Friday, August 11, 2023

Alien Attack Unites Humanity

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

That adage dates to the 4th century or before, and it applied to more than individuals. Feuding villages sometimes set aside their differences, uniting when faced by a mutual threat. The Saucers That Time Forgot specializes in examining how UFO-related concepts were born and spread. The timeline below chronicles the development of the idea of an alien threat uniting humanity, with over 30 examples from public figures like science fiction authors, playwrights, sociologists, philosophers, economists, international statesmen, generals, CIA operatives, and U.S. presidents. 

Timeline: Alien Attack Unites Humanity 

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Crashed Flying Saucers and the Hydra Club

Caption: Fletcher Pratt and the Roswell UFO crash via The X-files

In January 1950, newspapers reported the autopsy of small extraterrestrial bodies from a flying saucer captured by the U.S. government, information from insiders, “confidential sources” disclosed via a reputable journalist and military expert. Ufologists later cited the report as credible supporting evidence of Roswell and other crash-retrieval cases. Who leaked the story, and how?

Fletcher Pratt Wonder Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932

Murray Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) was a prolific author, primarily of naval and military history. He was also famous for his science fiction and fantasy, frequently written in collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp.

Fletcher Pratt bio from Modern Science Fiction 1953

A UFO crash opened one of Pratt’s early science fiction stories, an alien encounter story written fifteen years before the flying saucers of 1947.

Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932

“A Voice Across the Years” was a novella published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932, by Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher Pratt, illustrated by Hans Wessolowski. Two men see a “meteor” crash into a lake and go to investigate. There, they eventually meet and befriend an extraterrestrial shaken from the crash of his “cometary car.” The spaceship is irretrievable, so they assist the alien in construction of a new one. Just as it’s finished, the police come to capture him. In an unintentional abduction, one man is trapped inside the ship as the alien takes off for another world.

Thirty years later, the story was edited and expanded by Pratt’s widow, Inga, and published as the 1962 book, Alien Planet. Cover artist Ed Emshwiller depicted the alien’s circular spaceship with a flattened appearance, making it look very much like a flying saucer.

Astounding Oct. 1954 - SF Book Club ad

In the early 1950s Fletcher Pratt was among the top science fiction authors, and  a member of an elite network of professionals sharing common interests.

The Hydra Club

In October of 1947, a group of professional science fiction writers and editors founded a group in New York, calling themselves the Hydra Club. The founding members included: Lester del Rey, David A. Kyle, Judith Merril, and Frederik Pohl. Lester del Rey described the early days at his The Way the Future Was blog:

“There were nine of us. The mythological Hydra was said to have nine heads. That was good enough, so we called it The Hydra Club and began beating the brush for members. In the process of inviting all the area’s sf writers and editors whose addresses we could locate, Fletcher Pratt was one of the first we reeled in. He was a key recruit. We original nine of course knew all the book and magazine editors, and most of the writers, in the area. Fletcher knew everybody else…”

Besides Fletcher Pratt, they were later joined by more than forty others, including: L. Jerome Stanton, Hans Stefan Santesson, Willy Ley, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and L. Sprague de Camp. The group’s early history was chronicled in Marvel Science Fiction Nov. 1951, by Judith Merril, with art by Harry Harrison:

Founding member David A. Kyle wrote "The Legendary Hydra Club" for Mimosa 25, April 2000. The group held monthly meetings at the homes of members or in a rented hall, and once hosted a convention, “the famous New York Science Fiction Conference of July 1-3, 1950, sometimes known as the 'Hydracon'. …Over 300 authors, publishers, scientists, and interested spectators attended. … Life magazine covered the event and [published a] panoramic picture of the assembled diners at the banquet.”

Life magazine May 21, 1951

The photo was included in
Through the Interstellar Looking Glass” by Winthrop Sargeant was a look inside the world of science fiction fandom. It also discussed the “rumpus that rocked the world of science fiction—the Shaver hoax… The deros were responsible for... catastrophes, from shipwrecks to sprained ankles... for the reports of flying saucers." 

Hydra Club members were serious about their science fiction but skeptical about things in popular culture they considered unscientific: Dianetics, Velikovsky, Atlantis, reincarnation and so on. They’d groaned at Ray Palmer presenting the Shaver Mystery tales as true in Amazing Stories, and to them, flying saucer mania was cut from the same cloth. At club gatherings, these pseudo-scientific topics could be the target of criticism, jokes, or satire. 

