While Australia’s first UFO flap may have occurred in the winter of 1909, the skies above Australia have long been filled with unknown aerial objects that have left witnesses scratching their heads and clambering to adequately describe what they had seen.
Way back in 1868, Parramatta surveyor, Fred Birmingham, had an apparent encounter with “a machine to go through the air” while other early witnesses, untainted by the modern lore of UFOs and aliens, have reported celestial apparitions, aerial processions of vehicles, phenomenal lights in the heavens and strange meteors.
Are these reports of unknown aerial objects from the 19th and early 20th centuries UFO reports? Perhaps. But like today, many of these early reports continue to defy logical explanations.
Brilliant Star Appears in the Twinkling of an Eye
In an article titled “Strange Phenomenon” published in The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser on 18 May 1872, an eyewitness reported a brilliant object that suddenly appeared ahead of him while riding on horseback.
I was riding near Belford Post Office, when I observed at a distanoe of about 50 yards from me … elevated at about 12 feet from the ground, a very strange phenomenon, resembling a brilliant star; but, fully three times as large as the morning star; it was exceedingly brilliant … It was not a falling meteor; as it accumulated at the place described in the twinkling of an eye; but after a little time it instantly disappeared, without leaving a vestige of fading illumination behind.
It was not I think an optical delusion, but a reality; and it is not the first which has been seen: at our last sheep-shearing a youth, named George Moore … whilst going home one night and in quite a different direotion, was terror-stricken with the instantaneous appearance of a similar phenomenon.
These lights witnessed in 1872, reported to be three times brighter than the morning star, and which suddenly appeared, hovered and then disappeared in an instant, have a familiar ring to many contemporary reports of unidentified aerial objects apparently “blinking in” and then “blinking out”.
Then, 11 years later, on 14 April 1883, Illustrated Sydney News published a report of a yellowish coloured light seen flying over Melbourne, which at times appeared to emit brilliantly illuminated orbs.
Suddenly an immense ball of fire, apparently of a yellow hue, appeared in the sky, which was perfectly clear at the time, the stars to the westward being remarkably brilliant. The phenomenon worked gradually from the east to the south, the pitching and tossing resembling the motion of a kite in a gale of wind. At intervals, the ball of fire appeared to detach portions of its luminous composition, the brilliancy of which caused the star lights to disappear.
The strange visitor hovered about several points to the southward, for more than an hour. The phenomenon was witnessed at sea, as well as on land. Mr Thompson, second mate of the steamer Lindus … states that when the steamer was abreast of Cape Paterson, fully 50 miles from Port Phillip Heads, he noticed the singular appearance of a ball of fire to the eastward shortly before 3 o’clock in the morning of the same day. It dodged about with the waving motion of a kite, and frequently streaks of flame shot away from the main body of fire. On the previous morning, Mr Thompson states, he observed, some hours before sunrise, that the eastern horizon was of a bright yellow colour, the western horizon being of a greenish tint.
An Aerial Procession of Vehicles
A very intriguing, and peculiar, report of strange objects seen in the skies appeared in Victoria’s Portland Guardian on 13 February 1888:
A correspondent at White Hills. for whose general intelligence and accuracy of observation we can vouch (says the Bendigo Independent), forwards us a most interesting description of a mirage which he saw last Friday evening.
Our informant writes: “Allow me to describe a most marvellous phenomenon (to me at least it appeared to be) as witnessed by myself and family on Friday evening from half-past 7 o’clock until about 8 o’clock. I was sitting at that time at my back door…
“Through a rift or opening in the trees planted in the street in which I live … my eye was suddenly arrested by the appearance, apparently of numberless vehicles, which were in quick succession following one another on the top of the hill (though rather above the ground), and going down towards the White Hills Cemetery.
“I thought at first that they were clouds moving along, but I soon found they were not, for I scanned the heavens in that direction for some time, and not a cloud could be seen moving. I watched the procession for 20 minutes or more, and in all that time it moved along without ceasing. It contained carriages of every description, from Pickles drag (some of them were high up against the sky) to the flour lorry, and cabs, buggies, and horsemen jostling each other.
“I could compare it to nothing I had ever seen save a funeral procession, only it was more irregular and swift in its movenments. What is strange about the matter is that I examined from whence they apparently came and where they went, but I could not discover anything of it, though I searched carefully for 10 minutes or more. I know that I am not mistaken in what I am reporting to you, for surely 20 minutes or a half-hour is long enough for a man to look at an object to be satisfied that he is looking at something material, or the image of it.
“I am aware that strange things are sometimes seen, caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays, but that must be, I suppose, while the sun is above the horizon. But in this case the sun had set before I saw them at all, and they continued to pour along until darkness shut them from my sight.”
What are we to make of this bizarre report? Could it be that the witness was observing some mirage appearing above the horizon of actual vehicles traversing the streets of White Hills? The witness considers this but rules it out as the sun had already set.
Or, could it be that the witness is unwittingly describing a sighting of multiple UFOs in the only terms he can relate to; common vehicles of the era such as flour lorries, cabs and buggies?
Meteor Traveling at a Leisurely Pace
In November 1902, two men taking weather reports at an observatory watched as a slow-moving meteoric object flew through the heavens. While described as a meteor, there were several peculiar aspects to the object; it was observed for around four minutes, had what was described as a planetary disc (saucer-shaped perhaps), and finally, it changed shape before being lost to view.
