Airships And Flying Machines – Real And Imagined

Airships And Flying Machines

Real And Imagined


Click on images to enlarge.    

     “An airship inventor is a man who begins by giving interviews on why it will fly, and ends by giving interviews on why it didn’t fly.” – A quote from The Minneapolis Journal, November 5, 1905, author unknown.

      To our early ancestors the solution to achieving manned flight must have seemed obvious; all one needed to do was construct a set of feathered wings.  Greek mythology tells of a boy named Icarus who did just that, but fell to his death when the wax holding the feathers together melted when he flew too close to the sun.  The plight of the mythical Icarus aside, there were those in real-life who attempted to fly via homemade wings with predictable results.  

     And not all homemade wings involved the use of feathers.  On September 23, 1854, an entertaining news item appeared in the New Orleans Daily Crescent that told of a psychic medium living in New York who was getting advice from the spirit world about how to construct a set of wings for flying purposes. His project involved the use of gutta percha, (A latex derived from Malaysian trees.), India rubber, and whalebone.   “The aforesaid medium,” the article stated in part, “when his outfit is completed, will fly off some tower across the Hudson River to Hoboken and other places.  Of course we await the result of his aerial flight with breathless interest.”     

     By the 1700’s, most would-be aviators had come to believe that the secret to aerial navigation rested with balloons, and they were partially right.   Although the idea of a balloon can be traced to ancient times beginning with the use of aerial lanterns, it wasn’t until 1783 that the first successful manned balloon flight took place.  However, balloons lacked maneuverability and were at the mercy of prevailing winds and extreme weather conditions.  Yet after centuries of trying, man had finally found a way to leave terra firma and stay there.  Then he set about to discover a way to navigate the air at will.       

Francisco Lana’s Airship – 1670

     The terms “flying machine” and “airship” actually pre-date manned balloon ascensions.  Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) drew sketches of  winged flying machines around the year 1500, and Francisco de Lana (1631-1687) created plans for an “airship” in 1670.  An illustration of his idea depicts a boat supported by four balloons with a sail to provide forward motion.  

     From the late 1700’s until the Wright brothers flew in 1903, the terms “airship” and “flying machine” were seemingly interchangeable until inventors began designing machine driven flying contraptions known as airplanes that didn’t require a gas bag for lift.   

     Beginning in the early 1800’s and continuing for more than a century later, there were many hopeful inventors who publicly claimed to have “perfected” an airship or flying machine, but that didn’t necessarily mean they’d actually built and flew one.    

      For example, an editorial which appeared in the Yorkville Enquirer in 1884 said in part:, “Read the newspapers of to-day, and in one of every ten you can see an article about somebody’s flying machine going to fly somewhere, at some time.  It is always in the future, and none of them ever report any actual flying.”  

     The following year  a reporter from the Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, interviewed an examiner from the U.S. Patent Office who said in part, “We no longer issue patents for devices to enable men to fly through the air because the thing is impossible, and the office some years ago made a rule not to issue patents for impractical inventions.”  

     The same patent examiner also told the Star that “on average” the patent office received about two applications per month for patents or improvements on patents already granted for existing patents of airships and flying machines. 

     It’s unknown how many airship and flying machine patents were applied for during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and of course not all applicants received a patent, and of those that did, often times their ideas never left the drawing board.   


     Some inventors created working scale-models of their proposed aerial machines hoping to attract potential investors, but most ultimately failed to raise the necessary funds to make their concepts a reality.  And of the airships and flying machines that were actually constructed, only a small portion achieved any level of success.      

     There were no flight manuals or reference books for aspiring inventors to draw from, so each was left to his own imagination as to how mechanical flight might be achieved.  Some envisioned machines with bird-like wings, while others incorporated gas bags, sails, or mechanically driven propellers.  The propeller designs differed in size and shape, with some resembling the blades of a windmill, others the paddle wheel of a steam ship, and even contoured propellers as we know them today.  Depending on the inventor’s imagination, the power to turn the props could come from human labor, steam power, compressed air, electric batteries, or any combination of the above.       