Photo from “Review: The Compleat Enchanter” by Phil Sawyer

Kyle wrote, “A Hydra Club meeting was always a party… The biggest and best” was held in 1949 on New Year's Eve. Several reporters were present, and their stories on it appeared in the press, including The New York Times. One reporter present was from the French international news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP). His story focused solely on a talk given by Fletcher Pratt, and it appeared in French in Var-Matin République, Jan. 1-2, 1950, and in the English language daily newspaper in Rangoon, Burma, The Nation, Jan. 2, 1950. 

“Flying Disc” Visitors From Strange Planet
Bodies of 3-Foot High “Strange Creatures” in American Hands

New York, December 31. -- The American newspaper man, Fletcher Pratt, a former U.S. war correspondent, today claimed that contrary to recent official announcement, flying saucers were not a product of the imagination but visitors from another planet.

Speaking at a meeting sponsored by science magazine, Fletcher Pratt said that according to “confidential sources”’ one of such flying discs together with its occupants -- all of them dead --had fallen into the hands of American authorities. These visitors from another world were killed, Pratt said when their flying disc entered the atmosphere of the earth. Atmospheric pressure proved fatal to them and their bodies were now being dissected and studied, he claimed. Quoting the same source, Pratt said the interplanetary travelers were “strange creatures”. -- AFP.

Var-Matin République, Jan. 1-2, 1950 (transcribed by Patrice Seray)

The Nation, Jan. 2, 1950 

Amazing if true. Let’s see what other reporters made of the speech. 

Weird, Astounding

At the end of 1949, spaceships and aliens were headline news due to the release of True magazine’s article by Donald E. Keyhoe, “The Flying Saucers are Real.” Also, Hollywood gossip columnist Frank Scully had published two Variety articles late in the year (based on the claims of Silas Newton) about the U.S. military’s capture of flying saucers and the bodies of the little aliens inside. At the Hydra Club’s holiday party for 1949, Pratt spoke on the topic of saucers. Here’s an account, co-written by one of the club members, “Weird, Astounding” in The New Yorker, January 21, 1950, page 19, by Jerome Stanton and John McCarten: 

“We were invited down to Werdermann's Hall, on lower Third Avenue, the other evening to attend the annual party of the Hydra Club, an outfit composed of writers of science fiction... Fletcher Pratt appeared on the platform and made a speech about flying saucers, which he branded a big fake. He was followed by Mr. [Willy] Ley, who told a story about the footprints of an aardvark being mistaken for those of a dinosaur and expressed agreement with Mr. Pratt's conclusion as to flying saucers. A man about five feet tall interrupted the proceedings at this point, screaming ‘Leave the saucers as a matter of faith!’ "That's Lester del Rey," a gentleman next to us said. "One of the best in the field."

The New York Times Jan. 2, 1950, discussed the party, but only in business terms, “Science fiction has made incredible progress in the past two decades, graduating from the pulp magazine era to its modern respectability of hard-cover books…” There was no mention of saucers.

The Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University houses the Fletcher Pratt Papers; his correspondence, manuscripts, scrapbooks, and memorabilia. Hoping to locate the text of Pratt’s 1949 flying saucer speech, I contacted the SCRC librarian. Nothing was found about crashed flying saucers or the talk: “No speeches of any kind, unfortunately, and definitely not one from the Hydra Club party.” It may have been that Pratt’s saucer talk that night were no more than impromptu remarks. 

This AFP’s sensational saucer story was given a one sentence summary in the 1980 book by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, The Roswell Incident, along with these comments:

“This further reference to a Roswell-type incident was, of course, denied in official circles with the customary vehemence. However, it must not be forgotten that Fletcher Pratt was a reputable military historian with a historian's regard for the highest possible accuracy of information and therefore would have been reticent to accept a report dealing with startling information from an unreliable source.” 

With the conflicting news accounts and the interpretation by Roswell crash authors, one might wonder where Fletcher Pratt really stood on the phenomenal topic. 

Mechanix Illustrated June, 1951 

Scientists had announced that life was probable throughout our galaxy, and in “How Scientists Visualize the REAL Flying Saucer Men,” Mechanix Illustrated checked with a couple of science fiction authors. John W. Campbell said, “There is every reason to suppose that life on Venus, or on any other planet, if it has developed to a high level, has taken human form. But this form would have to conform to the specific conditions of the planet.” Fletcher Pratt played along but reasoned that if it were possible, “any life form there must be completely different from ours.”

