The Context of the Roswell Incident

The Context of the Roswell Incident

Charles V. Packer
June 19, 1997

The 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident apparently will be getting significant press coverage. This might lead some people to think that it marked the start of the UFO era. In fact, the first UFO sighting was a couple of weeks earlier, on June 24, 1947. The Roswell incident occurred just as UFOs were becoming front page news. It was the first event in which the sighting was of something on the ground, rather than in the air.

Here are some remarks I posted to sci.skeptic in 1993 after doing some reading in period newspapers. I speculated that UFOs might have been a hoax as part of an experiment in mass hysteria.

The Roswell incident was the high water mark of the famous
flying saucer (more typically, flying disk) craze of 1947 that
began the UFO age. The first sighting, as everyone knows, was
when a Boise businessman-pilot saw nine disks over the Cascade
Mountains in Washington on June 24. Sightings spread, and by
July 6 it was front-page news for the New York Times, with 43
states reporting them. Sightings were starting to be reported in
other countries also. The Roswell "weather balloon" incident
first made news on July 7. 

It turns out that there were precursor incidents, however. In
1946 and early 1947, the testing of V-2s at White Sands was
covered fairly well by the Times. One rocket went astray and
exploded in Mexico. There were other mishaps. Also, reports came
from Sweden during that time that rockets were seen flying over
Stockholm. The implication was, in the little that I read of
those stories, that people suspected that the Soviets were
testing rockets at Peenemunde. 

Anyway, as I browsed the July, 1947 issues of the Times and the
Albuquerque Journal, I was intrigued by one item in particular
that "points up," as journalists say, the way the press first
teased the public before laughing at them. On July 6, the NY
Times included in a longer story an item to the effect that

   An unidentified "scientist in nuclear physics" at
   the California Institute of Technology was quoted 
   today as suggesting the flying saucers might be the
   result of "transmutation of atomic energy" experiments.
   But Dr. C.C. Lauritsen, head of Caltech's nuclear 
   physics department denied the source was a member 
   of his staff.

The Associated Press dispatch as published in the Journal
handled the denial by Cal Tech this way: 

   Cal Tech later issued a denial that one of its
   scientists had suggested the saucers might be
   experiments in "transmutation of atomic energy."
   Dr. C.C. Lauritsen, head of the school's nuclear
   physics department, said he believed the discs
   "have nothing to do with nuclear physics."

There is a subtle difference here. The AP material --
and most of the world saw it, not the Times -- seems to say
that yes, a Cal Tech scientist did say the saucers were about
=something,= if not about "transmutation." Lauritsen's remark
seems to be a response to the unnamed scientist. 

The Journal's use of the AP dispatch was not subtle at all.
Their front-page headline heralding the latest developments that
day said 

   Atomic Energy Experiments
   Explain 'Flying Saucer',
   Says Scientist; More In Sky

Later in the story, which contained several saucer-related
items, they had the same scientist asserting that the saucers
"are twenty feet in width at the center and are partially
rocket-propelled on the take-off...Such flying disks actually
are in experimental existence." 

Experimental existence? Interesting phrase. Maybe it's a 
clue to the ultimate nature of the flying saucer scare.
Their "existence" was an experiment. They existed, all right.
In minds -- of the people who planted the stories and of
the journalists who went along with the game. Something we
would call a "hidden agenda" today. It was a time of mass
hysteria and of concern about the effects of "propaganda."
A few years later there would be mass illnesses in factories,
attributed to "mass hypnosis." Would it be out of order 
to suggest that some of these frenzies were experimentally

Home page

Charles Packer