Everybody’s doing it

Press interest in airships, January-April 1913

'Everybody's Doing It' was the name of a popular revue which opened in the West End in February 1912; the music and lyrics (including a near-eponymous song) were co-written by Irving Berlin. It was also the Manchester Guardian's stab at a contemporary pop cultural reference to describe just how widespread the phantom airship scare had become by the start of March 1913. There are more concrete ways to express this than ragtime. Geography is one; chronology is another.

The graph above shows two things. (After relying on Plot for many years, I've switched to DataGraph, which is not free but is more powerful and much easier to use.) The blue bars represent the number of British periodicals (mostly daily newspapers, London and provincial) which mentioned mystery airships on each day in January-April 1913, while the red bars represent the number which mentioned airships, whether mysterious or non-mysterious (for example, the activities of German or British military dirigibles). It doesn't matter whether a newspaper mentioned scareships once as a humorous aside or devoted half a page to a topic, both are counted equally here. Three phases can immediately be distinguished. (I must admit to having fudged the data a little bit: I've assumed that every issue of the Aeroplane would have mentioned airships, as I don't have access to copies to check. Flight certainly did.) The first, from the start of January through the third week of February, is characterised by a relatively low level of press interest in airships, in which references to mystery airships predominate (though not so much towards the end of this period). The second phase is clearly the peak of the phantom airship scare, the last week of February and the first week of March, when more than two or three times the usual number of periodicals talked about airships, overwhelmingly the mysterious kind. The third phase extends from the second week of March until the end of April. There are far fewer mentions of scareships here, even compared to the first phase. But interestingly, the amount of attention paid to airships in general remains very high: several times that of the first period, and not too far short of that in the second, peak period.

It's tempting to suggest that the increased interest in phantom airships in the second phase caused the increased interest in airships in in the third. Since correlation is not causation, this graph doesn't prove that this is the case; but looking at the primary sources does. Much of the commentary about airships in the third phase revolves around the threat posed by German airships to Britain, and the need for Britain to catch up in the air. The phantom airship scare publicised and dramatised these issues, as it was argued that Britain did not possibly have enough airships to account for all the sightings scattered all over the country; equally it was continually pointed out that Germany possessed a number of large airships capable of crossing the North Sea. Eventually the discovery of a wrecked fire-balloon in Yorkshire, along with the sheer number of sightings, punctured the mystery airship scare, but airpower advocates had already begun to make the argument that it didn't matter if German airships were really flying over Britain or not, the point was that they could and that nothing could be done to stop them. Hence the criticisms of the aerial navigation regulations and the counter-demand for £1 (sometimes £2) million to be spent immediately on building up the nascent air arm (usually meaning Zeppelin-style airships). Scareships were initially invoked in these arguments but then were dropped as they were no longer useful: the airship scare proper was self-sustaining by this point.

Mystery airship sightings, January-April 1913

The first graph might be termed a media view of the phantom airships: it shows when they were a literary spectacle, not when they were a literal one. In a sense, this is the most objective view, since nearly all we know about this scare is filtered through the press and there is some doubt as to the veracity of the reports. More importantly, I'm interested more in what people thought of the scareships rather than the scareships themselves, so this is a sensible approach to take. But I'm not entirely uninterested in the scareships themselves, so this second graph shows the dates on which they were reportedly seen. The period covered is the same as for the first graph, but this time the blue data represents phantom airship reports found by me while the red data represents those found by Nigel Watson, Granville Oldroyd and David Clarke and published in their self-published The 1912-1913 British Phantom Airship Scare (South Humberside: 1987).

It's very humbling to find that even with the benefits of a quarter of a century of digitisation I've found only a bit over a quarter as many sightings as Watson, Oldroyd and Clarke did: 84 to 311. It's not quite as bad as that, though, as they treat distinct sightings from the same place and date as separate incidents, whereas I tend to aggregate them into one (there are arguments either way, and I probably haven't been as consistent as I should have been). But there are a whole host of places listed in their catalogue that I haven't come across: Rogerstone, Sketty, Harehills, Filey -- the list goes on. Not only that, but my sample misses a number of the peaks: 17 and 18 January, 5 February (which were all mainly concentrated in Glamorganshire, where I'm hampered by the current lack of digitised Welsh newspapers for 1913), and the first two weeks of March (by which time the national press was first overwhelmed by the number of new reports and then sceptical of them, so they only appeared in the local papers). So there were far more sightings than I've found, and no doubt more than Watson, Oldroyd and Clarke found (no doubt even their prodigious efforts fell well short of examining all British and Irish newspapers for the period). But I don't think this is a problem for me: again, I'm not trying to work out what the mystery airships really were, and tracking down every last report is not going to help me to understand what they signified.

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