peaceful people, two of whom were women.” By the end of the war, zeppelin-dropped bombs had killed 557 people and injured 1,358. Concludes de Syon: “The airship scares were just a little neurosis before
the actual psychosis of the first World War.” 

Dan Vergano is a reporter for USA Today.

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