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Quirk of history

The birth of the flying saucer

Visiting aliens: a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

America’s obsession with UFOs began in June 1947, says Stephen Mihm in Bloomberg, when amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing “nine objects flying at unfathomable speed” near Mount Rainier in Washington state. He described the movement of each “curious craft” as like “a saucer skipping across the water” – and with a little help from bored journalists, the “flying saucer” was born. It sparked “a flood of alleged sightings” and a pop-culture craze. Shops sold flying saucer wind-up toys and flying saucer kids’ pyjamas. Ella Fitzgerald released Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer, a song about aliens who visit Earth and sniffily conclude: “It’s too peculiar here.”

The government made a point of publicly dismissing UFO sightings – but not because it thought they were spurious. One US Air Force general wrote a 1947 memo that concluded “the phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious”. Rather, it was thought that investigating the reports would divert time and money from countering the Soviet Union. One CIA analyst warned in 1952 that the spate of sightings had “overwhelmed the military’s ability to recognise Soviet bombers”.