Master of Uncertainty and Doubt
Apr 6, 2014
A thought on the American mystery airship panic of the 1890's. Linking unrelated ideas together again: I've been reading various histories of the Boer War of 1899 - 1902 (and the earlier prequel one in 1881) as ongoing research for stories I write with a South African theme (long story... the tales ramble on a bit too).

An interesting sidenote in Emanoel Lee's To The Bitter End. Quick summary: in 1899, the British brought a proto-air force to South Africa. The Royal Engineers experimented with three hot-air balloons, as a military curiosity and to explre their possible uses in combat. Lee notes that the British military leadership were mistrustful of this and sidelined them, viewing them as a gimmick and a distraction with no feasible military use whatsoever. He reproduces photographs taken from the balloons, remarking that had they been used more widely than they were for observation and aerial photography, they might well have had a more significant impact.

Lee also reproduces accounts from the Boer side of how the balloons were received in the other camp.

He notes tht more educated Boers who knew what they were and had travelled abroad - two of the Boer commanders had even flown in them, while in France - weren't especially bothered, other than to prime really good shots with instructions to try to shoot them down if they got too close (Joubert and de la Rey both knew what naked flames can do to a bag full of inflammable gas).

more insular Boers - those who had never travelled far from home, with limited education and a degree of religious inculcation - tended to the superstitious and regarded them as something utterly alien, or perhaps Alien, and the balloons had a demoralising effect. Speculation ranged wide among the troops as to what they actually were and what they represented. In short, they behaved much like farmfolk in the mid-West and the US backwoods.

Lee also notes that a significant number of American volunteers fought alongside the Boers. Did any of these Americans remember the airships of ten or fifteen years earlier and add their memories to the mix?

Oh, and savvy British prisoners also remarked to their captors that you know, we really shouldn't be saying this, but we intend to fly these things over you, and you know how a balloon drops ballast to gain height? Well, we'll be using bombs as ballast when we fly over you... an interesting precursor of the future...