In Saturday Review, March 14, 1953, Pratt gave a favorable review of Flying Saucers by Donald H. Menzel.

“Among the many answers are mirage, auroral phenomena, formations of ice crystals in the upper air, sun dogs, moon dogs. reflections of earthly objects or the moon on layers of mist... In other words, almost anything but little green men from Venus or educated bees from Mars. It is rather a pity that a good scientist had to take time from his work to clear up this clotted nonsense, but now that he has done it we can all be glad he did. And it certainly makes good reading.”

The Hydra Club on UFOs, and Little Green Men from Afar

Fletcher Pratt was a key member of the Hydra Club. He died of cancer in 1956 and his obituary was published in The New York Times, June 11, 1956

(Full text)

According to Dave Kyle, the Hydra Club faded away sometime in the 1960s. Both before and after the club’s demise, several members had some things to say on the topic of UFOs.

Lester del Rey was a frequent Panelist on Long John Nebel’s Party Line radio show, and wrote “The Saucer Myth” in Fantastic Universe Aug. 1957.

Frederik Pohl informally investigated the 1964 Lonnie Zamora case in Socorro, NM, and wrote a skeptical UFO editorial about it, “Air and Space” in Worlds of IF Sept. 1965.

L. Jerome Stanton wrote a skeptical UFO book, Flying Saucers: Hoax or Reality?, 1966.

Hans Stefan Santesson edited Fantastic Universe magazine where he frequently featured non-fiction articles by ufologists.

Willy Ley frequently discussed UFOs skeptically and took the negative side of the debate against Ray Palmer in 1950. He also slammed saucers on the CBS talk show, Longines Chronoscope, Aug. 4, 1952.

Isaac Asimov wrote a favorable review of Flying Saucers by Donald H. Menzel in Galaxy Science Fiction July 1953, and closed by saying, “My own personal use for it will involve braining with its edge the next innocent who says: ‘But don’t all science-fiction writers believe in flying saucers?’”

L. Sprague de Camp also gave a positive review of Menzel’s book, for Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1953, saying, “As an old debunker, I can tell you that one of our species’ odder characteristics is that they will pay much more to be bunked than to be debunked.” Two decades later, L. Sprague de Camp wrote “Little Green Men from Afar'' as a lecture for the conference where the notorious Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI was founded, "The New Irrationalisms: Antiscience and Pseudoscience," April 30-May 1, 1976, at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His lecture started by discussing the same topic as Fletcher Pratt’s 1949 speech Silas Newton’s flying saucer hoax. Then he turned to the broader issue: 

“The story of pseudoscientific cultism, of which the enlighteners in UFOs form but one small part, is depressing to believers in human rationality. Some cultist ideas… are so absurd that they beguile few followers and soon fade away. Others attract huge followings and persist for generations.” 

Theodore Sturgeon reviewed two UFO books in Galaxy science fiction magazine, Nov. 1974, saying:

“My personal opinion on the whole subject… is that yes, there are UFOs, and no, I have no opinions as to what they are, where they come from, or why, being perfectly content to wait for further evidence — ‘hardware or bodies,’ as the late Fletcher Pratt used to say.”

Fletcher Pratt became a footnote in UFO history for making fun of flying saucers at a Hydra Club party. All because someone didn’t get the joke. 

. . .


For Further Reading 

Fletcher Pratt, Military & Naval Historian by Henry Wessells )

L. Sprague de Camp’s “Little Green Men from Afar” was published as an essay in The Humanist, July/Aug. 1976. In recognition of his lifetime achievement, de Camp was awarded the Grand Master Nebula of 1978 by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Editor Frederik Pohl chose de Camp’s essay to represent his work in the 1980 book, Nebula Winners Fourteen, and it also was presented in two other collections:

The Fringe of the Unknown, by L. Sprague de Camp, 1983

The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume 1, edited by Frederik Pohl, 1999

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


Donald E. Keyhoe: From Saucers to Swamp Gas

Donald E. Keyhoe was born in Iowa in 1897, so he was a 50-year-old man during the summer the flying saucers arrived in 1947. He went on to b...