Exeter File - Part Two

The Exeter Terrestrial Hypothesis

by Martin Kottmeyer

Before he grew up to be the master theorist who brought a stunning order to our understanding of the heavens, Isaac Newton first brought chaos. As a kid he liked to make and experiment with kites. At some point he invented a crimpled paper lantern, attached it to the tail of a kite, and started flying it at night. History records this "wonderfully affrighted all the neighboring inhabitants for some time, and caused not a little discourse on market days, among country people, when over their mugs of ale." As this took place in the mid-1600s, speculation included the concern that these lights were comets. Muses one historian, "By good fortune, Grantham was not burned to the ground."

This idea, indeed, doesn’t seem like an especially smart thing to do, and it should surprise nobody that kids a good deal dumber than Newton have been doing the same thing over the years. A colleague showed me a reprint of an 1929 kid’s manual called The American Boys Handy Book, which had chapters on how to make kites of several varieties. One version was called, "The Moving Star," so named for the paper lantern attached to the tail. To prevent setting the kite afire, the author recommends a small light wood and wire hoop frame covered by red tissue paper. A drawing is helpfully provided. The author adds in comment, "This lantern fastened to the tail of a large kite that is sent up on a dark night will go bobbing around in a most eccentric and apparently unaccountable manner, striking with wonder all observers not in on the secret." (pp. 21-2)

Needless to say, this same thing goes on to the present day. One popular guide to kites remarks that besides Chinese firecracker kites, "Lighted kites are also legendary. Japanese lanterns or small battery-powered flashlights can be put aloft." If you have a night with enough wind. (Wyatt Brummit, Kites, Golden, 1971, p. 97) Though unmentioned, flares are another option for modern pranksters. A really inventive fellow might even come up with something else.

My hypothesis is that the Exeter case is an instance of an upscale moving-star kite. Five strobe flashers linked to a sequencer are hung along the kite-line rather than a tail. They are powered from the ground by a small portable power supply like a motorcycle battery strapped to the body. A large box kite would probably work best since the double-wing surface would enable it to carry the weight of the lights more easily than other types. Meteorologists used to use them to haul up all sorts of recording equipment.

With this idea in mind, let’s go back to our 6 points from Part 1:

  1. Why Exeter? The prankster probably lived there.

  2. Why did the Exeter object flutter like a leaf? Because it was made of cloth and light wood. It was silent because kites are silent. It was defying most aerodynamic patters, but not those of kites.

  3. The practical use of the flashing pattern and the extreme brilliance was to get the victim’s attention and scare the hell out of him. Additionally, it was, as the handbook said, an effort to strike wonder into all observers. The rural setting insured enough darkness to not give the trick away and to have the room to pull it off without a lot of bystanders who might see the prankster and squeal on him.

  4. The 60-degree angle is due to the lights being on the kiteline. The prankster probably had no intent to mimic the behavior of a flying saucer. He just wanted something really strange. This explains why the lower lights were always forward of the others. One usually is pulling the line back against the wind. I should perhaps add here that Air Force records confirm there was a wind out of the West that evening. Some reader of Fuller is inevitably going to point out that his book says "There was no wind…" that evening. I don’t know what he based it on, but it appears to be wrong.

  5. The reason it doesn’t travel far from the ground is because it is a kite, not a spaceship.

  6. Kitefliers can make their kites dive and have been known to scare drivers off nearby roads by a sudden stunt maneuver. Someone mischievous enough to hang strobe lights on a kite likely has the disposition to panic his victims with low passes. It was not too bright to do this to a cop, however, and one can well understand why the prankster would not come forward to claim credit for his spectacle.

With no confession or statements from accomplices or acquaintances, it will likely be said this solution is unproven. Perhaps, but I have to say that the extraterrestrial solution is pretty much dis-proven and rendered foolish. Why opt for a solution that makes no sense when you have one that does?

And another classic bites it.

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