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The First UFO Photograph: New Information

A couple years ago, I wrote an article that was published in UFO Digest concerning what has come to be known as "the first UFO photograph." I remember seeing this photograph printed in books at least as far back as the 1980s—and it has always been presented as a single panel of a cropped stereoscopic photograph, the plain caption, Summit, Mt. Washington, Winter of 1870-71, alluding not at all to the strange, anachronistic "airship" that seems to be hovering in the clouds.

Having come across this again online sometime in the late 1990s, I was struck by what appeared to be a crude, scrawled, white swastika on the dark airship. Although a gigantic German/Nazi dirigible does not in itself seem impossible, one captured on camera careening through United States airspace 63 years before the establishment of Nazism seems unlikely.

Obviously, a 19th century swastika is also not impossible, since it is an ancient sacred symbol, but forgetting the swastika altogether,(appropriate, because it strangely does not seem to be present on the new issue of the photographs as will be seen) we are left with a notion of the "mystery airships"—which are also not unheard of in the 19th century, although 1870-1871 is on the earliest end of the phenomenon, and the great wave was not to occur for over 25 years after this photograph.

For my original article, doing a bit of online research on the features of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, I came to the conclusion that the UFO was likely a mundane object on the snowy mountain, rather than a mysterious one in the cloudy sky. In 1870, there was a cog railroad that went all the way to the summit (which is still there) as well as some other structures, one called the "Tip-top house."

Knowing that stereoscopic photographs were produced in sets and series—they were often issued as a sort of travelogue—I figured that if the entire set would ever present itself, that more clues about this mystery object would point to terrestrial identification of the "UFO", or at least put it in enough of a context so that a reasonable guess could be made of its nature.

Behold: the Wikipedia entry "Mystery Airships." I was recently doing some research for an article, and found that the entire uncropped, stereoscopic image has been made available--for what I believe may be the first time. According to the information, the photograph is entitled, Frost Architecture, and is part of a series—that has also been made available!

Just as I suspected, the other photographs in the series do put the iconic photograph in context. While other photographs in the series include the train depot and the tip top house, and there's a remote possibility that the UFO photograph could be a structure taken from afar, looking at some of the more abstract photographs and titles seems to be more revealing.

Ten of the 24 images have titles concerning the frost patterns: "Frost two feet thick," "miniature frost feathers on rocks," and "Frost Sculpture" are a few. Looking at the series as a whole, it's very clear that a great effort was made by the photographer to accentuate the unusual and interesting features of the intricate snow and ice patterns.

Figure 1

It is important to note that these patterns are on a small scale, as evidenced especially in photos #9, #16, and #6. Photograph #6 is entitled, Lizzie Bourne's Monument, Railway Beyond (Fig.1) Even with this respectively descriptive title, there's a sense of ambiguous scale. However, in looking to find out what Lizzie Bourne's monument actually is, it appears to be a common grave marker surrounded by stones (Fig 2.) Accordingly, If Fig.1 shows a common gravestone set upon some stones, then we can get a sense of scale.

Figure 2

Fig.1 is particularly interesting. What could, at first glance, look like an enormous mountain covered in snow and topped with a majestic cloud, turns out to be altogether about waist-high, with a particularly novel ice formation on top, probably the size of a basketball. Likewise, in #9, the title indicates that the scene is frost patterns on a "chain" on the Tip-top house. It also seems to be a close-up photograph, taken to accentuate the small, frost details. There are others that have a similar, abstract quality, with ambiguous scale issues, such as #14, #17, and #18. Again, these look like possible grand vistas featuring huge formations of ice and/or ethereal clouds—just like the UFO photograph. However, these are all likely close-ups detailing the interesting frost patterns.

Further, when distant landmarks like mountains or lakes, in this series of photographs are in view, they are noted and named (i.e., #4, #12, and #8.) Also, the depth of field is so shallow, that the distant landmarks are not in focus, or well-lit. If the UFO photograph were taken against an entire mountain peak, (large enough to dwarf an airship,) then, in accordance with the protocols seen in this series, it would likely be named to reflect the geography, as well as the other (what would have to be huge) mountains in the even-further background—and it is doubtful the depth of field would be wide enough to render such clarity; the scene is all consistent with small objects set fairly close to the camera.

The title of the UFO photograph, Frost Formations, indicates that it is just that—patterns of snow and ice, instead of what has historically been said to be clouds surrounding a snowy mountaintop. This new title is important—because the title of the UFO photograph has previously been known as Summit Mt. Washington—furthering the idea that the photo is actually the summit of the mountain.

It is now clear that the word "summit" refers to the setting of the whole series, as it is present on the left of each card. So, although it's quite illusory still, it seems this "mountain" in the iconic "first UFO photograph" is likely a small frosty lump, and the UFO/airship is probably just a very small piece of material (rock, ice, wood, etc.) left provocatively uncovered by the ice and snow.


Figure 1

Figure 2

The Summit of Mount Washington during the Winter of 1870–71, stereoscopic view #17: "Frost Architecture" Wikipedia

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