The event was reported on 21 November in Adelaide’s The Advertiser under the headline “An Unusual Apparition”:
A remarkable sight was witnessed in Adelaide on Thursday morning, and Messrs. Chettle and Dodwell, who were taking weather records at the Observatory, and the assistant meteorologist (Mr. Griffiths) were fortunate in contemplating it under favorable conditions.
It took the form of a slowly-moving meteoric object in the heavens. Sir Charles Todd, who has received a full report on the unusual occurrence, stated last night that his assistants describe what they saw as a brilliant globular light, having a planetary disc, which appeared in the south-south-east, at an altitude of about 45 degrees. The luminous object moved northwards, passing within 15 or 20 degrees of the sun. It was brightly visible for about four minutes, and Sir Charles was informed that it appeared like Venus, when that planet is at its greatest brilliancy soon after sunset.
Mr. Griffiths watched the visitor’s leisured progress across the heavens until, owing to the glare of the sky, it became invisible, at an altitude of about 45 degrees above the north horizon. The meteor, therefore, travelled in full view for 90 degrees, and Sir Charles states that this constitutes a record.
Messrs. Chettle and Dodwell report that when the meteoric body was near the prime vertical its form changed, and from globular it became elongated, the long axis being south to north, the direction of travel. Mr. Griffiths saw it for about a minute, and in that time it moved through 20 degrees of arc. At 9.31 a.m. the illuminated body disappeared.
Another strange meteoric light was observed, not once but on three separate occasions, in the eastern skies above Sydney in March 1910. The witness wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald stating that:
On Friday morning last, at 4 o’clock, a brilliant meteoric light could be plainly seen in the eastern sky. The sky was overcast and dull at the time, and yet this strange light could be distinctly observed. It floated in the sky for some time, and then gradually diminished, leaving a cometic tail in its wake.
Yesterday morning the same phenomenon was noticed. This time it rose at 3.40 a.m., and, notwithstanding that the sky was densely overcast and raining this enigmatical luminous body was easily discernible in all its brilliance. It floated in the heavens for some time, and then gradually disappeared. Ultimately, it came into view again, with its cometic tail, and gradually became obscured.
The correspondent speculated that what he may have seen was actually Venus with the comet-like tail caused by cloud effects. While this may be a possible explanation, it is unlikely that he would have observed Venus in such “densely overcast” conditions. And would he really have described Venus as an “enigmatical luminous body” and that it “floated in the heavens”?
…And a Meteor that Changes Direction
Another sighting of a slow-moving meteor was reported in Adelaide’s Register on 14 February 1911 from a bloke known only as “Scout”.
On Saturday night, about 8.30, I and another person saw a strange light in the sky in the west. It was much too big for a meteor, and was travelling too slowly, and had no bright centre. It was a cloudy night, and the light appeared at the back of the clouds. It might be best described as resembling a tadpole in shape, and it travelled horizontally from west to south-west. About 8 minutes later it reappeared and moved from south-west to west.
Scout wasn’t sure what to make of what he had seen that night. “Could your readers offer any explanation?” he asked. “It might have been a ray of light thrown on the clouds by a powerful searchlight, but there was no ‘beam’ visible.”
Another Norway Spiral … in 1914?
A short, but remarkable, note appeared in The Ballarat Courier on 1 May 1914 describing a strange phenomenon in the sky above central Queensland that sounds uncannily like the Norway Spiral of 2009. Interestingly, a similar spiral phenomenon was witnessed across Queensland in June 2010.
The May 1914 report, appearing under the headline “Phenomenon in Sky Resembles Gigantic Snake”, stated that:
A telegram from Longreach states that a strange phenomenon was witnessed there last evening. A light appeared in the sky about 45 degrees above the horizon, and after a while it took on a spiral form, resembling a gigantic snake. It stood out snowy white in the sky, and it could afterwards be seen faintly in the darkness.
It was generally regarded that the Norway Spiral was the result of a missile test gone wrong, and that the Queensland Spiral was linked to the private launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. But, here we have a very similar sighting from 1914, decades before such rockets and ballistic missiles would be launched heavenward.
It Hovered for a Few Seconds, Made a Big Dive, and Rose Again
Four witnesses observed an extraordinary aerial object from a back verandah in Linisfarne, Tasmania, in March 1918. Hobart’s Mercury reported in “Phenomenon in the Heavens” that:
Mrs F. E. Honey, of Lindisfarne, informs us that on Wednesday evening, at about 8 o’clock, she, her husband, and two others saw an extraordinary aerial object. From their back verandah they saw in the eastern heavens not far above the horizon, a bright object something about the size of the moon, when its appearance is at its smallest. It rose gradually, and then, after hovering for a few seconds, made a big dive. It rose again, and then moved northerly until it disappeared.
The impression it created upon Mr Honey’s mind was that it was like looking through an open door into a room where a bright fire was burning.
So, what are we to make of such reports of unexplained aerial objects? From a time before the modern era of flying saucers and UFOs, it’s unlikely that such witnesses were hoaxing or simply making up stories.
Were they misidentifying natural phenomena?
Possibly, but many of these reports, although couched in different terms than what we would typically use today when reporting a UFO sighting, do share some striking similarities.
Andrew Nicholson is the creator of the Weird Australia website, and author of the book Weird Australia: Real Reports of Uncanny Creatures, Strange Sightings & Extraordinary Encounters. You can follow him on Twitter via @WeirdAustralia.