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Eyes glued to the sky

Published February 06. 2010 09:00AM

Between Halley's comet, the early "aeroplane" flights and reports of Unidentified Flying Objects, people living during the first decade of the 20th century had good reason to have their eyes glued to the sky.

The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, were busy pioneering the aviation field. The Ohio brothers received the congressional medal in 1909 for their service in the field of aerial navigation and in June of that year, they conducted trial flights at Fort Meyer, Va., for the U.S. government.

At the time, Kenneth Kintzel, a Tamaqua native, was a first-class electrician for the Aeroplane Department of the U.S. Army Signal Corps stationed at College Park, Md. He was detached to care for Wilbur Wright's plane during the Fort Meyer testing.

With the dawn of a new decade the Wrights were involved in patent lawsuits to prevent the manufacture, selling or use in exhibition of the Curtiss airplane. The Wright Company incorporated to manufacture their airplanes in November 1909.

This was also a time when governments were looking at air flight for military purposes. In June 1910, the Courier published an editorial titled "The Matter of Aerial Navigation." At that time, the writer dismissed the use of planes for anything other than pleasure purposes.

"We hear a great deal these days about aerial navigation and how it will eventually revolutionize traffic, commerce and war," he stated. "But looking at the matter from the most favorable viewpoint we must say that there is but little chance of anybody who is of this world today living to see the revolutionizing. The Wright Brothers have perfected an aeroplane that they admit has no value at all outside of a pleasure craft."

Still, with the start of a world war just a few years away, European nations showed great interest in the use of aeroplanes for military purposes. In Aug. 1909, Orville traveled to Europe to conduct demonstration flights and had sales negotiations in Germany.


An astronomical story that surprised many observers in the new year was The Great January Comet of 1910. Often referred to as the Daylight Comet, it was already visible to the naked eye when it was first noticed by many people who independently "discovered" it.

The comet is thought to have been first spotted by diamond miners before dawn on Jan. 12. The fact that it was visible in daylight and became a spectacular sight with the unaided eye from the northern hemisphere made it a hit with the public. At its brightest, it outshone the planet Venus, and was possibly the brightest comet of the 20th century.

Through a "telephonic error," the comet was initially reported as being Drake's Comet. Once the error was found, the press began calling it the Daylight Comet or Sunset Comet. It preceded the return of Halley's comet, which would cause a hysteria, several months later.


In Europe, some people were gazing to the heavens for another reason. They reported seeing objects and phenomena that they could not explain, which would today qualify as UFO sightings.

The Tamaqua Courier carried an article datelined London on May 20, 1909, titled "Phantom Airship" that aroused interest.

The article stated that daily reports in the London newspaper of "the mysterious aeroplane or airship" seen over England was becoming "a perpetual nightmare." The paper reportedly carried regular articles of persons stating they had heard or seen it flying over eastern counties and the North Sea.

One eyewitness in Cardiff reported seeing a cigar-shaped airship at about midnight but this sighting included figures.

"He relates how he watched the two men forming the crew apparently repairing the machine until they saw the watcher, when they hastily embarked and soared away," the report stated.

Many, however, felt the airship was of earthly origin. Found at the landing site were various printed papers, one in French, and containing aeronautical data. It should be noted that the Germans were manufacturing Zeppelin airships at the time, and in 1909 the first Zeppelin was used for commercial passenger transport. But it would be hard to imagine one of these lumbering giants being able to "hastily embark and soar away."

"A large proportion of the people possessed with the anti-German mania are convinced that their arch-enemy is among them," the article stated.

A more mysterious sighting occurred in Cardiff in 1909 when a torpedo-shaped craft crossed over a road and shot up into the sky as a curious pedestrian approached. The man claimed to have seen two "peculiar-looking" men on the inside wearing fur coats. As soon as they noticed him, they activated their craft and were gone.

And in Chattanooga, Tenn., a strange white airship was seen by many in the skies over that city. Witnesses reported the same slowly-floating craft crossing over the skies over a two-day period in 1910.

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