A machine to go through the air: AD 1873. Such was the title of a very curious document that came to my attention in 1975. It was 15-pages long, dated from the 1950s and described itself as a “Copy from the Memorandum Book of Fred Wm. Birmingham, the Engineer to the Council of Parramatta”. Although somewhat sceptical of the account’s authenticity, I was intrigued enough to investigate whether there was anything of substance behind this potentially significant first-hand testimony of what could be one of the most significant early UFO sightings in Australia.
Fred Birmingham was a surveyor. His extraordinary series of experiences began with a strange vision of floating heads – or, as he put it “a wonderful dream” – on the night of the 25–26 July 1868. He was standing under the veranda of his rented cottage in Duck’s Lane, Parramatta, close to what is now the geographical heart of Sydneynd the 1 when he saw, up in the sky to the north-east, a bizarre apparitional procession. Floating there was “the Lord Bishop of Sydney’s head in the air looking intently upon me in a frowning half laughing mood… I watched it intently and when it had travelled to the east it dimmed – just as one loses his focus by quickly drawing in or out the slide of a telescope.”
In the same manner, “the Premier’s head twice appeared… this dimmed and again the Lord Bishop’s head shone forth as it were looking intently and impeachingly upon me, and travelling southerly to about [south-south-east].”
Birmingham dropped his gaze to ponder the extraordinary display. “After some considerable time I determined to look at the head or heads again,” but they were gone. “I retraced the course the head had taken and, just in the spot where I first saw the head, I saw an ‘Ark’ and while looking at it – moving along the same track as the head had taken – I said to myself aloud, ‘Well that is a beautiful vessel.’ I had no sooner ended the sentence than I was made aware that I was not alone, for to my right hand and a little to the rear of my frontage a distinct voice said, slowly – ‘That’s a machine to go through the air.’”
Birmingham thought it looked more like an ocean-going ship and said so, adding: “but it’s the loveliest thing I ever saw.” The origin of the voice, slightly behind him, seemed to be what he describes as “a spirit”. It was part of his ‘dream’ – not solid but “like a neutral tint shade and the shape of a man in his usual frock dress.” It also seemed to him that his viewpoint had changed, “that somehow or another, the spirit and I were, as it may have been spiritually, on the highest part of the Parramatta Park.”
During this interchange, “the machine” had moved through the air in a zig-zag fashion, “then quite, stopped, the forward motion and descended some twenty feet or so as gently as a feather on the grass.” It came to rest about 20 yards (18m) from Birmingham and the ‘spirit’.
Birmingham described the ‘ark’ in the following way: “…though a brown colour all over at a distance… its peculiar shapings are well impressioned upon my mind and the colour seemed to blend with faint, flitting shades of steel blue below and appearing tremulous and like what one might term magnified scales on a large fish, the latter being as it were flying in the air, (the machine has not the shape of anything that has life).”
The ‘spirit’ asked Birmingham if he’d like “to enter upon it” and he replied that he would. “‘Then come’ – said the spirit, thereupon we were lifted off the grass and gently carried through the air and onto the upper part of the machine…”
Onboard, the spirit showed Birmingham two cylinders, located at the front and back, indicating their purpose “by downward motion of hand.” The spirit then brought him to “the pilot house” inviting him to “step in.” Birmingham went down several steep steps into the pilot’s room, about three and a half feet lower than the deck. The only feature of the room was a table, about 5 by 3.5ft (1.5 by 1m), and 2.5ft (76cm) high, covered with material like oilskin, “or perhaps iron covered with rubber cloth tightly.” About 2 feet (60cm) separated the table and the walls of the room. Birmingham referred to how, “everything appeared very strong; the sides, I noticed, were extremely thick, about six inches [15cm] – and I (then) wondered why they were so strong in ‘a machine to go through the air’.”
Standing alone at the rear end of the table on which he rested one hand, Birmingham began to repent his curiosity about such a strange place. “I felt miserably queer… when I was aroused, as it were, from my reverie, by the voice of the spirit on my right hand, who said, ‘Here are some papers for your guidance’.” The hand of the spirit was resting on the table and, within it, were several printed papers. The first was covered with figures and formulæ.
“Thinking the formulæ and figures of other kinds might be too intricate for my comprehension I said to the spirit, ‘Oh! Will I want them?’ The spirit replied slowly, but with marked emphasis, ‘It is absolutely necessary that you should know these things, but, you can study them as you go on’.”
