The Man Who Invented|
By John A. Keel
In 1947, the editor of Amazing Stories watched in astonishment as the things
he had been fabricating for years in his magazine suddenly came true!
North America's "Bigfoot" was nothing more than an Indian legend until a
zoologist named Ivan T. Sanderson began collecteing contemporary sightings
of the creature in the early 1950s, publishing the reports in a series of
popular magazine articles. He turned the tall, hairy biped into a household
word, just as British author Rupert T. Gould rediscovered sea serpents in
the 1930s and, through his radio broadcasts, articles, and books, brought
Loch Ness to the attention of the world. Another writer named Vincent Gaddis
originated the Bermuda Triangle in his 1965 book, Invisible Horizons:
Strange Mysteries of the Sea. Sanderson and Charles Berlitz later added to
the Triangle lore, and rewriting their books became a cottage industry among
hack writers in the United States.
Charles Fort put bread on the table of generations of science fiction
writers when, in his 1931 book Lo!, he assembled the many reports of objects
and people strangely transposed in time and place, and coined the term
"teleportation." And it took a politician named Ignatius Donnelly to revive
lost Atlantis and turn it into a popular subject (again and again and
But the man responsible for the most well-known of all such modern myths -
flying saucers - has somehow been forgotten. Before the first flying saucer
was sighted in 1947, he suggested the idea to the American public. Then he
converted UFO reports from what might have been a Silly Season phenomenon
into a subject, and kept that subject alive during periods of total public
disinterest. His name was Raymond A. Palmer.
Born in 1911, Ray Palmer suffered severe injuries that left him dwarfed in
stature and partially crippled. He had a difficult childhood because of his
infirmities and, like many isolated young men in those pre-television days,
he sought escape in "dime novels," cheap magazines printed on coarse paper
and filled with lurid stories churned out by writers who were paid a penny a
word. He became an avid science fiction fan, and during the Great Depression
of the 1930s he was active in the world of fandom - a world of mimeographed
fanzines and heavy correspondence. (Science fiction fandom still exists and
is very well organized with well-attended annual conventions and lavishly
printed fanzines, some of which are even issued weekly.) In 1930, he sold
his first science fiction story, and in 1933 he created the Jules Verne
Prize Club which gave out annual awards for the best achievements in sci-fi.
A facile writer with a robust imagination, Palmer was able to earn many
pennies during the dark days of the Depression, undoubtedly buoyed by his
mischievous sense of humor, a fortunate development motivated by his
unfortunate physical problems. Pain was his constant companion.
In 1938, the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company in Chicago purchased a dying
magazine titled Amazing Stories. It had been created in 1929 by the
inestimable Hugo Gernsback, who is generally acknowledged as the father of
modern science fiction. Gernsback, an electrical engineer, ran a small
publishing empire of magazines dealing with radio and technical subjects.
(he also founded Sexology, a magazine of soft-core pornography disguised as
science, which enjoyed great success in a somewhat conservative era.) It was
his practice to sell - or even give away - a magazine when its circulation
began to slip. Although Amazing Stories was one of the first of its kind,
its readership was down to a mere 25,000 when Gernsback unloaded it on
Ziff-Davis. William B. Ziff decided to hand the editorial reins to the young
science fiction buff from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the age of 28, Palmer
found his life's work.
Expanding the pulp magazine to 200 pages (and as many as 250 pages in some
issues), Palmer deliberately tailored it to the tastes of teenaged boys. He
filled it with nonfiction features and filler items on science and
pseudo-science in addition to the usual formula short stories of BEMs
(Bug-Eyed Monsters) and beauteous maidens in distress. Many of the stories
were written by Palmer himself under a variety of pseudonyms such as Festus
Pragnell and Thorton Ayre, enabling him to supplement his meager salary by
paying himself the usual penny-a-word. His old cronies from fandom also
contributed stories to the magazine with a zeal that far surpassed their
talents. In fact, of the dozen or so science magazines then being sold on
the newsstands, Amazing Stories easily ranks as the very worst of the lot.