     Many early airship design proposals incorporated a cigar-shaped gas bag with some sort of carriage mounted or suspended underneath.  Gas bag materials varied from silk, rubberized canvas, oiled cloth, and even hollow steel or aluminum.   In most cases the bags were designed to hold hot air or Hydrogen gas, but there was one inventor from Mount Carmel, Ill., who in 1891 reportedly came up with the novel idea of using the decomposition gasses given off by dead birds which he called “Buzzard Gas”.  One might surmise that he did this as a joke.         

Captain Charles A. Smith’s Airship -1896

    When it came to inventing new airship designs, to coin a phrase, “the sky was the limit”.  An article which appeared in the Alexandria Gazette & Daily Advertiser, (Alexandria, VA.), on August 25, 1819, mentioned a New Jersey man who’d built an airship and was hoping to fly it in the near future.  The article related in part: “Upon inquiry, we learn that the airship spoken of is a skeleton of wood in the form of a ship, encompassed with silk, which is to be inflated with inflammable air.  To the ship is to be attached a boat with a rudder, oars, etc. etc.  The ingenious inventor is so confident that he will be able to steer the ship, that he has gone to considerable expense in his arrangements.” 

     Another interesting example of an airship was described in an article that appeared in The (New York) Sun on April 30, 1903, under the headline, “Latest News From Europe”, which stated in part:

     “A modern Darius Green has made a flying machine that will really fly.  It was tested on Thursday by experts at Harrow with quite remarkable results.  The machinery consists of a steam engine in a boat-like carriage on small wheels , an areal screw propeller, and what looks like a great wooden sail of slats like a Venetian blind.  The machine weighs 330 pounds, and dead weights of sixteen and seventy-two pounds additional were attached during the experiments.  The inventor, Horatio Phillips, said it would take a pressure equal to a wind blowing thirty miles an hour against the 136 square feet of sail surface to lift the machine, and he produced a current by means of a 400 revolutions per minute propeller, equal to thirty-five miles per hour.  The artificial gale blown against the slats produced a vacuum and plenum on the upper and lower surfaces respectively, thus giving the greatest possible lifting power.  The experiments took place on a circular track.  On the first trial, with seventy-two pounds added weight, the machine when started ran a little way on the wheels and them mounted three or four feet into the air, and continued unsupported more than a half circuit when the extra weight was reduced to sixteen pounds.  It made a clear flight of more than three-fourths of the circuit of 600 feet.  It dropped to earth and ran on the wheels only, when its course was directly parallel with the rather strong natural breeze which was blowing.  Its speed was at the rate of twenty-eight miles an hour.  The machine is in the experimental stage, the design thus far being principally to test the new kind of aeroplane.  In that respect those results are regarded as most encouraging.”    

     While the Phillips flying machine actually made it into the air, the tests described in the article were unmanned.  

     One early airship inventor was John H. Pennington, of Baltimore, Maryland. (Not to be confused with another inventor of the same last name, Edward Joel Pennington.)  In early 1838 John went to Washington, D.C., hoping to present two airship designs to Congress and ask for federal funding to build them.      

     His first proposed airship was to be powered by steam, with lift provided by Hydrogen gas.  When completed it would measure 234 feet long, 87 feet wide, and 40 feet high, with a car mounted underneath for passengers and a pilot.

     The second airship was to be smaller and powered manually by the pilot, which could be operated silently during war time to spy on enemy positions.   

     Referring to Mr. Pennington’s invention, a notice which appeared in The Native American, (A Washington, D.C. newspaper.) on March 3, 1838, stated in part: “In order to defray the expenses of constructing a Steam or Gas Flying Machine, to carry “Express Mails;” and another, on the same principle, to move without either steam or gas – only by manual power – to reconnoiter the enemy’s camp or situation.  The latter can be constructed in a few months, and at the cheap rate of a few hundred dollars; in which the inventor hopes that the Government of the United States will duly appreciate his designs, and appropriate the sum required to construct one or both those Machines, and thereby put an immediate termination to the Indian War.” 

