Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Rocket Expert Who Stopped the War on UFOs

Looking for perspective on the flying saucer panic of 1952, newspapers turned to experts in science and space travel. The Washington Daily News, July 28, 1952, quoted a rocket specialist: 

“Several scientists, tho stumped for an explanation of ‘flying saucers’ today said they’re convinced the mysterious objects really exist.

‘I definitely believe the objects sighted over Washington were not a figment of someone’s imagination,’ said Robert L. Farnsworth, president of the U.S. Rocket Society, a reputable organization devoted to the study of rocket travel. He said, ‘there is a possibility’ they are interplanetary space ships.” 

R. L. Farnsworth would go on to make one of the most famous statements ever on the topic of UFOs and aliens. We’ll look at who was, his beliefs, and the organization he led. 

The Rocket Society 

The American Rocket Society was founded in 1930 by some space enthusiasts, however, it rapidly evolved into a prestigious professional and technical association. According to the group’s history by 1934, “Most of the original science fiction crowd had left, to be replaced by scientists and engineers.” The ARS had very little to do with flying saucers* but there was another group, and the press probably mixed up the two.

In 1942, an organization with a similar name sprung up in Illinois, the United States Rocket Society, founded and led by Robert Lee Farnsworth (1909-1998). Farnsworth was in the real estate business for most of his life, but his passion was for the stars. The USRS was essentially a fan club for proponents of rockets and space travel, and Harry Warner’s science fiction fanzine Spaceways was listed as their “official organ.”

Well before the UFOs of 1947, Farnsworth believed in the likelihood of extraterrestrial life and visitations. In his 1943 booklet, Rockets: New Trail to Empire, Farnsworth said, “In times to come the Nation which owns the Moon will rule the universe!" It shouldn’t be the Nazis, he said, “Let’s get there first, - AMERICA!” In another passage he alluded to what’s become known as the “Ancient Aliens”' hypothesis, and lauded Charles Fort, “Many of the phenomena he reported pointed to life and exploration from other worlds!"

The U.S. Rocket Society received some publicity in 1944 and 1945, for Farnsworth asking US authorities about the possibility of land ownership of the moon, and of the use of atomic powered rockets to fly there. 

NEA item, Aug. 19, 1945 

Farnsworth capitalized on the media attention and reprinted the Rockets pamphlet in 1945. Arthur C. Clarke (of the British Interplanetary Society) received a copy and wrote a scathing essay in opposition to the idea that the moon and space should be the subject of national or commercial exploitation. In “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth” (Later collected in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: Collected Essays, 1934-1998) Clarke also said, “The brochure will, I am afraid, have a deplorable effect on any intelligent layman and will attract the most undesirable type of member, if indeed it attracts any at all.” 

In 1946, USRS launched their own quarterly fanzine, Rockets: The Magazine of Space Flight, featuring a mix of content about aerospace developments and science fiction. Ads for it appeared in pulps like Fantastic Adventures, and in the classifieds in magazines like Popular Science

Farnsworth believed in the possibility of extraterrestrial visitations. After the reports by Kenneth Arnold and others, he speculated further. From The Decatur Daily Review, July 8, 1947: “Illinois' Disks Vary in Color, Speed, Height” by the Associated Press: 

“But whatever their shapes, sizes or behavior, R. L. Farnsworth, a Chicago amateur astronomer and member of the U. S. Rocket society, suggested they might be animate and came from Venus or they might be electronic eyes from Mars. It is possible, he added, that Venus had evolved a form of life able to fly by use of electric currents, such as a sting-ray fish which has an electric charge. And if they really are fish from Venus, Farnsworth said, they might find themselves out of bounds in buzzing the earth because they might not be able to survive in its atmosphere.” 

The Butte Montana Standard, July 8, 1947, carried a similar lengthier article where Farnsworth discussed Charles Fort, and the fact that strange things had been seen in the skies for hundreds of years. 