Its competitors, such as Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Planet
Stories and the venerable Astounding (now renamed Analog) employed skilled,
experienced professional writers like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron
Hubbard (who later created Dianetics and founded Scientology). Amazing
Stories was garbage in comparison and hardcore sci-fi fans tended to sneer
The magazine might have limped through the 1940s, largely ignored by
everyone, if not for a single incident. Howard Browne, a television writer
who served as Palmer's associate editor in those days, recalls: "early in
the 1940s, a letter came to us from Dick Shaver purporting to reveal the
"truth" about a race of freaks, called "Deros," living under the surface of
the earth. Ray Palmer read it, handed it to me for comment. I read a third
of it, tossed it in the waste basket. Ray, who loved to show his editors a
trick or two about the business, fished it out of the basket, ran it in
Amazing, and a flood of mail poured in from readers who insisted every word
of it was true because they'd been plagued by Deros for years."3
Actually, Palmer had accidentally tapped a huge, previously unrecognized
audience. Nearly every community has at least one person who complains
constantly to the local police that someone - usually a neighbor - is aiming
a terrible ray gun at their house or apartment. This ray, they claim, is
ruining their health, causing their plants to die, turning their bread
moldy, making their hair and teeth fall out, and broadcasting voices into
their heads. Psychiatrists are very familiar with these "ray" victims and
relate the problem with paranoid-schizophrenia. For the most part, these
paranoiacs are harmless and usually elderly. Occasionally, however, the
voices they hear urge them to perform destructive acts, particularly arson.
They are a distrustful lot, loners by nature, and very suspicious of
everyone, including the government and all figures of authority. In earlier
times, they thought they were hearing the voice of god and/or the Devil.
Today they often blame the CIA or space beings for their woes. They
naturally gravitate to eccentric causes and organizations which reflect
their own fears and insecurities, advocating bizarre political philosophies
and reinforcing their peculiar belief systems. Ray Palmer unintentionally
gave thousands of these people focus to their lives.
Shaver's long, rambling letter claimed that while he was welding4 he heard
voices which explained to him how the underground Deros were controlling
life on the surface of the earth through the use of fiendish rays. Palmer
rewrote the letter, making a novelette out of it, and it was published in
the March 1945 issue under the title: "I Remember Lemuria Š by Richard
The Shaver Mystery was born.
Somehow the news of Shaver's discovery quickly spread beyond science fiction
circles and people who had never before bought a pulp magazine were rushing
to their local newsstands. The demand for Amazing Stories far exceeded the
supply and Ziff-Davis had to divert paper supplies (remember there were
still wartime shortages) from other magazines so they could increase the
press run of AS.
"Palmer traveled to Pennsylvania to talk to Shaver," Howard Brown later
recalled, "found him sitting on reams of stuff he'd written about the Deros,
bought every bit of it and contracted for more. I thought it was the sickest
crap I'd run into. Palmer ran it and doubled the circulation of Amazing
within four months."
By the end of 1945, Amazing Stories was selling 250,000 copies per month, an
amazing circulation for a science fiction pulp magazine. Palmer sat up late
at night, rewriting Shaver's material and writing other short stories about
the Deros under pseudonyms. Thousands of letters poured into the office.
Many of them offered supporting "evidence" for the Shaver stories,
describing strange objects they had seen in the sky and strange encounters
they had had with alien beings. It seemed that many thousands of people were
aware of the existence of some distinctly nonterrestrial group in our midst.
Paranoid fantasies were mixed with tales that had the uncomfortable ring of
truth. The "Letters-to-the-Editor" section was the most interesting part of
the publication. Here is a typical contribution from the issue for June
I flew my last combat mission on May 26  when I was shot up
over Bassein and ditched my ship in Ramaree roads off Chedubs
Island. I was missing five days. I requested leave at Kashmere
(sic). I and Capt. (deleted by request) left Srinagar and went to
Rudok then through the Khese pass to the northern foothills of the
Karakoram. We found what we were looking for. We knew what we were
For heaven's sake, drop the whole thing! You are playing with
dynamite. My companion and I fought our way out of a cave with
submachine guns. I have two 9" scars on my left arm that came from
wounds given me in the cave when I was 50 feet from a moving
object of any kind and in perfect silence. The muscles were nearly
ripped out. How? I don't know. My friend has a hole the size of a
dime in his right bicep. It was seared inside. How we don't know.
But we both believe we know more abou the Shaver Mystery than any
You can imagine my fright when I picked up my first copy of Amazing Stories
and see you splashing words about the subject.
The identity of the author of this letter was withheld by request. Later
Palmer revealed his name: Fred Lee Crisman. He had inadvertently described
the effects of a laser beam - even though the laser wasn't invented until
years later. Apparently Crisman was obsessed with Deros and death rays long
before Kenneth Arnold sighted the "first" UFO in June 1947.
