Historical Randomness #10 – Mystery Airships

I’m a fan of tall stories. Ask me if they’re true or not and I’ll tell you I don’t care – it’s the story that matters. Sure, tall tales can point you towards some interesting psycho-social conclusions about the society that produced them, but that kinda takes the fun out of the whole thing.

One of my favourite tall tales – or series of them – concerns the wave of mysterious airships that was seen across the US in the mid-1890s. In a series of sightings, witnesses encountered odd airships throughout California before heading to other states. Conversations with the pilots weren’t exactly enlightening – they were going to attack Cuba, they were the Lost Tribes of Israel, they were Martians. The rational explanation is that newspaper journalism at the time was somewhat shonky, and besides, why spoil a good story?

Thing is, the airships made their return in both New Zealand and Europe in the years prior to World War I. Here an explanation is more understandable – the development of air travel and international tensions gave the tall tales an element of social panic, especially in Britain. The UK wasn’t an island any more, not now it could be attacked from the air rather than the sea, it’s probably understandable that mysterious airships would make people twitchy.

But there’s another historically random connection here. In the 1880s, Ludwig II of Bavaria was declared to be mad (probably as much for political reasons as a genuine diagnosis). Ludwig was a builder of fairytale castles and, most importantly to this post, designer of a flying car (with a picture at this link). Maybe it’s just the steampunk design enthusiast in me, but I like the idea that there’s a secret cabal of airship builders, realising some of Ludwig’s ideas. Does it make any sense? Is it historically plausible or even rational? Well, no.

Heck of a story though.


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