High Strangeness: A Brief (Corrected) History of the UFO

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Brief (Corrected) History of the UFO

Some UFO history is pretty sketchy. The more time I spend looking through archival material for my book on Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the more amazed I am by the amount of misinformation there is polluting the historical record of the UFO problem.

Not that it's the result of anyone's incompetence or dishonesty at all; it just happens. One author or historian gets a fact wrong for whatever reason, and everyone else just piles on, until 20 years later the mistaken story is accepted as fact.

For instance, conventional wisdom in the UFO world says that Dr. Hynek served as a consultant to the Air Force on all three incarnations of its UFO research group: Project Sign, Project Grudge and Project Blue Book. This is not so. I have discovered that Hynek only worked on Project Sign and Project Blue Book. He was so late with his final report for Project Sign, however, that by the time he submitted it, Project Sign had morphed into Project Grudge, and his report was included in the Grudge final report.

Don't feel bad if you got that one wrong. When I mentioned it the other day to Mark Rodeghier, the man who now maintains Hynek's UFO research organization, CUFOS, he chuckled and said, "Yea, I had that one wrong for a long time!"

Now, let's take the case of the "unidentified flying object." When the modern era of flying saucer activity began in 1947, the terms "unidentified flying object" and "UFO" didn't yet exist. Kenneth Arnold, the pilot who started the whole kerfuffle in the summer of '47, said the objects he saw in the sky moved like saucers skipping across the water. An enterprising reporter coined the term "flying saucer" and it stuck. Over time it was sometimes changed to "flying disk," but there it remained for several years.

Conventional wisdom in the UFO world states that the term "unidentified flying saucer" was coined in 1951 by Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, who ran the Air Force's flying saucer investigation unit, Project Blue Book. But I am about to prove that conventional wisdom is once again--ahem--wrong.

Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, USAF: Good Guy
Here's what Wikipedia says in its write-up about Captain Ruppelt: "He is generally credited with coining the term 'unidentified flying object', to replace the terms 'flying saucer' and 'flying disk' - which had become widely known - because the military thought them to be 'misleading when applied to objects of every conceivable shape and performance.'"


Google Books, in its blurb about Ruppelt's 1956 book "The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects," says, "Ruppelt, who coined the term 'unidentified flying objects' and headed Project Blue Book from 1951 to 1953, includes his personal investigations and findings in his extensive research on UFOs."


Even Hynek got it wrong in his 1975 book "The Edge of Reality," co-authored with Dr. Jacques Vallee. On page x of the Introduction, the authors state "The term UFOs was not employed until Edward J. Ruppelt, the first director of Project Blue Book, coined the term."


I could go on, but you get the idea.

So, what is the truth? The truth is, there is a U.S. Government document in one of the many archives in which I've been doing my research (and there are 5 now) that referred to these buggers as "unidentified flying objects." This document was written on December 19, 1948, well over two years before Captain Ruppelt had anything to do with flying saucers.

No knock against Captain Ruppelt. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest good guys in UFO history, and left the Air Force with a long list of accomplishments of which to be proud. This just isn't one of them.

Eat your hearts out, UFO historians!


Steve Sawyer said...

" The truth is, there is a U.S. Government document in one of the many archives in which I've been doing my research (and there are 5 now) that referred to these buggers as "unidentified flying objects." This document was written on December 19, 1948, well over two years before Captain Ruppelt had anything to do with flying saucers."

I find this... fascinating.

But then, I occasionally also express such curiosity by showing the Vulcan hand salute. Mea culpa.

This is somewhat like how the prior term, "flying saucer," inadvertently came from mistaken media distortions or misbegotten interpretations, possibly, of Kenneth Arnold's initial descriptions of the motions of the objects he observed, like saucers (or thrown flat stones, more conventionally referenced) skipping over water, the term "flying saucer" very quickly became a description of the shape. or morphology, of UFOs, rather than as Arnold seemed to originally intend it, although there is some controversy about what Arnold actually said, when, and to whom, in reference to the quick "jumping" or "flipping" behavior or motions of the nine objects Arnold allegedly observed.

If the December 19, 1948 "U.S. Government document" actually is the first iteration of the specific term "unidentified flying object," even if there may be other docs earlier than may have used that phrase, as yet undiscovered, can you tell us what agency of the government the Dec. '48 doc came from? Or archive?

Or, possibly, even quote it verbatim, or provide a scanned image here for those interested in reviewing it?

I, too, thought Ruppelt came up with the term "unidentified flying object," or at least promoted the acronym "UFO" for the sake of a more objective and broader term than the narrower and less objectively accurate "flying saucer" term.

I wonder if the use and context of the words "unidentified flying object" in that 1948 gov doc was just serendipitous, and essentially generically descriptive, or whether some government personnel were using that phrase in a more formal linguistic manner, as Ruppelt later used it, and whether with the acronym or abbreviation to "UFO" during the same timeframe, or not, was used on that doc or others around the same time.

Was "UFO" referenced in this same document, Mark?

Can you tell us a bit more about it, or provide a scan or verbatim quote of this doc?

If so, it would be much appreciated, as I'm intrigued by the etymology here.

Steve Sawyer said...

Also, I forgot to add the reference to Wikipedia's entry on Kenneth Arnold's sighting, in the section sub-titled "Publicity and the origins of the term 'flying saucer'" and the "controversy" over the origins of that term.


(I do so wish Google's blogger/blogspot comment section had an edit function -- probably too much trouble for such a multi-hundred-billion dollar megacorp, I guess.)

(Maybe I just need Neelix to brew me up some Talaxian firenut, preferably the Landras blend, since it's so relatively early in the morning here, and I just may need his "better than coffee substitute" to perform more... wakefully? Now where'd I leave my latinum?) 8^}