While the modern era of the flying saucer, or UFO, is generally regarded as having begun in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting, followed quickly by the legend of crashed flying discs in the New Mexico desert, people have been observing unexplainable phenomena in the skies for far, far longer. In the late 1800s for example, a wave of strange sightings of airships swept across the US. These unknown craft were usually reported as being steam-driven ships, piloted by overall-clad men, flying low across the countryside.
Australia also had its own strange sightings of unknown flying craft, perhaps the strangest, and best documented, was the apparent 1868 encounter of a Parramatta surveyor, Fred Birmingham. Yes, that’s 1868!
A machine to go through the air
In 1975, Australia’s leading UFO researcher, Bill Chalker, happened upon a 15 page document purported to have been written in 1873 titled A machine to go through the air. After much research into the man behind the story and the vernacular used in the document, Chalker concluded that the document was likely authentic. That is, it was in fact written by Fred Birmingham of Parramatta some time after his encounter in 1868.
Fred Birmingham explained his encounter in terms of strange dreams, floating heads, spirit voices and a flying ark. How else could he explain his experience but to frame it in cultural references available in his day…much in the way that startled onlookers in the US saw mechanical, steam-driven airships. And in the same way that today, we see saucer and triangle shaped craft and are subjected to intrusive medical procedures performed by robotic grey aliens with large bug eyes and small slits for mouths.
Birmimgham’s encounter started with a “wonderful dream” while standing under his front verandah. “Up in the sky to the north-east, a bizarre apparitional procession. Floating there was the Lord Bishop of Sydney’s head in the air looking intently upon me in a frowning half laughing mood…I watched it intently and when it had travelled to the east it dimmed – just as one loses his focus by quickly drawing in or out the slide of a telescope.”
He then went on to describe the ark… “Though a brown colour all over at a distance… its peculiar shapings are well impressioned upon my mind and the colour seemed to blend with faint, flitting shades of steel blue below and appearing tremulous and like what one might term magnified scales on a large fish, the latter being as it were flying in the air, (the machine has not the shape of anything that has life).”
He was then asked by a spirit voice if he would like “to enter upon it”. Naturally, he took the being up on its offer and went inside the craft. Wouldn’t you?
“Thereupon we were lifted off the grass and gently carried through the air and onto the upper part of the machine…” While on the craft, Birmingham was shown two cylinders located at the front and back, “indicating their purpose by downward motion of the hand”. He was then invited to the “pilot house”.
For a full account of this fascinating encounter, Bill Chalker wrote about it for the Fortean Times. You can read the full article here.
Other early UFO encounters
Perhaps surprisingly, Fred Birmingham wasn’t the only colonial to have strange experiences with unexplained aerial phenomena.
In 1873 the South Australian Register published an article about a sailing ship that was followed by a bright light for almost an hour. Described by the ship’s captain as being milky-white, the light “came over the ship in waves”. The captain then went on to say that “a shuddering feeling was experienced at the sight,” and “the intense light made the eyes ache”. He finished by saying that “during the whole time the sea was illuminated, though not vividly. For a quarter of an hour after it was over flashes of light were perceptible in the water.”
Then in 1885, the crew of a ship sailing the Pacific off the east coast of Australia saw “a large fiery red ball in the sky. It hissed overhead and fell into the sea, triggering a series of huge waves.”
And in another case sounding suspiciously like a modern USO (Unidentified Submersible Object) sighting, the crew of a British steamship witnessed a “huge ball of light rise from the water, move close to the beach and then dash away”.
The man in strange clothing
A farmer reported a bizarre encounter in 1893 in the Central West of New South Wales. He claimed that a saucer shape landed in one of his paddocks and a man in strange clothing emerged from the craft. As the farmer approached the pilot of the craft, he shone “some kind of torch” at the farmer, which “threw him to the ground and stunned him”. When he gained consciousness, the craft and the man had gone. His hand that had been hit by the “torch beam” however was forever left paralysed.
It appears that advanced flying craft beyond the capabilities of technology available at the time, conveying strange unearthly beings, have been with us way before 1947.
Fortean Times Australia’s 1868 UFO Buzz by Bill Chalker
Australian UFO Research Network