A common idea of a spaceship, especially an alien spaceship, is the classic flying saucer, like the one below:

enter image description here

What is the first instance of a flying saucer as a space craft in science fiction?

Bonus question: if the first instance is not a film or television series, then what is the first instance of a flying saucer as a space craft in television or film?

  • @user14111 not at all - as long as it's a disk-shaped spacecraft that's fine, I don't really care what it's called – Often Right Sep 23 '15 at 8:26
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    I remember reading that the shape is a misunderstanding. Someone claimed he saw flying ships that were shaped like crescent moons but "hopped" in the air like saucers (I don't remember the wording exactly) and the statement was misremembered as him having seen saucer-shaped things. I guess the science fiction ones came after this real statement (whether it was a real story is another matter). – George T Sep 24 '15 at 7:10
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    There is a tag for flying brooms, but none for flying saucers? – user14111 Sep 25 '15 at 5:50
  • Have you seen this question about spaceships as a whole? – Rand al'Thor Mar 23 '16 at 11:47

Perhaps the earliest science-fictional flying saucers were in the 1887 novel Bellona's Bridegroom: A Romance (aka Bellona's Husband: A Romance) by "Hudor Genone", pseudonym of William James Roe. At any rate, that's the earliest of four stories listed under "flying saucers" in the Motif and Theme Index of Everett F. Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years. Here is part of Bleiler's review:

A fanciful ideal society. * The narrator is Archibald Holt, a rather stupid middle-aged man who invests money in Professor Ratzinez Garrett's hydrogenium, a metallic form of hydrogen that is so light as to amount to antigravity. Garrett builds a flying disk using hydrogenium as a lifting agent, and Holt, Garrett and a third character (Trip) set out for Mars. * As they pass Phobos and Deimos they see that they are abandoned flying saucers much like their own. They later learn that the space craft came from Jupiter or Saturn, and that similar saucers have visited earth, but have flamed or crashed on entering the atmosphere. * The terrestrials land on Mars, which is like the eastern United States, and find a completely human race that speaks English. At first Garrett postulates that the similarity is due to colonists from earth (and is upset at the possibility that his patent may be invalid), but later decides that the similarity is the result of parallel evolution.

The first flying saucer movie was The Flying Saucer, released January 5, 1950. Wikipedia says:

The Flying Saucer is the first feature film to deal with the (then) new and hot topic of flying saucers. Flying saucers or alien craft shaped like flying disks or saucers were first identified and given the popular name in 1947 when on June 24, 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine silvery, crescent-shaped objects flying in tight formation. A newspaper reporter coined a snappy tagline: "flying saucers" which captured the public's imagination.

All right, so that's the first flying saucer movie. What about television? I wonder if Captain Video had any flying saucers before 1950?

  • It'd be nice to know the actual wording in Bellona's Bridegroom, unfortunately it seems to be a very rare book, not available on amazon or abebooks or anywhere else. Still, I think this is the answer--in that quote Bleiler mentions both a "flying disk" and "abandoned flying saucers", so it's pretty clear the original book must have identified the crafts as disk-shaped. – Hypnosifl Sep 24 '15 at 11:40
  • @Hypnosifl Yes, it's too bad we have to take Bleiler's word for it. Seeing as how Bleiler read more or less everything, and we're looking for the very oldest example, it's not too surprising that we end up with a rare book. If I cared a lot more, I could try and get a copy on interlibrary loan, and try to read it. – user14111 Sep 24 '15 at 12:02
  • The wiki article UFOs in fiction shows a movie serial (though not a full length movie) featuring flying saucers that predates The Flying Saucer, the 1949 serial Bruce Gentry – Daredevil of the Skies, though apparently they are designed by a human villain--The Flying Saucer is the earliest one listed with an alien flying saucer. – Hypnosifl Oct 8 '15 at 21:51

If you look for a first reference in literature, as opposed to fiction, then the oldest reference must surely be the Vimana.

Described as circular flying machines with a central dome and windows, travelling with the speed of the wind while emitting a melodious sound. The references date back some 6,000 years.