The Butte Montana Standard, July 8, 1947

Saucers were not mentioned in the United Press article from July 11, 1947, about Farnsworth’s editorial, but it reported on his speculation that long ago, the moon might have been an atomic battleground for “Ancient Aliens.” Inhabitants flew from the dying moon to our young planet, and he hinted their secrets might have been sunk with Atlantis and Lemuria. 

United Press, July 11, 1947

Startling Stories Sept. 1948

The science fiction and fantasy pulp magazine Startling Stories, Sept. 1948 published Farnsworth’s essay on rockets, “First Target in Space,” where he speculated there might be life on the moon and our surrounding planets. Their May 1949 issue featured a sequel where he speculated about the future discoveries that space travel would allow. Farnsworth was confident Mars held life, and he speculated that the “Dipodomys Deserti” might be found there. “This little mammal resembles a gopher, a rat, a rabbit and a miniature kangaroo!” 

For a while, things were relatively quiet in the press for Farnsworth, but he ran as a candidate for Congress from Illinois' 14th District in 1950 and again in 1952, both times unsuccessfully. Then came the famous saucer flap in the summer of 1952. 

The Scranton Tribune, July 29, 1952 

"Scoops" 1954 trading card from Topps

Shoot Them Down 

From Flying Saucers From Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe, 1953:

“…INS had reported a new Air Force order—if saucers ignored orders to land, pilots were to open fire. At Washington, [radio show host] Frank Edwards had picked up the flash and repeated it on the Mutual network. Telegrams protesting the order were now coming in from all over the country.” 

One of those telegrams was sent to US President Harry Truman.


From here, we’ll let Farnsworth tell the story. From Rockets: The Magazine of Space Flight Vol.3. Nol. January 1953. pp.13-14.[As quoted by Loren Gross in UFOs: A History, 1952: July 21–31 (Supplemental Notes) page 88)

"On the night of July 27 Mr. Farnsworth was called by United Press and asked to give his opinion or a statement about his view of these releases [of UFO news of the day]. This was given wide publicity, over the entire United States and should be to the Society's credit. Next night we were called by the Society Vice-President, Mr. John M. Griggs in New Jersey, and told of a news dispatch which purported to say that the Armed Forces had orders to shoot these objects down on sight. At this Mr. Farnsworth immediately sent the following wire to the President of the United States, to the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army and of the Navy:

'I respectfully suggest that no offensive action be taken against the objects reported as unidentified which have been sighted over our Nation. Should they be extra-terrestrial such action might result in the gravest consequences, as well as possibly alienating us from beings of far superior powers. Friendly contact should be sought as long as possible.

Signed, Robert L. Farnsworth, President, U.S. Rocket Society, Inc.' 

The next day, July 29, 1952, through the courtesy of Radio and TV station WGN, Mr. Farnsworth appeared on a short news interview given by Spencer Allen at 6:45 Chicago time." 

Here are a few samples of the coverage in the newspapers in the following days:

Long Beach Independent, July 30, 1952
Lodi News-Sentinel, July 30, 1952

Daily Globe (Ironwood, Michigan), July 31, 1952

That was the last significant UFO-related press on Farnsworth, but his interest in the topic continued. Rockets vl. 2 no. 3 from 1952 was largely devoted to the Tenth Anniversary World Science Fiction Convention (which included some UFO programming) held in held on Labor Day weekend in Chicago. Farnsworth privately paid for a suite there for the purpose of promoting the USRS. Rockets also featured two items about flying saucers, a notice for the International Flying Saucer Bureau, and commentary on the news of the day about military balloons being reported as UFOs.

Ad for WorldCon

Rockets vl. 3 no. 2 from 1953 carried several items about flying saucer clubs and publications. Farnsworth had been a member of the Fortean Society and frequently submitted clippings to their journal Doubt up until the mid-1950s. The collection of the USRS’s magazine online is not complete, but the July 1956 issue of Rockets contained no mention of anything UFO-related, indicating he may have given up on the topic. We found no other documentation of Farnsworth being connected with UFOs for his next four decades. Joshua Buhs on Farnsworth’s final years:

Rockets continued into the late 1950s... By that point, Farnsworth had relocated to Nevada, reaching that state in 1955. … [His wife] Evelyn died in 1970. Robert died 3 August 1998, exactly one month after his 89th birthday.”

