December 17 was an historically busy day in the world of ufology and things extra-terrestrial. While we think of the 1950s as the real age of interplanetary happenings, folks had long been preoccupied by the possibility (or perhaps the certainty) of life beyond planet Earth.
Wasn’t it likely that other heavenly bodies were populated? And wasn’t it a given, observing Earthbound mankind, that beings out there were far more intelligent than us?
Back in the nineteenth century, there was much speculation about the inhabitants of other planets. Certainly, intelligent beings might live on the Moon, Mars, and Venus; but since travel there was difficult at best we settled for the possibility of somehow communicating with the ETs, itself a poser since there was no radio and the postal service was pitifully land-bound. We were sort of stuck back in the technology of smoke signals.
Carl Friedrich Gauss suggested drawing a giant triangle and three squares, the Pythagoras, on the Siberian tundra, ten miles wide. Joseph Johann Littrow proposed using the Sahara as a blackboard, filling giant trenches with water, then pouring kerosene on top of the water and lighting it to create different messages. Using this method, a different signal could be sent every night. The inventor Charles Cros, convinced that pinpoints of light observed on Mars and Venus were large cities, spent years trying to get funding for a giant mirror with which to signal Martians and Venusians. Astronomer Franz von Gruithuisen saw a giant city surrounded by family farms on the moon. He also saw evidence of life on Venus, and went so far as to suggest that the clouds shrouding the planet were caused by a great fire festival put on by the inhabitants to celebrate their new emperor.
On December 17, 1900, amid beaucoup de publicité, the French Academie des Sciences announced the Prix Guzman, a 100,000 franc prize to be given to anyone who might find the means “of communicating with a star and of receiving a response.” Communication with Mars was specifically exempted because it would not be a difficult enough challenge. Although no communications followed, nearly a century of alien sightings, encounters, and abductions did.
But then, on December 17, 1969, the United States Air Force pulled the plug, closing its Project Blue Book and concluding that no evidence of extraterrestrial spaceships existed behind the thousands of UFO sightings. And yet, on the evening of that very day, in full view of millions, an alien sighting occurred right on the television sets in living rooms everywhere, as Tiny Tim married “Miss Vicki” on The Tonight Show.