In September 1946, Amazing Stories published a short article by W.C.
Hefferlin, "Circle-Winged Plane," describing experiments with a circular
craft in 1927 in San Francisco. Shaver's (Palmer's) contribution to that
issue was a 30,000 word novelette, "Earth Slaves to Space," dealing with
spaceships that regularly visited the Earth to kidnap humans and haul them
away to some other planet. Other stories described amnesia, an important
element in the UFO reports that still lay far in the future, and mysterious
men who supposedly served as agents for those unfriendly Deros.
A letter from army lieutenant Ellis L. Lyon in the September 1946 issue
expressed concern over the psychological impact of the Shaver Mystery.
What I am worried about is that there are a few, and perhaps quite
large number of readers who may accept this Shaver Mystery as
being founded on fact, even as Orson Welles put across his
invasion from Mars, via radio some years ago. It is of course,
impossible for the reader to sift out in your "Discussions" and
"Reader Comment" features, which are actually letters from readers
and which are credited to an Amazing Stories staff writer, whipped
up to keep alive interest in your fictional theories. However, if
the letters are generally the work of readers, it is distressing
to see the reaction you have caused in their muddled brains. I
refer to the letters from people who have "seen" the exhaust
trails of rocket ships or "felt" the influence of radiations from
Palmer assigned artists to make sketches of objects described by readers and
disc-shaped flying machines appeared on the covers of his magazine long
before June 1947. So we can note that a considerable number of people -
millions - were exposed to the flying saucer concept before the national
news media was even aware of it. Anyone who glanced at the magazines on a
newsstand and caught a glimpse of the saucers-adorned Amazing Stories cover
had the image implanted in his subconscious. In the course of the two years
between march 1945 and June 1947, millions of Americans had seen at least
one issue of Amazing Stories and were aware of the Shaver Mystery with all
of its bewildering implications. Many of these people were out studying the
empty skies in the hopes that they, like other Amazing Stories readers,
might glimpse something wondrous. World War II was over and some new
excitement was needed. Raymond Palmer was supplying it - much to the alarm
of Lt. Lyon and Fred Crisman.
Aside from Palmer's readers, two other groups were ready to serve as cadre
for the believers. About 1,500 members of Tiffany Thayer's Fortean Society
knew that weird aerial objects had been sighted throughout history and some
of them were convinced that this planet was under surveillance by beings
from another world. Tiffany Thayer was rigidly opposed to Franklin Roosevelt
and loudly proclaimed that almost everything was a government conspiracy, so
his Forteans were fully prepared to find new conspiracies hidden in the
forthcoming UFO mystery. They would become instant experts, willing to
educate the press and public when the time came. The second group were
spiritualists and students of the occult, headed by Dr. Meade Layne, who had
been chatting with the space people at seances through trance mediums and
Ouija boards. They knew the space ships were coming and hardly surprised
when "ghost rockets" were reported over Europe in 1946.5 Combined, these
three groups represented a formidable segment of the population.
On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold made his famous sighting of a group of
"flying saucers" over Mt. Rainier, and in Chicago Ray Palmer watched in
astonishment as the newspaper clippings poured in from every state. The
things that he had been fabricating for his magazine were suddenly coming
For two weeks, the newspapers were filled with UFO reports. Then they
tapered off and the Forteans howled "Censorship!" and "Conspiracy!" But
dozens of magazine writers were busy compiling articles on this new subject
and their pieces would appear steadily during the next year. One man, who
had earned his living writing stories for the pulp magazines in the 930s,
saw the situation as a chance to break into the "slicks" (better quality
magazines printed on glossy or "slick" paper). Although he was 44 years old
at the time of Pearl Harbor, he served as a Captain in the marines until he
was in a plane accident. Discharged as a Major (it was the practice to
promote officers one grade when they retired), he was trying to resume his
writing career when Ralph Daigh, an editor at True magazine, assigned him to
investigate the flying saucer enigma. Thus, at the age of 50, Donald E.
Keyhhoe entered Never-Never-Land. His article, "Flying Saucers Are Real,"
would cause a sensation, and Keyhoe would become an instant UFO personality.
