A very interesting article by Martin Kottmeyer can be found over at the (wonderful!) Magonia website, simply titled “Engine Stoppers” (originally published in Magonia #90, 2005). It’s a long, detailed overview (and deconstruction) of the alleged ‘engine stopping’ abilities of UFOs:
In a 1985 review of 1278 case questionnaires, George D. Fawcett reported 370 instances of “Electromagnetic interference reports caused by UFOs on compasses, plane and car motors, headlights, houselights, searchlights, radar beams, radios, TV & other communication devices, etc.” and 37 instances of power failures attributed to UFO appearances.” (Fawcett, 1985) He feels it belongs among the set of claims that “have proven themselves both persistent and consistent on a global basis-and are a challenge to science. Any future solution to the growing worldwide UFO enigma will have to deal directly with [them]” (Story, 2001 “Fawcett Repetitions” entry)
In 1981, Mark Rodeghier published a catalogue of 441 EM events associated with vehicle failures. He calculated this as roughly 1.5% of the UFOCAT pool of cases. His chronology includes one from as early as 1909 involving the temporary failure of a motorcycle headlamp. Two cases are listed in the 1940s, but involved testimony from 1957 and 1968. There are surprisingly few cases in the 1952 wave – two – a stalled car prior to a tall monster encounter and a radio dying inside a car that remains running while witnesses watch an “air blimp.” Neither really involves a saucer!
Such effects become more strongly tied to UFOs in the French wave of 1954, when nearly two dozen E.M. cases surface. Databases list sporadic incidents for 1955 and 1956, but they appear to involve backdating, i.e the testimony is given years later. The Levelland flap of 1957 spawns nearly three dozen instances of E.M. interference. Thereafter, it is seems a constant presence in American UFO cases.
This data seems very convincing, and has been cited over the years, in Kottmeyer’s words, as “one of the most compelling proofs that UFOs must be real in a material sense.” But is this the case? Kottmeyer goes on to show that there are serious grounds for concluding that vehicle interference effects are ‘psychosocial’ in nature – that is, they may have been influenced by literary and film precursors. He presents a list of turn of the century fiction which employed the idea, moving on to the pulps in the 20s and 30s in which it becomes a staple science fiction plot device. In the 30s movies are released which feature it, and then in the lead-up to World War II rumours abound of the ‘Marconi Ray’. Then, in 1946 – just before the ‘official’ beginning of the UFO era – ‘engine stopping’ features in Harold Sherman’s “The Green Man”, published in Ray Palmer’s Amazing Stories magazine. Just two years later, the phenomenon turns up in one of the first UFO books, Bernard Newman’s The Flying Saucer.
At times I think Kottmeyer over-reaches. While he wields Occam’s Razor to good effect, at times he approaches it as an arbiter of truth, especially when discussing the Levelland case – contrary to his conclusions, parsimony doesn’t “dictate” anything, it just suggests (if forcefully at times). At times he seems to use large-scale assumptions of the possible technology being used to help boost his psychosocial theory (for example, in pointing out that “a different pattern of effects should have been seen if a massive field of magnetic forces was involved”), and he seems to ignore the possibility that cases could involve a combination of real effects and hallucination/altered states, such as the theory of Michael Persinger. Finally, presenting a few cases of UFO misperceptions (hallucinations?) which involved engine stopping does not invalidate the entire catalogue (especially when investigated by the Condon committee).
But overall it’s a brilliant piece of research and theorising. Kottmeyer presents a number of possible influences from the early part of the century which had not been noted before, and does a fine job of linking the chronological sequence of literary themes/memes and UFO reports. It raises significant doubts about the importance of the ‘engine-stopping’ reports – not nearly enough to debunk the phenomenon, in my opinion, but certainly enough to give one pause when evaluating each case.