     John Pennington’s ideas were brought before members of Congress more than once, but after careful consideration his funding was denied.   Other inventors also sought government funding, for the idea of using an airship for military purposes had been around for decades, and every developed nation hoped to be the first to achieve “air superiority”.  

      One unnamed New York inventor, realizing the potential monetary rewards involved, tried to hedge his bets against any competition by petitioning Congress for a new law.  The following brief appeared in The Columbia Democrat, (Bloomsburg, Pa.), on March 6, 1841.

     “The Science of BallooningA scientific gentleman of New York insists upon it that he has discovered a means of propelling balloons through the air at almost any required speed and in any direction.  He wants Congress to pass a law guaranteeing all the advantages of such an invention for 50 years to any person who will propel and steer a balloon in the air at the rate of not less than ten miles per hour.  He says that in 1841 if such an act be passed a revolution will be commenced in modes of traveling such as the world has never yet beheld.  No doubt; we fear the revolution will cost some lives.” 

Rufus Porter's Dirigible Airship of 1850 Note the word "Aeroport" on the side of the ship. Illustration from The New York Sun November 23, 1913

Rufus Porter’s Aeroport

     Another early inventor of note was Rufus Porter, a New Englander  who built a twenty-two foot long working model of an airship he named “The Aeroport” that actually flew.  Porter’s model was demonstrated on several occasions inside large buildings.  Porter began his experiments in the 1830s, and envisioned a steam powered airship capable of high-speed transcontinental flight.  Unfortunately, he was never able to raise sufficient funds to bring his concept(s) to reality.      

      Yet not all flying machine ideas involved using gas bags and steam.  Some inventors opted to experiment with kites. One early description of a kite -flying machine can be found in the November 5, 1842 issue of the New York Daily Tribune.  The aircraft was the concept of a Mr. McDermott of Louisiana, who stated as follows;  “I have a Kite one hundred and ten feet in length, twenty feet broad, and tapering to each end like the wings of the fish-hawk.  Under the center of the kite I have a frame eighteen feet high in which I stand.  Under the kite are four wings which operate horizontally, like the oars of a boat.  the blades of the oars are each twenty square feet in surface.  They are moved by the muscles of the legs.  The blades of the oars are made of a series of valves resembling Venetian blinds, so that they open when they move forward, and close when the stroke is made.  The wood part is of canes, the braces wire – the kite of cotton cloth, the tail of the same material.  The kite has an angle of ten degrees to the horizon.” 

     There was no mention as to the total weight of the kite-machine, and it would seem that a man would need to be physically fit to fly it.

     There were others who experimented with man-carrying kites, and although some referred to their inventions as “flying machines”, they were still just kites, (without mechanical motors), and incapable of navigating the air at will.     

William Hanson’s Aerial Carriage
Despite the illustration, it never flew.

     On September 29, 1842, William S. Henson of England patented his design for the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage.  The steam powered aircraft was to weigh 3,000 pounds, and would reportedly be able to travel from London to India in only four days – at a rate of 75 to 100 mph.  Unfortunately it was never constructed.  

      Here in America, a Boston inventor claimed in 1890 that his airship, when completed, would be able to travel 500 miles per hour, and cross from New York to San Francisco in only six hours.        

     Airship and flying machine designs ranged from the “possible”, to the utterly ridiculous, with most falling somewhere in between.  Some envisioned airships that were akin to a flying hotel, with all the amenities of an ocean liner.  Others saw the potential use of airships in wartime, and designed military machines capable of aerial combat or for dropping bombs, as well as naval airships that could land and operate in water as a sort of flying battleship.  And still others envisioned the day when the horse and buggy would be replaced by one’s own personal flying machine.  By the early 20th century some foresaw gigantic blimps with airplane runways on top that would serve as aerial aircraft carriers.       


Airship Nearing Completion – 1892

     Inventing an airship or flying machine was the easy part. However actually building one required money, and lots of it.  One not only needed the right materials, which in some cases had to be custom manufactured, but they also needed a secure location to  construct their invention away from prying eyes of competitors and potential saboteurs.  Capitol was generally raised through private investors, or in some cases, for those with the right political connections, through the government.  

