Scareships over Australia — III

What did the phantom airships mean to people at the time?

One thing is clear. The press very early on referred to the mysterious lights as airships, and it does seem that this was probably the most popular theory among those who saw them. But it was very far from a universal view. The 5 September 1909 sighting in Fremantle gives some idea of this. The account given in the Perth Western Mail on 11 September appears to be a first-hand description of the conversation between a number of eyewitnesses, arguing over what it is. (The tone is certainly one of amusement, but it doesn't seem to be made up.)

A Strange Luminary. -- "There's the airship! Who's a liar now, eh?" As he made the remark an excitable old gentleman waved his hands towards the sky, and in a little while some twenty persons were standing in Market-street, Fremantle, on Monday, shortly before 10 p.m. gazing interestedly heavenwards. The star was apparently undergoing a bewildering series of changes. From shining with great brilliancy it would suddenly grow dim and indistinct, only to shine strongly again in a few seconds. At times its light was completely lost for four or five seconds, 'It's caused by clouds passing over it," was the dictum of one of the bystanders, whose opinion was met with the retort, "Then why don't the other stars show the same variation?" "It's Mars nearing its period of occultation," observed a gentleman who subsequently expressed his indignation at this solution of the celestial phenomenon advanced by two elderly ladies. "It's my opinion," remarked one of the latter, with the warm approval of the other, "that things are getting too strong on this earth, and that light is placed in the sky as a warning to the world." This portentous theory did not receive the approval of the bystanders, who went their ways perplexed by the pranks of the planet whose light shone intermittently as if in mockery of the watchers below.

So the writer describes it as a 'star' or a 'planet'; the first person to remark upon it called it 'the airship'; another man specifies it as Mars (presumably meaning opposition instead of 'occultation'), and two women advance an apparently religious interpretation.

But this just scratches the surface. Other explanations of the lights included (with varying degrees of seriousness): a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter (which had their closest apparent approach on 12 August), a fire balloon or a gas balloon, possibly sent up by hoaxers; the effects of alcohol (even though being drunk does not cause hallucinations); a will-o'-the-wisp (citing Dickens as an authority); and an illuminated advertising sign above a Perth drapers' emporium. The Martian explanation had the backing of W. E. Raymond of Sydney Observatory, who told the Sydney Morning Herald that the planet was about to enter opposition, meaning its closest approach to Earth and a period of unusual brightness, peaking in the last week of September. (Mars might have explained some sightings late at night -- though it's a poor fit for the Cozens affair, which is hard to explain astronomically -- but Venus and Jupiter work better for the more numerous sightings of twin lights in the west or north-west in the early evening.) A different theory involving the same planet held that Martians were signalling Earth.

The Hobart Mercury of 19 August suggested that, out of the various theories,

The most feasible appears to be that of the Aerial League [of Australia], which claims to have investigated that the Goulburn light, at any rate, was nothing more nor less than an illuminated box kite, and that the New Zealand mystery was a "joke along the same lines."

What of the 'airships'? Airships must have airship-makers and airship-pilots. But there is very little speculation in the sources I've seen as to who was responsible for these supposed airships. This seems odd. Nobody had yet flown in Australia (at least in public): the first person to do so was Houdini the following year (I think that's true for any form of powered flight, including airships). Surely there would have been some curiosity about who might be have achieving this great feat nightly in Australian skies? But I can find only two suggestions.

One was published in the Queanbeyan Age on 17 August. It does in fact note that 'many have been the conjectures as to its [the airship's] origins and object'. And, after explaining that the mostly likely explanation for the lights was Mars, says 'away with our fears of aerial invasion'. This clearly suggests that there was some idea that the airship was foreign and possibly hostile, as was certainly the presumption with the British phantom airships, and was also discussed in New Zealand (in connection with a German warship known to be in the South Pacific at the time). I'm not sure why Australian newspapers were so coy, if such fears were really widespread.

The other discussion of the airship's origin is more interesting and appeared as a leading article in the Hobart Mercury, on 23 August. It began with a paean to progress:

That we to-day live in the most wonderful age the world has ever known will be probably the judgment of historians of the far future [...] If the first few years of the twentieth century are to be taken as the guide, then we may look for it to greatly widen the bounds of human knowledge and experience. Perhaps, the most notable achievement of the day is the development now being given to aviation.

Remarking that Blériot's flight over the English Channel -- less than a month previously -- 'convinced the world' that 'the air had been conquered', the Mercury claimed that

with this conviction has come an eager speculation the world over. People everywhere are seeing visions. Every fine night somewhere fiery cars are seen flashing across the sky like a Greek goddess on a mission to earth. These visions have been seen in England, Ireland, America, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, New South Wales, and now in Tasmania.

(This shows an unusual awareness of the worldwide nature of phantom airship scares, incidentally.) After allowing that 'probably Venus and Jupiter had something to do with' some of the sightings, the Mercury goes on to suggest another viewpoint:

Recently the Minister of Defence offered a bonus of £10,000 for the first Australian flying machine suitable for use in war. That announcement disclosed the fact that an astonishing number of inventors in these States were at work upon aviation. These inventors doubtless are working in secret, and possibly many of the objects seen in the air at night have relation to their experiments.

If there was already an idea that Australian ingenuity was hard at work on the problem of air defence, this could help explain why the Australian press did not panic in the same way the British press had earlier in the year when confronted with supposed overflights by airships of unknown origin. The British, by and large, did not have such confidence in either their military or their civilian aviators, and when combined with seeming government inaction in the face of huge advances in aviation being made on the Continent (neither Blériot nor Zeppelin were Englishmen), all you needed was a credible German menace to generate a full-scale scare. I'm not sure that this difference is enough, and in any case I don't know enough about the Australian situation to know if it was real or not. One thing Australians inherited from the Mother Country was a propensity to panic at the thought of invasion, but in 1909 it seems that we declined to do so. I'd be interested to know why.

My final post in this series will be by way of a postscript.

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4 thoughts on “Scareships over Australia — III

  1. Avinash Machado

    Airship seems to be a generic term for any strange light seen in the skies from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.

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  3. Post author

    Yes, it seems to have been used very often. If people were looking for a technological explanation at the time it was the obvious choice; airships were in all the papers. Of course, I tend to find phantom airships because that's what I'm looking for. But there were certainly other characterisations, such as mystery submarines, the end of the world, or just lights.

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