Accounts of unusual aerial phenomena turn up with increasing frequency in newspaper acounts and scientific journals after 1700. Objects that we would automatically call UFOs today were described as “remarkable meteors” or “unusual aurorae.” Many of these observations are just that—abnormal variations of astronomical and meteorological phenomena. On the other hand, there are some curious sightings. The observer quality was often high (amateur astronomers. ship captains, explorers) and there were no high-performance airplanes or satellites around to mislead a witness. Few close encounters are to be found in this literature, and these are often newspaper stories of dubious provenance, if not downright hoaxes.
Lake Zarobozero, Russia. Around noon on August 15, 1663, the faithful gathered in a church in a village near Lake Zarobozero, Vologda Oblast, Russia, hears a loud noise outside and saw a large ball of fire descend from the north and then head south following the lake, low over its surface. The fireball seemed to measure about 140 feet across and had blue smoke issuing from its sides. Two fiery rays extended from its front part. Less than an hour later, a similar fireball reappeared over the same lake. Moving from south to west, the object again disappeared. It reappeared a third time a short while later, this time larger than before, and stayed over the lake for an hour and a half. Peasants in a boat tried to get close to it, but the heat was too intense. The water of the lake was illuminated to a depth of 30 feet, and fish were seen swimming away from the object, which then flew off to the west.
Paris, France. At 11:46 a.m. on June 17, 1777, French astronomer Charles Messier viewed a large number of round, dark-brown globules passing in front of the disc of the sun for 5 minutes from west-southwest to east-northeast. He saw them through an achromatic refractor at the naval observatory located in the Hôtel de Cluny in Paris, France. His estimate of their size (one-600th the size of the solar disc) puts them near the limit of resolution for his telescope, but Messier claimed the objects were far away and in focus. Martin Shough and Wim van Utrecht concluded (in Redemption of the Damned, vol. 1, 2019, pp. 7–18), based on the telescope Messier used and his observational data, that the globules were “not grossly out-of-focus nearby particles” (in other words an optical artifact) and probably were objects at a distance of several miles or so away. What those objects were is impossible to determine today.
Charles Messier, “Observation singulaire d’une prodigieuse quantité de petits globules qui ont passé devant le disque du soleil, le 17 juin 1777,” Mémoires de l’Academie Royale des Sciences, 1777, pp. 464–472
North Atlantic Ocean. Capt. Frederick William Banner, master of the barque Lady of the Lake, was sailing in the North Atlantic 400 miles north of the Equator and 860 miles from the coast of West Africa at 6:30 p.m. on March 22, 1870, when he saw a “curious-shaped” light-gray cloud in the south-southeast. It was circular, with four rays or arms extending from the center to the edge, and a curved tail. It was visible for about 50 minutes until it became too dark to see.
Philo, Ohio. One evening in late March, 1873, Thomas Inman and his son were traveling home from the village of Taylorsville [now Philo], Ohio, and were possibly in Bristol Township when they saw a bright light descending swiftly with a roaring noise. It landed a short distance in the road [probably Lawrence Road] ahead of them, flickered and flared, then faded. A man dressed in a suit of black carrying a lantern emerged from the object. He walked a few paces and stepped into a buggy, which Inman has not noticed before. The buggy began to move silently and quickly, even though there was no horse attached to it, until it reached a deep gully, into which it plunged and disappeared. Historian William Alexander Taylor, who supplied the story to the New York Herald, vouched for the witnesses.
Zacatecas, Mexico. Astronomer José Árbol y Bonilla, director of the El Cerro de la Bufa Meteorological Observatory in Zacatecas, Mexico, was observing the sun by eyepiece projection on August 12, 1883, when he and an assistant saw a large number of small bodies crossing the solar disc. Over the course of two days, they counted a total of 447 dark objects. They seemed bright as they approached the sun but were dark as they passed across its face. He took several photographs (sometimes considered to be the first UFO photos) and suspected that they were relatively near the earth. Mexican astronomers in 2011 suggested that a comet may have split into several pieces; these objects were estimated to have had a size of between 150 and 3,350 feet, and to have passed only 334 to 5,000 miles from the Earth; they thought a fragmented Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks was one possibility, in which case Earth barely avoided multiple Tunguska events or even a mass extinction; this was reported in the media and disputed in October 2011. But the source of these objects could also have been comet C/1883 D1 (Brooks-Swift) or even a third, unknown comet that year; the event also coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower. Even migrating birds cannot be ruled out.