      Meanwhile skeptics maintained that air travel was impossible, or at the very least, unsafe, and pointed to previous failed attempts.  Part of this doubt may have been brought on by certain inventors who’d made astounding claims about the capabilities of their yet-to-be-built airships in terms of speed, altitude, and payload capabilities.     

     One could also surmise that there were those who didn’t want airship inventors to succeed, for if an airship capable of speeds of 100 miles-per-hour or more were to be successfully built, it could then compete in the travel and freight market against other established modes of transportation such as steamships, trains, and stagecoaches.             

     Some inventors who failed in their attempts to fly were sometimes publicly ridiculed in the press as with the case of a Mr. Davidson in the following news snippet that appeared in the Sunbury American And Shamokin Journal, a now defunct Pennsylvania newspaper, on March 23, 1844, under the heading,  “Miscellany”.   

     “The song of “O’ Fly Not Yet” has been arranged as a “bird waltz”, and dedicated to Mr. Davidson, the Flying Machine Man.”    

    Another case involved a New York man named Cook, who in 1897 invented a new type of parachute to be worn when he would take his nearly completed flying machine on a test flight in the near future.  Alas, poor Mr. Cook was found by a policeman entangled in his own invention dangling from a bridge eighty feet over the water – much embarrassed, but none the worse for wear.           

    And then there were the hoaxters and practical jokers who made claims of airships that didn’t exist – and never would.  A case in point was the 1844 story of “Monk Mason’s Flying Machine” which according to a New York newspaper reportedly crossed the Atlantic Ocean from England to the United States in only seventy-five hours.  This was a remarkable claim for the day, but unfortunately, pure fiction. 

     Another early example involved a Pittsburgh man who in September of 1846 advertised that on the 14th he would ascend with his “flying machine” from the top of the Hand Street Bridge.  Thousands turned out to see the event, but at the appointed hour all that flew from the bridge was a white goose the man had released from a sack.     

     The city took the joke in stride, with the Pittsburgh Gazette reporting, “Such a sloping off with mortified looks, it was laughable to see, and the hoax afforded matter for many a good joke during the evening.”      

      Airship hoaxes continued into the 20th century.  Perhaps the most infamous airship hoax occurred in the late autumn of 1909 when a Worcester, Massachusetts, businessman named  Wallace Tillinghast claimed to have invented an airship that could fly over 100 miles per hour at an altitude of 3,000 feet, and travel hundreds of miles without stopping.  Even for 1909 his claims were amazing, for the Wright brothers had flown only seven years earlier and aviation technology was still in its infancy.  What gave this hoax a life of its own was that over the next three months reputable people from all across southern New England reported “seeing” Tillinghast and his invention soar through the air while conducting his nightly flights.   However, in the end, it was revealed that Tillinghast never had an airship of any sort.     

     While the previously mentioned hoaxes were perpetrated for the fun of it, there were other cases where investors were defrauded of their money due to nonexistent airships which the “inventors” never had any intention of building. 

     Incidents involving scientific skepticism, hoaxes, public failures, and fraud, no doubt made it harder for legitimate inventors to gain credibility.

This illustration of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s flying machine appeared in The National Tribune, (Washington, D.C.), on March 1, 1906.  (His name is misspelled as “Dupont”)

    While most inventors worked on ideas involving gas bags to supply the lifting power for their aircraft, there were a few who concentrated on using rotating propellers to gain the necessary lift to overcome gravity.  The idea of helicopters dates to ancient times, and science fiction writers and illustrators of the 19th century envisioned ships equipped with numerous rotating propeller blades instead of sails.       

         By the 1890’s more and more people began to accept the idea that mechanical flight would one day be possible.  Futurists and authors of science fiction predicted a time when trans-Atlantic flights would become routine, and that the personal airship would replace the family horse and buggy, and later, the automobile. 

