The other day, I was looking through vintage UFO magazines on archive.org and stumbled across something charmingly bizarre: advertisements for "UFO detectors." Both of them appeared to be EMF detectors, based on the idea that high EMF is correlated to UFO sightings.
The ads in question come from 1979 issues of UFO Review and Skywatch, which appear to be a newspaper and newsletter, respectively.
I wasn't familiar with either of these publications, but I was able to glean a decent amount from skimming through these two issues. While UFO Review was a professionally printed newspaper-format publication with two-color cover printing and offices in midtown Manhattan, Skywatch was a typewritten-and-xeroxed newsletter based in the suburbs of North West England. While both publications exude immense vintage charm, I have a real soft spot for a more DIY publication like Skywatch.
So let's look at these devices. First off, we've got an ad for Shields Enterprises' device in UFO Review number 3 (April 1979); it includes a picture of the detector, which appears to be a little box sporting a potentiometer with the words "U.F.O. DETECTOR" printed beside it.
Here's the ad copy:
Detects Strong Electromagnetic Force Fields.
Built-In Alarm System.
Activated 24 Hours A Day With No Battery Drain.
Operates On A Single Flashlight Cell.
Front Panel Circuit And Battery Test Switch.
Solid Aluminum & Steel Construction. Measures Only 2 1/4" X 3 1//4" X 4 1/4”
Completely Wired Only $17.95
For reference, $17.95 in 1979 is $74.63 today. So not completely out of line with many modern EMF detectors sold for ghost hunting (though you can certainly get them for cheaper.)
Next up, we've got Skywatch's own UFO detector, as advertised in Skywatch number 33, from August/September 1979. In addition to be enchanted by the DIY aspect of the publication, I also loved that it was a home-brewed device. Adding to the DIY vibes: the ad seems to have been keyed by an indifferent typist without the benefit of correction tape.
Here's the text of the ad:
SKYWATCH UFO DETECTORS
One of the few facts that has been realised about UFOs and their activities is that they cause an electromagnetic effect on electronic and magnetic equipment. The reason for this is not really know [sic], magnetic compasses spin wildly, TV's ghost and radios emit hums and crackles. It has also been known for the UFOs E.M.field to cause switching relays to react in power stations and cause widespread blackouts.
For the Ufologist to stay out in the open searching the sky for 24 hours a day is not practical. So a device that could detect UFOs presence would be a vital piece of equipment for the serious UFO researcher.
Over the years that I have been producing 'Skywatch UFO Detectors’ (SKYFOD) I have had may [sic] requests and inquiries about the possibility of a pocket size UFO detector. I have in the past built such detectors but have not been practical or very successful.
Now thanks to modern electronics, I have produced such a detector that satisfactory fits the requirement of the Ufologist. This detector can be carried in your pocket, handbag, even used in your car, on public transport, and at night, left by your bedside. Of course, if you carry it in your pocket you must make sure that you don't have any other magnetic metal objects in the same pocket such as steel keys, penknifes, etc.
The electonic [sic] component that makes the portability of this SKUFOD possible is an electromagetic [sic] field sensor that will detect the E.M. effect of the UFO when in the area. Although this new model is not as sensitive as the compass needle type detector, I believe that you will receive sufficient warning of the UFOs [sic] presence. The advantages of this new detector outweigh this slight reduction of sensitivity.
When the senror [sic] detects the elctromagnetic [sic] effect of a UFO, it pulses a signal to a latching circuit that in turn sounds an alarm. This alarm sounds until switched off or the battery runs down. When the detector is switched on guard, no battery power is used, only when activated does the detector's circuit drew [sic] current so the battery will last for a considerable period.
Skywatch UFO Detector (SKUFOD) pocket portable model specification.
An electromagnetic field sensor type detector incorporating latching circuit and audio alarm. Housed in a high impact plastic case. Battery operated.
Size: 70 x 50 x 25 (mm) 2 3/4 x 2 x 1 (inches)
Price: Inclusive of post packing and battery........£9.00
When ordering state Pocket Portable Model
Obtainable from: Malcolm Jay, 102 Nelson Road, Chingvford [sic] E4 9AS, England.
Again, for reference, £9 in 1979 is £58.26 or $73.52 USD today. So, interestingly, both devices are almost exactly the same price. (Though, for any fellow nerds out there, if my math is correct, £9 would be $20.09 USD in 1979, or $83.52 today. So technically, at the time, the English version was slightly pricier, which makes sense, if it was made to order by an individual.)
It's unclear to me how strong the EMF had to be to trip either of these devices, but I'm certainly curious about that. Both of them suffer from the same flaw that modern EMF detectors have when used for ghost hunting, though: Just because an EMF detector senses something doesn't mean that something paranormal's afoot. Plenty of ordinary household appliances emit EMF.
Modern UFO detectors
I was curious whether UFO detectors were still a thing these days, and was surprised to find that the answer is: yeah, sounds like it.
In April 2021, cops in New Jersey dismantled a homemade UFO detector that had been left in a state park. According to one of the people who commented on the story on Facebook, the device was a "kids version of a magnetometer"; they also posted a diagram of the device. I also found a defunct Amazon listing for a magnetometer "UFO detector."
But it seems like most people are going for more sophisticated systems for UFO detection these days. One of those is the cool-looking Sky360 project, which, to oversimplify it, appears to be a network of cameras monitoring the skies for anomalies (Vice published an article about on the day I wrote this, conincidentally).