That same year, Palmer decided to put out an all-flying saucer issue of
Amazing Stories. Instead, the publisher demanded that he drop the whole
subject after, according to Palmer, two men in Air Force uniforms visited
him. Palmer decided to publish a magazine of his own. Enlisting the aid of
Curtis Fuller, editor of a flying magazine, and a few other friends, he put
out the first issue of Fate in the spring of 1948. A digest-sized magazine
printed on the cheapest paper, Fate was as poorly edited as Amazing Stories
and had no impact on the reading public. But it was the only newsstand
periodical that carried UFO reports in every issue. The Amazing Stories
readership supported the early issues wholeheartedly.
In the fall of 1948, the first flying saucer convention was held at the
Labor Temple on 14th Street in New York City. Attended by about thirty
people, most of whom were clutching the latest issue of Fate, the meeting
quickly dissolved into a shouting match.6 Although the flying saucer mystery
was only a year old, the side issues of government conspiracy and censorship
already dominated the situation because of their strong emotional appeal.
The U.S. Air Force had been sullenly silent throughout 1948 while,
unbeknownst to the UFO advocates, the boys at Wright-Patterson Air Force
Base in Ohio were making a sincere effort to untangle the mystery.
When the Air Force investigation failed to turn up any tangible evidence
(even though the investigators accepted the extraterrestrial theory) General
Hoyt Vandenburg, Chief of the Air Force and former head of the CIA, ordered
a negative report to release to the public. The result was Project Grudge,
hundreds of pages of irrelevant nonsense that was unveiled around the time
True magazine printed Keyhoe's pro-UFO article. Keyhoe took this personally,
even though his article was largely a rehash of Fort's book, and Ralph Daigh
had decided to go with the extraterrestrial hypothesis because it seemed to
be the most commercially acceptable theory (that is, it would sell
Palmer's relationship with Ziff-Davis was trained now that he was publishing
his own magazine. "when I took over from Palmer, in 1949," Howard Browne
said, "I put an abrupt end to the Shaver Mystery - writing off over 7,000
dollars worth of scripts."
Moving to Amherst, Wisconsin, Palmer set up his own printing plant and
eventually he printed many of those Shaver stories in his Hidden Worlds
series. As it turned out, postwar inflation and the advent of television was
killing the pulp magazine market anyway. In the fall of 1949, hundreds of
pulps suddenly ceased publication, putting thousands of writers and editors
out of work. Amazing Stories has often changed hands since but is still
being published, and is still paying its writers a penny a word.7
For some reason known only to himself, Palmer chose not to use his name in
Fate. Instead, a fictitious "Robert N. Webster" was listed as editor for
many years. Palmer established another magazine, Search, to compete with
Fate. Search became a catch-all for inane letters are occult articles that
failed to meet Fate's low standards.
Although there was a brief revival of public and press interest in flying
saucers following the great wave of the summer of 1952, the subject largely
remained in the hands of cultists, cranks, teenagers, and housewives who
reproduced newspaper clippings in little mimeographed journals and looked up
to Palmer as their fearless leader.
In June, 1956, a major four-day symposium on UFOs was held in Washington,
D.C. It was unquestionably the most important UFO affair of the 1950s and
was attended by leading military men, government officials and
industrialists. Men like William Lear, inventor of the Lear Jet, and
assorted generals, admirals and former CIA heads freely discussed the UFO
"problem" with the press. Notably absent were Ray Palmer and Donal Keyhoe.
One of the results of the meetings was the founding of the National
Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) by a physicist named
Townsend Brown. Although the symposium received extensive press coverage at
the time, it was subsequently censored out of UFO history by the UFO
cultists themselves - primarily because they had not participated in it.8
The American public was aware of only two flying saucer personalities,
contactee George Adamski, a lovable rogue with a talent for obtaining
publicity, and Donald Keyhoe, a zealot who howled "Coverup!" and was locked
in mortal combat with Adamski for newspaper coverage. Since Adamski was the
more colorful (he had ridden a saucer to the moon), he was usually awarded
more attention. The press gave him the title of "astronomer" (he lived in a
house on Mount Palomar where a great telescope was in operation), while
Keyhoe attacked him as "the operator of a hamburger stand." Ray Palmer tried
to remain aloof of the warring factions, so naturally, some of them turned
The year 1957 was marked by several significant developments. There was
another major flying saucer wave. Townsend Brown's NICAP floundered and
Keyhoe took it over. And Ray Palmer launched a new newsstand publication
called Flying Saucers From Other Worlds. In the early issues he hinted that
the knew some important "secret." After tantalizing his readers for months,
he finally revealed that UFOs came from the center of the earth and the
phrase From Other Worlds was dropped from the title. His readers were
variously enthralled, appalled, and galled by the revelation.