Western and Midwestern United States. A mystery airship wave began in California on the afternoon of November 17, 1896, when residents of the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento saw a high-flying object moving slowly in a circle, leaving a trail of smoke. Around 6:30 p.m., a light resembling an electric arc lamp appeared in the night sky above Sacramento. Horse trainer David Carl noticed it close to the ground and heard a voice saying, “We are too low down here. Send her up higher.” Hundreds watched as it passed at low altitude for 30 minutes, avoiding buildings and hills. Some people claimed to hear voices, either arguing or singing. R. L. Lowry saw four men pushing the vessel by its wheels. The witnesses included streetcar workers Charles Lusk and Granville C. Snider, who watched the object rise and fall as it moved southwest. San Francisco attorney George D. Collins announced on November 22 that he represented the airship inventor, a “very wealthy man who has been studying the subject of flying machines for fifteen years” and who moved to California from Maine in 1889. He claimed the airship was a 150-foot metal contraption with two canvas wings 18 feet wide and shaped like a bird’s tail. However, this turned out to be a publicity stunt. Meanwhile, newspapers in northern California continued to report sightings through December 4.
Airship accounts continued in February–July 1897, from Nebraska and Colorado to Texas and Ohio. Hoaxes and pranks polluted the information pool in a major way during this era and the planet Venus and other celestial objects undoubtedly played a major role, but many airship reports emanated from manifestly sober, puzzled citizens, and they continued long after the initial excitement subsided. To all appearances, they were objects of some kind, but since newspapers rarely questioned witnesses critically about details, little can be deduced from the mass of reports.
Bournbrook, England. One summer day in 1901, a 10-year-old boy was walking home to Bournbrook, West Midlands, England, through a path behind his family’s garden when he came upon a large box-shaped device with a small, centrally placed turret. The only opening was a door, through which two small men (less than 4 feet tall) in military uniforms (but no insignia), each wearing an odd-looking cap with a wire sticking up on both sides, stepped out. One stayed by the door, but the other walked toward the boy and waved him away. The beings went back into the craft, a bright flash surrounded it, and it shot into the air with a whooshing sound.
New Zealand. A mystery airship wave took place in July–August 1909 in New Zealand with numerous sightings of unusual nocturnal lights and airships seen in both daytime and nighttime. The sightings were at first most intense over the southern end of South Island. In the following weeks the reports appeared to move northward and by August, Australia also fell under the grip of what press accounts called “aerialitis.”
Brockville, Ontario. At 9:15 p.m. on February 14, 1915, the mayor and three city constables of Brockville, Ontario, saw the lights of an unknown aircraft crossing the St. Lawrence River heading for Ottawa. They could hear the sound of motors. A second flying machine was heard as it crossed the river from the direction of Morristown, New York. Three balls of fire dropped from it into the river. Two more objects passed from the east and west ends of Brockville. The mayor, who had seen one of the planes flash a searchlight beam that lit up a city block, told the police chief to alert the mayor and police chief in Ottawa. At 9:30 p.m., the mayor of Gananoque, Ontario, reported that two invisible aircraft were heard flying over his town. Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden heard about the reports and ordered the lights on Parliament Hill to be turned off at 11:15 p.m. The entire city followed suit 5 minutes later. The airplanes did not reappear, but Ottawa was placed on high alert for enemy aircraft. Later, Brockville police found the remains of two paper balloons that could explain the sightings.
Milton, North Dakota. At 10:30 one night in early November 1928, Norman H. Sabie and Thorsten Sabie were driving cattle near Milton, North Dakota, when they noticed a round, metallic object, like a “soup bowl turned upside down,” speeding by at a low altitude (15–20 feet) and emitting 4–5 rays of light that illuminated the ground and startled the cattle. It made a sound like air pouring through a tube.
Texas. A woman was driving the family car at 10:00 one morning in 1930 in an isolated hilly area of Texas when she rounded a curve and saw a huge object about 100 feet across by the side of the road. A small door was open with steps leading down to the ground. One side of the object was braced up by two slender legs with round plates for feet. A man of normal size came walking toward her and forced her to stop. He seemed to speak to her telepathically, telling her to leave the road and make a shortcut through a gully. Some 8–10 other figures walked forward, much smaller and with slanted eyes. They were wearing tan coveralls and tight caps. Despite potential damage to her car, she drove through the gully as the larger man walked alongside. The next thing she remembered is walking up on her porch at her home 15 miles away. It was around 12:00 midnight. In March 1968, having read Interrupted Journey about the Betty and Barney Hill case, she wrote to the Colorado project and offered herself for hypnosis and research. Project director Edward Condon filed the letter under “psychological” and did not respond.