Obituary from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 13, 1998:

“Robert Lee Farnsworth, 89, of Las Vegas died Aug. 3 in Las Vegas. He was born July 3, 1909, in Chicago. A resident for 43 years, he was a real estate appraiser, president of the Tennessee Uranium Mining Co., former congressional candidate in Illinois, early advocate of space flight, founder and president of the United States Rocket Society and member of the Masons and Shriners.”

Farnsworth’s association with the flying saucers was relatively brief, but he made a lasting impact. He is still frequently quoted today for his plea not to shoot them down, and we’ll never know for sure, but he may have also saved our planet.

Robert L. Farnsworth, one of...

The Ufologists That Time Forgot

. . .

For more biographical data on Farnsworth, see:

Robert L. Farnsworth as a Fortean by Joshua Buhs


Thursday, July 6, 2023

Flying Saucers Foiled Again

Three days before the saucer news broke from Roswell, New Mexico, a flying disc crashed on a farm in Ohio. In the following weeks (and years) other objects were found, some of them photographed and printed in newspapers.

July 7, 1947, Associated Press

Our Captured Flying Saucer Scrapbook begins with an item from The Circleville Herald, July 5, 1947: 

'Flying Disc' Believed Found On Pickaway Farm 

One of the "flying discs" which have been puzzling aviators all over the United States was believed Saturday to have been found on a Pickaway county farm. Sherman Campbell, who lives on the Westfall road in Wayne township, near the Pickaway-Ross county line, reported the finding of a star-shaped silver foil covered object which he believes is one of the mysterious "flying saucers."

While working in the field he spotted a strange object. He described his find as 50 inches high, 48 inches wide and weighing about two pounds. He said the silver foil was stretched over a wooden frame. The star-shaped object had six points. He said there was a balloon attached which had deflated and there was no way of knowing how big it was.

Discovery of the object was the first reported in the country. A Coast Guardsman on the west coast reported photographing one from a distance, but no one has seen one of the "flying discs" close. 

Another photo:

The Wisconsin State Journal, July 7, 1947

Yet another “flying saucer” was found in Oxford, Ohio, on Monday July 7, 1947, as reported in The Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN), July 9, 1947.

Saucers were everywhere. Amazingly, another strange object fell close to Circleville, Ohio. 

“The second such find was reported to Sheriff Charles Radcliff Tuesday afternoon by David C. Heffner, who said he discovered it on a line fence on his farm on the old Tarlton road four and one half miles east of Circleville. ... The gadgets found by Mr. Campbell and Mr. Heffner were … constructed of a light wood frame. Only a remnant of the thin rubber balloon remained attached to the Campbell find, but the other contraption discovered on the Heffner farm includes most of the remains of the balloon which must have measured more than 15 feet in diameter when it was inflated."
The Circleville Herald, July 5, 1947

The Roswell Debris

The now-famous headline, "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region," appeared in the Roswell Daily Record, July 8, 1947. However they stated, “no details of the saucer's construction or its appearance had been revealed.” Newspapers the next day began revealing the disappointing details.

The Durant Daily Democrat, July 10, 1947

The Minneapolis Star, Minneapolis, July 9, 1947

The Roswell Daily Record, July 9, 1947, reported that Mac Brazel had been hounded by the press over his discovery, "Harassed Rancher who Located 'Saucer' Sorry He Told About It." The paper summarized Brazel’s description of what’d he’d found and shown Maj. Jesse A. Marcel from Roswell Army Air Field:

“Brazel related that on June 14 he and 8-year-old son, Vernon were about 7 or 8 miles from the ranch house of the J.B. Foster ranch, which he operates, when they came upon a large area of bright wreckage made up on rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks. … There was no sign of any metal in the area which might have been used for an engine and no sign of any propellers of any kind, although at least one paper fin had been glued onto some of the tinfoil.”