For seven years, from 1957 to 1964, ufology in the United States was in
total limbo. This was the Dark Age. Keyhoe and NICAP were buried in
Washington, vainly tilting at windmills and trying to initiate a
congressional investigation into the UFO situation.
A few hundred UFO believers clustered around Coral Lorenzen's Aerial
Phenomena Research Organization (APRO). And about 2,000 teenagers bought
Flying Saucers from newsstands each month. Palmer devoted much space to UFO
clubs, information exchanges, and letters-to-the-editor. So it was Palmer,
and Palmer alone, who kept the subject alive during the Dark Age and lured
new youngsters into ufology. He published his strange books about Deros, and
ran a mail-order business selling the UFO books that had been published
after various waves of the 1950s. His partners in the Fate venture bought
him out, so he was able to devote his full time to his UFO enterprises.
Palmer had set up a system similar to sci-fi fandom, but with himself as the
nucleus. He had come a long way since his early days and the Jules Verne
Prize Club. He had been instrumental in inventing a whole system of belief,
a frame of reference - the magical world of Shaverism and flying saucers -
and he had set himself up s the king of that world. Once the belief system
had been set up it became self-perpetuating. The people beleaguered by
mysterious rays were joined by the wishful thinkers who hoped that living,
compassionate beings existed out there beyond the stars. They didn't need
any real evidence. The belief itself was enough to sustain them.
When a massive new UFO wave - the biggest one in U.S. history - struck in
1964 and continued unabated until 1968, APRO and NICAP were caught unawares
and unprepared to deal with renewed public interest. Palmer increased the
press run of Flying Saucers and reached out to a new audience. Then in the
1970s, a new Dark Age began. October 1973 produced a flurry of
well-publicized reports and then the doldrums set in. NICAP strangled in its
own confusion and dissolved in a puddle of apathy, along with scores of
lesser UFO organizations. Donald Keyhoe, a very elder statesman, lives in
seclusion in Virginia. Most of the hopeful contactees and UFO investigators
of the 1940s and 50s have passed away. Palmer's Flying Saucers quietly
self-destructed in 1975, but he continued with Search until his death in
1977. Richard Shaver is gone but the Shaver Mystery still has a few
adherents. Yet the sad truth is that none of this might have come about if
Howard Browne hadn't scoffed at that letter in that dingy editorial office
in that faraway city so long ago.
1. Donnelly's book, Atlantis, published in 1882, set off a 50-year wave of
Atlantean hysteria around the world. Even the characters who
materialized at seances during that period claimed to be Atlanteans.
2. The author was an active sci-fi fan in the 1940s and published a
fanzine called Lunarite. Here's a quote from Lunarite dated October 26,
1946: "Amazing Stories is still trying to convince everyone that the
BEMs in the caves run the world. And I was blaming it on the Democrats.
'Great Gods and Little Termites' was the best tale in this ish [issue].
But Shaver, author of the 'Land of Kui,' ought to give up writing. He's
lousy. And the editors of AS ought to joint Sgt. Saturn on the wagon
and quit drinking that Xeno or the BEMs in the caves will get them."
I clearly remember the controversy created by the Shaver Mystery and
the great disdain with which the hardcore fans viewed it.
3. From Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines by Ron
Goulart (published by Arlington House, New York, 1972).
4. It is interesting that so many victims of this type of phenomenon were
welding or operating electrical equipment such as radios, radar, etc.
when they began to hear voices.
5. The widespread "ghost rockets" of 1946 received little notice in the
U.S. press. I remember carrying a tiny clipping around in my wallet
describing mysterious rockets weaving through the mountains of
Switzerland. But that was the only "ghost rocket" report that reached
me that year.
6. I attended this meeting but my memory of it is vague after so many
years. I cannot recall who sponsored it.
7. A few of the surviving science fiction magazines now pay (gasp!) three
cents a word. But writing sci-fi still remains a sure way to starve to
8. When David Michael Jacobs wrote The UFO Controversy in America, a book
generally regarded as the most complete history of the UFO maze, he
chose to completely revise the history of the 1940s and 50s, carefully
excising any mention of Palmer, the 1956 symposium, and many of the
other important developments during that period.