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The Cultural Phenomenon of UFOs – Greg Eghigian

Professor of History Greg Eghigian shares the historical context of the UFO phenomenon that we know today.
Hi, my name is Greg Eghigian, I’m Professor of History at Penn State University. I specialize in the history of science and medicine, and I write about the history of UFOs. So, the UFO phenomenon, as we’ve come to understand it really began in 1947. We can look back earlier in time and talk about the fact that there were sightings of strange things in the sky is going back to ancient times to be sure and already in the 19th century, there were incidents involving people seeing strange, what they described as airships, even during a period of time when airplanes had not yet been invented.
But we talk about it beginning in 1947, because in 1947, what happened is this was the beginning of the period of time in which people started to talk about having seen objects they described as flying saucers. It all began in the summer of 1947, when a private pilot said he had seen while he was flying some very strange objects, he never used the term flying saucers, but he described them as flying in a way that was like a saucer skipping across water and that became the headline. And so from June, 1947 on people described them as flying saucers and that became the common sort of rubric to talk about this stuff.
Over time, over the course of the 1950s, the language changed, and people began talking about unidentified flying objects or UFOs, but that was the beginning of the entire phenomenon as a, not only a phenomenon in which people talked about witnessing something they described as maybe being saucer like, but it’s also the beginning of this kind of mass interest in this phenomenon, in the kind of popular culture, becoming obsessed, becoming excited even, enthused about, talking about this stuff, speculating about this stuff, giving it sort of that a time of day in terms of both reading up on it and following it in the newspapers.
Also, in terms of wanting to talk about it with other people, engage with the topic on a daily basis. The UFO phenomenon has always been affected by time and place. In other words, it’s always been a historical phenomenon, meaning that it is undergone changes and that it is embedded in a context, in a place and at a period of time. So, when we look at the beginnings of the phenomenon, we recognize right away when we look at the source material and the way in which people were thinking and talking about it at the time in the late ’40s and early ’50s, it was deeply, deeply effected by the Cold War.
The earliest sort of discussions about what might be going on, what these things in the skies might be really focused on two things, primarily. They focused on people speculating and theorizing that these were likely to be secret weapons or secret surveillance technologies on the part of either the Soviet Union or the United States, the two big superpowers following World War II.
Or the next most common sort of explanation was that this was an example of mass hysteria, that people in this context of the Cold War where atomic bombs and then later hydrogen bombs were now available and increasingly a time then intercontinental ballistic missiles that what people were doing were engaging in a kind of mass panic that was sparked and fueled by the Cold War. These were the two really most prominent sort of explanations that existed at the time. Really the idea that aliens might be involved is only something that evolved over the course of, I’d say, three to five years following those initial sightings.
And then as you sort of move through time over the course of the ’50s and into the 60s, the Cold War continues to sort of figure into explanations and understandings about things. But I’d say another element that is important in understanding this, in the way in which people perceived all this, and sort of try to make sense of it all was the space age, the space exploration age.
This period of time in which, again, the United States and the Soviet Union both started to think about the possibilities of going into outer space at first with unmanned robotic vehicles, satellites to begin with, but then they expanded this is over the course of the 1950s into the 1960s into man space flight. And this two ends up having a profound impact, I think on the imagination of people when it came to exploring and really playing around with this idea that we might be visited by extra terrestrial civilization, because the fact that we were in a position to ourselves leave Earth’s orbit and take people into other places like the moon.
This now was a reality, or seemed to be close to reality in the late ’50s and early ’60s, so that it helps sort of reinforce the sense of people starting to imagine, surely this must be possible on the part of other alien species out there in the universe. And so we can see in various ways in which geopolitics are the kind of technologies that we’ve developed all in various ways inflect and influence the way in which people talked about and thought about UFOs.

Although unusual sightings in the sky have been recorded throughout history, 1947 marked the beginning of the UFO phenomenon when the first saucer-like object was identified.

Early theories of sightings were heavily influenced by the Cold War: people explained them as world power technologies or a result of mass hysteria. Over time, geopolitics and technological advancement would change the narrative. Listen in as Greg Eghigian, Professor of History at Penn State University, shares the historical context of the UFO phenomenon that we know today.

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