     One prediction of what the future would hold appeared in The Londonderry Sifter, (A South Londonderry, Vermont, newspaper. ), on August 30, 1888, which stated in part: “A recent writer suggests the we shall, in the next century, have very little use for horses.  He supposes airships to be not only an achievement, but to be as common as wagons are now.  The farmer has then only to hitch a load to his airboat, and lift it clear of trees, and move straight to market.  The effect of navigating the air will, however, be most marked on urban life.  Cities will no longer be needed to any such extent as now.  The airship, avoiding streets, can make a location in the country as desirable for a great store as one in a city.  Will not also a vast amount of land now needed for highways be given over to tillage?  Go ahead, and give us the airship – Globe-Democrat”    

     Predictions aside, aviation technology still hadn’t reached the point where practical aerial navigation could become a reality.   

     In the June, 1893 issue of McClure’s Magazine, famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell had this to say about how man would one day master air travel.  “Of course the airship of the future will be constructed without any balloon attachment.  The discovery of the balloon undoubtedly retarded the solution of the flying problem for over a hundred years.  Even since the Montgolfers taught the world how to rise in the air by means of inflated gasbags, the inventors working at the problem of aerial navigation have been thrown on the wrong track.  Scientific men have been wasting their time trying to steer balloons, a thing which in the nature of the case is impossible to any extent , inasmuch as balloons, being lighter than the resisting air, can never make any headway against it.  the fundamental principle of aerial navigation is that the ship must be heavier that the air.  It is only in recent years that men capable of studying the problem seriously have accepted this as an axiom”     


Arthur De Baussett’s Proposed Airship
The Herald-Advance
Milbank, South Dakota
August 4, 1899

     One of the more ambitious airship projects of the 19th century was the one proposed by Arthur De Bausset in 1899.  His idea was to construct an airship 774 feet long and 144 feet wide that could travel from New York to London in 30 hours.  His airship, when completed, would be the world’s largest, and bigger than any ocean liner of the day. 

     The lift power would come from pumping all of the air out of the huge metal envelope thus creating a vacuum.  Propulsion was to come from 32 propellers powered by turbine engines.

     It was reported that many of New York’s well known businessmen were interested in the project, however, the ship was never built.

     In 1908 inventor J. A. Morrell constructed an airship that was 450 feet long, and at the time, was said to be the world’s largest.  Unfortunately it crashed on May 23, 1908 during its maiden voyage, injuring sixteen people.  

    The flight of the Wright Brothers airplane n 1903 opened the door to manned mechanical flight.   Meanwhile, others continued their work on perfecting the airship.  Technology in both areas grew rapidly leading many to believe that high-speed air travel over great distances was just around the corner.    

     Today we take air travel for granted, but none of it would have been possible had it not been for the hundreds, or perhaps thousands of would-be airship and flying machine inventors who struggled through trial and error to see what worked and what didn’t.  They did so at their own expense, often ridiculed, and at risk of being injured or killed.  In most cases their names have been lost to history. 

     Other sources:

     Alexandria Gazette & Daily Advertiser, (Alexandria, VA.), “Camden, N.J., August 17”, August 25, 1819

     The Native American, (Washington, D.C.), Notice, March 3, 1838.

     The Native American, (Washington, D.C.), “A Step Further In The Sciences”, March 3, 1838

     Iowa Territorial Gazette & Advertiser, “Traveling In The Air”, January 7, 1843

     The New York Herald, “Henson’s New Aerial Steam Carriage”, April 21, 1843

     The Cecil Whig, (Elkton, Md.) “The Steam Mechanic”, April 29, 1843

     The Post Gibson Herald, (no headline), May 22, 1845 

     Yorkville Enquirer, (Yorkville, S.C.), “The Flying Machine Mania”, July 31, 1884

     Evening Star, (Washington, D.C.), “Flying Through The Air – A problem Which Has Puzzled The Inventors Of All Times”, September 26, 1885 

     The Morning Call, (San Francisco, CA.), “With An Eagle’s Swiftness”, October 19, 1890

     The Waco Evening News, (Waco, Texas), “A New Gas”, February 24, 1892.

     The Charlotte Democrat, (Charlotte, N.C.), “Hung By His Heels”, July 1, 1897







Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