The debris was matched to other discoveries and military projects still in flight. The Kansas City Times, July 9, 1947, reported on a Rawin target recovered on an Adrian, Missouri farm.

The Kansas City Times, July 9, 1947

The Corpus Cristi Caller, July 10, 1947, reported:

Like New Mexico Saucer – The “rawin” – radar wind – reflector attached to the Navy weather balloon above, is the same type of apparatus which a New Mexico rancher picked up earlier this week, believing he had found one of the much-publicized flying discs which have been plaguing 44 states of the nation. Miss Mary belle Kuegle, Wave aerologist first class, holds the device which normally rises to a height of 50,000 feet before the balloon bursts and the rawin falls to the earth, aided by a parachute. (Official U.S. Navy photograph.)

The Corpus Cristi Caller, July 10, 1947

What is a Rawin? From Captain Joseph A. Pechman’s article in Air Corps, from The Coast Artillery Journal, May/June 1946:

“Radar made possible the determination of upper winds under most conditions of clouds or poor visibility. Wind data are obtained by an SCR-584 [radar unit] tracking the flight of a free balloon to which is attached a metal, foil-covered paper reflector capable of reflecting the radar signals back to the radar. Direction and speeds of the winds for various altitudes are evaluated on the basis of the horizontal projection of the flight of the balloon. This procedure is called ‘RAWIN’, a term combining the two words, ‘radar’ and ‘wind’.” 
Launching and tracking a rawin target.

Civilians were not only mistaking Rawin targets for flying saucers on the ground, but also in the sky. The United Press story in the Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), July 10, 1947, the US Navy disclosed that their  balloon launches had led to saucer reports. 

Disc? Tsk, Says Navy
Saucy Soaring Saucers Sinking

Practical jokers continued to have a high time with flying saucers today as the navy advised the more serious-minded "eyewitnesses" that what they saw in the sky was only weather observation devices. It cost the navy $25 to assure itself. Lt. Rell Zelle Moore, naval air station aerology officer, launched a "ray winds" weather device is a $25 "operations saucer" at Atlanta, Ga. As the helium-filled balloon carrying a tin-foil screen soared over Stone Mountains, calls poured into Atlanta newspapers reporting "flying discs." The 4-by-10 foot screen looked like a round aluminum disc at a high altitude. "People are only just beginning to see these things aloft," said Lt. Comndr. Thomas H. Rentz. 

The Gastionia Gazette (NC), July 10, 1947 feature more from the Naval officer: 


Naval Officer Believes Flying Discs Are Tinfoil Screen Used In Weather Balloons To Reflect Radar Rays And Detect Wind's Velocity

ATLANTA, July 10 -- UP -- Lieut. Commander Thomas H. Rentz of the Atlanta Naval Air Station said today he believed the "flying saucers" reported over the country were tinfoil screens used in weather balloons. 

The Roswell tinfoil episode was forgotten, but the International News Service (INS) article from April 10, 1949, published under such titles as “Secrecy Shrouds ‘Saucers’ Probe,” mentioned Roswell in passing:

“… the USAF has sorted out the vast number of fantastic and imaginative reports received... Another incident resulted in ‘exile’ for an Air Force public relations officer in the West. This enthusiastic gentleman, without prior reference to Washington, announced to local newsmen that he had found a ‘flying saucer’.” 

Saturday Evening Post, April 30, 1949, featured the first of two parts of a skeptical article by Sidney Shallet, “What You Can Believe About Flying Saucers.” It included a section on rawin targets as UFOs:

In addition to the 25 per cent or more bona fide cases of mistaken identification that can be blamed on astronomical phenomena, a large percentage can be accounted for by weather-observation and radar-target balloons.  . . . The most common sources of innocent deception in the balloon field are the so-called RAWIN (radar-wind) target balloons.  The balloons generally are white, and at 40,000 to 60,000 feet where they usually operate, they are invisible to persons on the ground.  Dangling below each balloon, however, is a six-cornered "target" of aluminum foil, strung out on kitelike sticks.  Radar operators on the ground track these aluminum targets for weather information. The targets oscillate and gyrate in the wind, and sunlight glinting from these shiny, wind-tossed objects can create a perfect illusion of a flying saucer.  Movies of airborne RAWINs were taken for me, and in some shots the oscillating aluminum targets appeared perfectly round. 

