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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Flying Saucer Lineage

In my previous article, I wrote about a picture drawn in 1920 of what look to our eyes like flying saucers. Some of the details are wrong. For example, the occupants ride in gondolas slung under the main body of their ships. Also, the domes on top look like classical architecture. Then, too, there are planes--I guess they're supposed to be flight control surfaces--extending from each craft. Flying saucers don't have flight control surfaces. On the whole, though, the flying saucers drawn by the unknown artist E.R.H. conform pretty well with visions and images from what I call the Flying Saucer Era, 1947 to 1968 (or 1973). If you look on the lower left of the drawing, you will even see one of these craft firing a death ray at Earth's surface. A plume of smoke rising into the clouds is the obvious result. No word on how many people were vaporized in the blast.

The flying saucers drawn by E.R.H are disc-shaped. Oblate spheroid might be a better description, but even that isn't quite right. Maybe a geometer can come up with a better term. Anyway, let's assume that the flying saucer shape evolved sometime in the early twentieth century. (Like I said before, science fiction is for the most part evolutionary and not revolutionary. I'm not sure that there have been many truly radical events in the history of the genre.) Where, then, did that shape come from? That question got me to thinking.

The flying saucer shape differs from the shape of conventional aircraft in that it has radial rather than bilateral symmetry. Every edge is potentially a leading edge, leaving its opposite as a trailing edge. This every-directional shape allows flying saucers to move in every direction, to change direction, and even to reverse direction instantaneously. And that's how they're reported to move. The flying saucer drawing made by E.R.H. would appear to show craft of this type, except for the presumed flight control surfaces extending from them. These planes--each ship has a pair--turn what at first looks like a radially symmetrical craft--a disc-like or oblate spheroid-like vehicle--into a bilaterally symmetrical ship with fore and aft ends and discernible starboard and port sides. Even with E.R.H.'s leap, we were still not there in the full development of the flying saucer.

As an artist, I started thinking about the early twentieth-century evolution of the flying saucer, not of the thing itself but of the image or depiction of the thing. A drawing is a two-dimensional representation of what is supposed to be a three-dimensional object or world. The real (or imaginary) thing is flattened in the process of drawing it. We know now about streamlining. We test aircraft and cars in wind tunnels to see how they perform. Early shipbuilders knew about streamlining, too, of course, and they made their ships a particular way so that they might slip more efficiently through the stream. In this they plagiarized from nature, as we do with most things we make. So if you slice a ship lengthwise as you would a tomato and look at the cross section from above, you will see a fusiform shape: a three-dimensional object now reduced to its two-dimensional essence, in this case, a shape that is somewhat broader in the middle and tapered on both ends for purposes of slipping through the stream. Fish have fusiform bodies. So do birds when they fold their wings. Their wings, too, are more or less fusiform in cross section, although the leading edge is more rounded while the trailing edge is more pointed, just as in the wings of our own plagiarized aircraft.

What happens, then, when you flatten--in the form of a drawing--a three-dimensional, fusiform object? Well, you get something like this:

The "aeronon of the Twentieth Century" as depicted in The Century Magazine in 1878. Drawn and engraved by B. Sayer and R.M. Smart, though I'm not sure which was the original artist and which was the engraver. 
The aeronon of the future is fish-like or whale-like in appearance--in other words fusiform--but if you take away the tail, gondolas, and other protuberances, it also looks in its two dimensions like a flying saucer. And if you want to bring it back into three dimensions, one of your options is to make it radially rather than bilaterally symmetrical. So is that what artists of the early twentieth century did? Did they spin the fusiform airship on its vertical axis like a pinwheel to make a disc shape or oblate spheroid in which any lengthwise cross section that passes through the center (or focus) is also fusiform? Excellent. Now craft from other worlds are freed from the bounds of direction, by notions of forward and aft, of starboard and port. They can now move about our atmosphere as they please, leaving us to gape at their advanced capabilities. That still leaves up and down--in other words, three-dimensional space--as a problem in the design of the craft and its movement, but not every problem can be solved at once. Or, the up-and-down problem can be solved by way of anti-gravity or some other unexplained technology that negates weight.

Anyway, that's what it looks like to me, that the flying saucer of the twentieth century is simply the airship of the nineteenth, taken from two-dimensional representation, spun on its axis, and freed into three-dimensional space. (Remember that the alien spacecraft in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, from 1956, spin. Could this have been a holdover from the turning of the object in the artist's imagination? Probably not. I suspect it was to invoke the spinning of a gyroscope, done for stability's sake, and the lack of stability is one of the things that undoes the aliens in the movie.) If that's what really happened, then flying saucers were actually created by artists and not by writers at all. They were literally spun from the imagination. (Another word for fusiform is spindle-shaped.) I'm not sure that Charles Fort ever described the craft of the outer-space people who had their great battles in the sky, the same people who now own us. I wonder whether any writer did in fact. But artists imagined flying saucers and by drawing them brought them into reality.

We should remember in all of this that the first flying saucer flap in American was actually an airship flap and that it took place in 1896-1897, fifty years before Kenneth Arnold and Raymond Palmer launched us into the Flying Saucer Era. With their fins, propellors, gondolas, and gasbags, those airships were distinctly nineteenth-century in appearance. It was only during the first half of the twentieth century that they became saucer shaped and freed from the forces of weight and drag. My how alien technology advanced in just fifty short years!

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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