“I again cast down my eyes between my hands, as it were, on the table, and considering silently the words of the holy spirit and, when I looked about, I found I was alone in the ark! So I fell, I suppose, into my usual sleeping state, and waking next morning deeply impressed with that vision of the night.”
The rest of the year, 1868, was “a most miserable year” for Birmingham, who suffered from “low fever – rheumatism, lumbago and the like.” Early in 1869, Birmingham – who was employed by the Parramatta council on a new waterworks project – was reading newly-acquired engineering literature, including a new copy of Molesworth’s Engineering Tables for 1868 (which he had not seen before). On page 137, much to his surprise, Birmingham found the figures and formulæ he had seen in his vision, presented in connection with centrifugal pumps.
Birmingham often pondered his ‘vision’ but could only rationalise the first portion, believing that it reminded him to “serve God by conforming to the Christian doctrine and laws of his church. (Christ’s Bride).” About the ‘ark’ he was mystified: “I could not conclude what it meant – at least in any satisfactory way (‘a machine to go through the air’ – or in other words, the ark mentioned in the Book of Revelation!)”
Time passed, but more was in store for Fred William Birmingham. On 27 March 1871, opening the gate latch to his veranda, Birmingham spilt some water from a bucket he was carrying. He had shut the gate but then heard it opening again.
“After depositing the water… I shut it again, carefully, looking at it as I retired into the room. But, to my great surprise the latch rose this second time! I thought it strange so I went out again and latched the gate, struck the posts, and the front of the gate, jumped on the veranda, watched it for some 15 seconds, went backward into the room and round the table, looked out the window and keeping my eyes fixed toward the latch said aloud in a triumphant voice – ‘Now you cannot rise’ – I had no sooner said the sentence than the same (iron) latch rose up! And the gate opened!”
Birmingham was astounded; he shut the gate again, “but, I did not repeat the challenge. The thing has sunk deeply into my mind even to my very soul, and I now know that the power of God never sleeps. (The latch for years before and years after this occurrence never did rise without hands to it or hand and cane).”
The vision of the ‘ark’ continued to haunt him. “Day by day and at night in my wakeful moments I have often rehearsed the wonderful dreams I have had.” On 15 April 1872 – nearly four years after the vision – it occurred to him that the vision of the Lord Bishop’s head and the latch rising might be linked in some way. “I came down from the hill in the Parramatta Park firmly convinced that the vision was gradually unfolding itself and ‘the machine to go through the air’ was a thing (through God’s mercy) to be accomplished.”
“I sat down at the same end of the table where from I saw the latch rise, calculating pressures etc. and, taking a match box in my hand and letting it drop on the table, I said aloud ‘But, how in the name of goodness can I overcome ‘gravity’.’ I instantly felt in my left ear a sound like that produced by pressing a large seashell close to one’s ear, and the words ‘Are not the sides greater than a third’.”
“Becoming excited and in great joy I said aloud: ‘Yes, and the sides and bottom working together can overcome the top’. This was the first practical clue as to forming the interior parts of the machine I saw in the vision of the aforenamed night.”
Obsessed by his flying machine, Birmingham spent increasing amounts of time and money on experiments, with little success. On 9 March 1873, downhearted after a third failure, he had a long lie-down. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by a renewed determination to complete the great work: “I said aloud to myself – ‘Well, I don’t care, I believe it firmly and try I will if I should fail a thousand times, to the day of my death I will believe in it’.” Enthused, he rose and ate his supper. “The sun was or had just set. My door was open and my eyes were toward the sky which was quite clear, excepting three small clouds of Van Dyke brown colour, in the south-west a little separate. The middle one being the largest, drew my attention and was without doubt, the most extraordinary cloud in its wonderful movements that I ever saw. I made a sketch of it which I keep because it is evidence that we are taught betimes by the great and good spirit.”
As he watched, two screw-like appendages (above) appeared out of the middle ‘cloud’, projecting downwards. Between these ‘screws’ appeared a “second shape with like two flat necks on a turtle shaped body”. The ‘necks’ bent up as the screws rotated about seven times. Birmingham was amazed. “As the screws reversed, the neck(s) came down gradually to the horizontal position and, after two or three minutes, the screw part rotated the second time and reversed as before. After this double operation the ‘turtle’ disappeared, I then knew not where to.”