The Vimana are the Chariots of the Gods. The sun itself is said to be a Vimana, they are capable of travel beyond the Earth.

You will easily find many references to them around the web by the UFO hunters who consider any reference to ancient flight to be evidence of aliens.

  • I certainly don't wish to offend anyone. I've altered the text to try to address this concern. – Chenmunka Sep 23 '15 at 11:13
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    They may be rounded, but the depictions I see on google images show them not to be saucer-shaped, but more like the rounded temple shown here. – Hypnosifl Sep 23 '15 at 11:14
  • Oh man, did Nina Paley and the talents working with her do a hilarious interpretation of the Vimana in Sita Sings the Blues! – Lexible Sep 23 '15 at 16:21
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    By the way, if you think the original texts suggest they could be saucer- or disc-shaped rather than the more beehive-like shape I see in most illustrations, could you provide a quote? – Hypnosifl Sep 23 '15 at 16:52

This article claims that the cover of the November 1929 issue of Science Wonder Stories by artist Frank R. Paul is "the first illustration of a flying saucer, almost two decades before the first sightings by Kenneth Arnold" (as described here, Arnold's 1947 claim initiated a rash of flying saucer sightings and caused 'flying saucers' to enter the public vocabulary):

enter image description here

The bottom of this page also quotes a physicist and skeptic named Milton Rothman identifying this cover as the first inspiration for later flying saucer sightings.

You can see some galleries of Frank R. Paul cover illustrations here, here and here--you can see he liked to pick unusual shapes for his spaceships, including some later disc-shaped crafts such as this one, this one, this one, and this one.

  • What is that thing doing with the Woolworth Building?? Something rude? – Ihor Sypko Sep 23 '15 at 19:04
  • There are also tapestries and paintings depicting saucer type flying objects from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.Some deploying rays and surface features. – Ihor Sypko Sep 23 '15 at 19:06
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    @Ihor Sypko - Can you link to any examples that show a saucer or disk shaped flying object? – Hypnosifl Sep 23 '15 at 23:39
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    Who won the $300.00? – Often Right Sep 24 '15 at 5:34
  • The distribution of prizes is given on this page which was one of the links in Hypnosifl's answer. – user14111 Sep 24 '15 at 8:29

I believe the earliest "sighting" (besides those depictions mentioned by others in the middle-ages/ancient era) this magazine cover shows a depiction of a flying saucer from 1911, a more extensive list can be found here.

The closest real life plane would be Circular Wing Aircraft, although early examples don't look too similar once you start getting into the 1930's you could argue that designs like the Avrocar (it was only able fly at an altitude of 1m but the design is there) are similar enough to be called flying saucers. Beyond that, the earliest design I can think of would be Da Vinci's Aerial Screw which some people even went through the effort of building, when we look at Da Vinci's sketches it does have a saucer shape.

  • I think that magazine cover is showing a craft shaped like a short blimp or zeppelin, the first real zeppelin having been flown in 1900. Look at the structural lines on it, it doesn't look disk-shaped to me, more like a short sausage. – Hypnosifl Sep 24 '15 at 11:48
  • @Hypnosifl I disagree that it looks more like a zeppelin. I will accept that early depictions are rudimental and that it slowly evolved into the shape that we recognise today. It's significant that the width is twice that of the height which gives it the look of two saucers placed together. The development of the shape of flying saucer wasn't a sudden moment but a slow development of expanding on others ideas over time. The structural lines could easily be pieces of sheet metal also. – Alex Deas Sep 24 '15 at 12:21
  • Yes, the structural lines could be seams between plates of metal, my point was that their shape doesn't seem like what'd be on a disk. There's a better picture of the "space flyer" in Gernsback's book Ralph 124C 41+ on this page, the lines that look like horizontal cross-sections (or lines of latitude) don't appear to be perfect circles as on a disk, but instead seem to have rather straight sides as you'd expect for a blimp-shaped object. The wheels on the bottom also make more sense for a craft longer than it is wide. – Hypnosifl Sep 24 '15 at 12:55

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