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1953 Punch cartoon by Kenneth Mahood

Science fiction aficionados like to think that the rockets and atomic bombs of World War II drove the field into the public eye. The truth is that the world went crazy for flying saucers.

People have been seeing strange stuff in the skies since antiquity. A huge array of sightings started in California in 1896 and spread across the country the next year, as I talk about in my article WHAT WAS IT? The Mystery Airship of 1896. In that more optimistic time, the lights in the skies were taken as proof that the first airplane had been invented. Another set of sightings (as detailed at the wonderful Airminded site) inspired the wits at England's Punch magazine in the May, 26, 1909 issue.

May 26, 1909 Punch cartoon by Bernard Partridge

The world in 1947 was more paranoiac. When Kenneth Arnold saw nine disc-like objects in the sky over Mount Rainier, he triggered hysteria and paranoia. An Air Force investigation tried to minimize the mystery by tagging the phenomena with the neutral phrase Unidentified Flying Object. It didn't work. A UFO merely became identical with "alien spacecraft." Since alien spacecraft were deeply identified with science fiction, the public tended to lump the two together, creating a stigma that never truly lifted.


Anything in the news becomes fodder for cartoonists, and a visual something is doubly delightful. When Punch published A Century of Punch Cartoons in 1955, it inevitably featured a slew of UFO cartoons alongside ones about rockets and atomic bombs. Play a game of Spot the Paranoia in between Making Light of It All.

Punch cartoon (undated) by Michael ffolkes
1954 Punch cartoon by George Sprod
1947 Punch cartoon by Alex Graham
1948 Punch cartoon
1952 Punch czartoon by George Sprod
1954 Punch cartoon by Alex Graham
1954 Punch cartoon by Smilby (Francis Wilford-Smith )
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