Further Sightings in the Fifties 

Around the USA, saucer reports kept being reported and sometimes, physical evidence was found. Here’s our two last entries that made the papers. 

The Captured Saucer of Concord, Pennsylvania

On March 28, 1950, an unnamed farmer spotted a UFO descending and land in his field. He reported the object, and it was subsequently carried to the Concord School where it was on display for the 300 students there and the general public. The Chester Times, March 29, 1950, reported the mysterious object was: 

“Four feet across at its maximum width, it was constructed of white and silver paper, on a thin wooden frame. Only identifying features on the strange-looking star shaped object with the numerals 1040. Obviously severed heavy strings were attached to a metallic ring on the object, indicating that a balloon had been hooked up to the ‘What-is-it.’ The balloon apparently broke loose when the strings gave away and it continued its flight. The farmer who first sighted the object reported this morning that spinning in the late afternoon sunlight, it gave every appearance of being a huge disk as rays were reflected from the white and silver body of the object.” 

Local Weather Bureau, Army officials, and scientists were consulted, but they could not initially identify the object’s origin. 

Chester Times, March 29, 1950

The next day continued the drama, “Concord’s ‘Flying Disc’ Subject of Much Speculation”

Chester Times, March 30, 1950

A subsequent story in the Chester Times, April 8, 1950, reported that the “kite-like affair” had been identified, “investigation disclosed [it] to be a corner reflector radar target.” 

The Horton Disc of 1953 

A UFO was seen in the skies of Atlanta, Georgia on July 6, 1953. The next morning, near the Fulton County Airport, Ralph Horton recovered an unusual flying object that had crashed on his lawn. From The Atlanta Constitution, July 8, 1953: 

“Experts Tuesday were as baffled as ever about the multi-colored, cone-shaped ''thing" that dozens of Atlantans saw moving across the twilight sky around supper-time Mondav. The experts didn't think the ‘thing’ was the kite-shaped, balloon-bearing apparatus Ralph Horton found Tuesday morning in his front yard near the County Airport. U. S. Weather Bureau officials said Horton's find apparently is a ‘ra-wind,’ an instrument used to plot wind currents in the upper air. Such an instrument, they explained, would have been released by the Air Force at 4 p.m. and would not have remained aloft as long as 7:15 p.m. when Atlantans all over the city reported they saw the ‘thing.’”
The Atlanta Constitution, July 8, 1953

By this time, such discoveries were common. Once the Weather Bureau identified it as a rawin target, no investigation by Project Blue Book – or anyone was conducted. Until… 

Working on a proposed flying saucer book, James Moseley made a cross-country trip in 1953-54 tracking down UFO witnesses. In Georgia, he found the Ralph Horton article in the files of the Atlanta Constitution. Moseley with Karl Pflock described what he did next in his 2002 book, Shockingly Close to the Truth!: Confessions of a Grave-Robbing Ufologist

“Of course, I lost no time getting out to see Horton, who obligingly hauled the saucer out of the woods behind his house, where he tossed it after the excitement had died down. ... I photographed Horton with the saucer which he then offered to me. I took it with thanks. Unfortunately, it got lost in the shuffle over the years.” 

Ralph Horton and his discovery. Photo by Jim Moseley 

Crashes of other military or meteorological balloon packages have resulted in other “crash-retrieval” cases, from the famous to the forgotten. While no single answer has been found for the flying saucer mystery, sightings and discovery of rawin targets added to the confusion, becoming part of UFO legends and history.

. . .

UFO Lecturer, Ed Ruppelt of Project Blue Book

Flying Saucers:  “I realize this is a big thing. I never, even while I was working in the Air Force, I never realized what a big, big thing ...