Mystery airships were a form of unidentified flying object reported in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite numerous reports of sightings, and claims of responsibility by mysterious inventors, none of the aircraft were discovered. In another link to later UFO reports, the airships were ahead of contemporary design in both size and capability.
The first report dates from 29 March 1880, in the Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican. Although probably fictional, as would be a large number of later reports, there is a core of credible reports that indicate that the mystery airships cannot be entirely dismissed as hoaxes.
In 1892 there were a series of reports of airships on the German-Polish border. The airships were seen to hover and even fly against the wind - impossible for known airships at the time.
Four years later the airship wave took off. Mid-November 1896 saw several reports of mysterious airships over California. Fast-moving (or sometimes stationary) nocturnal lights were seen over major cities, and spurious claims were made on behalf of "inventors." The stories fizzled out in December, but the following February more reports came from Nebraska. Two witness described a conical craft with wings and a fan-shaped rudder. Reports of airships soon spread, and by April reports were coming from much of the region. Stories circulated, once again, of inventors, some of home got out of their craft and confided in witnesses. These stories of inventors were in all likelihood an invention of the papers. One tale that began as a joke became widely circulated in the UFO community on its rediscovery. The Dallas Morning News of April 19, 1897 reported that an airship had crashed in Aurora, Texas, and its Martian occupant had been buried in the local cemetery.
Although this wave of reports would die down by May, there was one more wave of sightings to come. in 1909 airships were reported in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. the British airship wave, mostly consisting of fast-moving cuylinders with strong lights, were blamed on German spies, while the US sightings were laid at the door of one William E. Tillinghast of Worcester, Massachussetts. Tillinghast was apparently blameless.
After the first world war, reports of mystery airships largely died out, but sporadic reports were made of cigar-shaped craft with propellers or fins in Kentucky (1927), California (1946), Kansas (1952) and New Mexico (1967).
Jerome Clark. "Airships, unidentified" in Unexplained! (Visible Ink 1993, ISBN 0-8103-9436-7)