“After a few minutes lapse of time I was astonished (and said aloud) ‘Well I declare! The turtle is forming again’, and sure enough, in the same shape and place it remained for a pause of a few minutes, and to my surprise the movements were exactly the same as the previous series, namely twice screwed and twice reversed all the same forms as before.
After a couple of minutes the ‘turtle’ began to fade; his last view of it was “winding around and going upwards to the middle cloud, and to my surprise the two big three-threaded screws folded up, like the arms of a bear, and lost their shape in the middle cloud!”
The sight lasted for about 20–25 minutes, Birmingham estimated, and, until then, the three clouds had remained stationary in the sky. Now they merged into one cloud, and in about three minutes melted out of sight. “This going away of the clouds was so quickly done that I had to rise quickly and step out of doors to watch them!”
Birmingham concluded “that the cloud material was worked upon by positive and negative electricity – for wind there was none, seemingly. After some lapse of time I said to myself ‘There may be a meaning in all this’ – doubled over and twice each time. I then thought of Pharaoh’s ‘dream’ of the fat and the lean kine – but said I (inwardly) ‘Pharaoh’s was a dream but this just now seen by me was in daylight!’”
There the account finishes.
Was this a legitimate historical document from 1873? Or was it a literary hoax perpetrated more recently, like David Langford’s An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871, ” attributed to one William Robert Loosley? [see FT86:47]
As far as it has been possible to determine, this copy of the Memorandum Book was made in the late 1950s by TV Homan, who was given the manuscript by a Mrs N de Launte. Mrs de Launte had, herself, obtained the original book from Mr Wallace Haywood, a teacher who lived near Parramatta Park Hill – the landing site in Birmingham’s vision. The original had been in his family for quite some time.
Did Fred Birmingham ever exist? Apparently so. In 1872, he describes himself as “The Engineer to the Council of Parramatta. C.E. & Lic. Surveyor, Parramatta.” From at least 1868 to 1873, he was living alone in a rented cottage in Duck’s Lane, Parramatta. Before 1868, he had been “twice elected alderman of Parramatta”. and by 1869 was working for the Parramatta Council on “the water works scheme for supplying Parramatta with water.”
Perhaps surprisingly, research confirmed all of these facts and a detailed chronology of Birmingham emerged. I was even able to determine that the cottage in which he experienced his “wonderful dream” of 1868 still existed in 1980, and I was able to stand on its veranda and contemplate the vision that had led me there.
I found nothing in the ‘Memorandum Book’ which was inconsistent with information known at that time in the 19th century. No apparent anachronism exists in the manuscript. Birmingham’s surprise as to why the ark’s furnishings were “extremely thick” and “very strong” and the reference to rubber, steel, centrifugal pumps and “positive and negative electricity” are realistic for the period of the manuscript – 1868 to 1873. I believe the manuscript is what it purports to be.
Many aspects of the Birmingham vision can be found in the rich harvest of contactee stories of the 1950s and the alien abductions of the 1990s. The invitation to board the craft is very common in contactee tales, though such freedom of choice has become rare in more contemporary abduction accounts. Levitation of the witnesses is, of course, likewise reported widely as is some explanation or demonstration of how the UFO operates and its Spartan furnishings. What is curious is how cursory the ‘spirit’s’ actions seem.
Alien tutelage – the imparting of ‘significant’ information to the contactee by an entity – is another common element. Usually it is the percipient who invests the information, with importance and not the entities; however, in Birmingham’s case, the ‘visionary’ information is deemed important by the spirit. (Just how important the centrifugal pump equation was to Birmingham when he came across it in reality while later working on the waterworks project is not at all clear. However, such pumps were relatively new at the time, and the information may have seemed striking.)
Birmingham implies a measure of precognition about the centrifugal pump equation in the ‘ark’ during July 1868, then professes that the first time he had seen the equation was in the following year (1869) when he opened Molesworth Engineering Tables for 1868. In seeking a copy of these tables, researchers Janet and Colin Bord managed to track down an earlier edition – for 1863 – in which, on the appropriate page (p137), we find the equation in question! So the possibility of precognition wanes somewhat.
Birmingham describes his obsession with the aerial machine and how it was to be accomplished. Similar obsessions with extraordinary ‘inventions’ and ‘devices’ pervade modern contactee literature. Remember George Van Tassel’s ‘Integraton’ and Howard Menger’s ‘free energy motor’?
UFO accounts often include weird ‘follow-up’ experiences, including poltergeist phenomena, voices, and more UFO sightings subsequently. However, it has to be said that contact percipients have been known to connect an array of questionable or unusual events together into a larger, complex but consistent ‘contact’ experience. All that one can say about Birmingham’s account, perhaps, is that it is on a par with its modern equivalents.
The bizarre, dreamlike nature of Birmingham’s vision does not, to my mind, lessen its relevance to modern UFO accounts; quite the opposite, in fact. The impossible and the totally absurd are no longer strange bedfellows in today’s UFO accounts. The bizarre fabric of UFO experiences shares themes and motifs with ancient accounts from shamanic cultures, tales of the ‘ærial people’ of the Middle Ages, and of fairylore the world over. The UFO experience is woven into our global culture, fantasy and imagination, and is evolving.
Suppose, for a moment, that Birmingham describes a vivid hallucination, embroidered with remarkable imagery and possibly including both objective and subjective events. Work by Dr Ronald K Siegel, Michael Persinger and others have shown that there are many ways to trigger hallucinatory sensory experiences, including falling asleep and waking up, insulin hypoglycæmia, the delirium of fever, epilepsy, psychotic episodes, advanced syphilis, sensory deprivation, photo stimulation, electrical stimulation, crystal gazing, migraine headaches, dizziness, a variety of drug intoxications, religious exaltations, and extreme hunger, cold or thirst. Recollect that 1868 was Birmingham’s “most miserable year”, filled with illness.
In Siegel’s categorisation of hallucinatory experiences, second-stage situations lead to complex images – “an activation of images already recorded on the memory.”2 Religious symbols, small animals and human beings seem to predominate at this level. Similar anthropomorphic visions figure largely in UFO entity reports. Creatures – whether ugly dwarves or angelic Venusians – are usually humanoid, while the truly monstrous is relatively rare, and when such entities do appear, they are often in forms familiar from science fiction or popular culture. The visual characteristics of the ubiquitous Greys can be seen as early as in 19th century illustrations of extraterrestrials, while you only have to remember the TV series V, or perhaps The Creature From the Black Lagoon to locate the increasingly ‘popular’ Reptilians.
As the depth of the hallucinatory events progresses, the complexity of the imagery increases. Tunnel-like perspectives and bright lights in the centre of the field of vision predominate, corresponding with out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and UFO abductions. Siegel notes that common images also include childhood memories and scenes associated with strong emotional experiences undergone by the percipient: “These hallucinatory images were more than pictorial replicas; many of them were elaborated and embellished into fantastic scenes.”
Given sufficient depth, an hallucinatory experience can become quite ‘objectively real’ to the observer. Siegel notes: “The remarkable constancies of drug induced hallucinations lead naturally to an inquiry into how universal they may be. Some of them are strikingly similar to the primordial or archetypal forms (such as the mandala, the mystic symbol of the universe employed in Hinduism and Buddhism as an aid to meditation) that the psychoanalyst CG Jung described as part of man’s collective unconscious. Moreover, as many anthropologists have noted, the hallucinogen-inspired art of many primitive peoples often contain constants of form, colour and movement.”
Siegel’s cross-cultural studies of drug visions show that the constants of hallucinatory experiences transcend cultural boundaries, “…in patterns that are definable, predictable, and explainable in terms of where they came from and how they were produced.”3 The universality of the world of exotic, hallucinatory imagery is startling. The specific content may differ, but the basic components of these visions will be the same, whether for shamans in antiquity, a Parramatta surveyor in 1868, or a 20th century UFO abductee.
Contact and abduction experiences may be human responses to the more objective aspects of the UFO phenomenon. I have little doubt that there are objective phenomena involved in the UFO mystery but, as researchers, we must be very cautious in locating the border between objective, physical events and the realms of imagination and fantasy. Ultimately – whether it be fantasy, fiction, allegory or fact – the story attributed to Birmingham has, I hope, helped to cast some light on the human mind and the strange phenomena which sometimes engulf it.
On 29 June 1912, Parramatta dentist William E Hart, holder of Australia’s first ærial pilot’s license, won the country’s first air race. He challenged the visiting American flier, ‘Wizard’ Stone, to a 20-mile (32km) race for a stake of £250. Stone lost his way, landing at Lakemba, but Hart, a much less experienced pilot, finished the flight in 23 minutes and landed as planned in Parramatta Park… just over 44 years after Birmingham’s vision of a flying machine landing at that precise location.