Today, we talk about powered flight and the Gold
Rush. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The people who went west and
the people who first tried to fly were cut from the
same bolt of cloth. They were brash and
imaginative. It's no surprise that America's first
steps toward powered flight are tied to the
California Gold Rush.
When gold was discovered, a man named Rufus Porter
promptly tried to start air service between New
York and California. He sold tickets and then tried
to build a huge airship with the profits. He
failed, of course. But a few years later Frederick
Marriott had the same general idea with a much
Marriott was an English newspaperman. He was both a
partner and a publicist for an unsuccessful
airplane in the 1840s. In fact, it was Marriott who
first coined the word "aeroplane."
In 1848 he boarded a ship for the California Gold
Fields. Maybe his dreams of flight would fare
better in our new land. Marriott settled in as a
banker and newspaperman in San Francisco. He was
one of Mark Twain's early publishers. By 1866 he
was solid enough to form a group called the Aerial
Steam Navigation Company. Its aim was to create a
steam-powered airship line between New York and San
Francisco. Only one airship had flown by then -- a
little one-man dirigible in Paris, 14 years before.
Marriott didn't try everything in one bite. First
he made a 37-foot unmanned dirigible -- a big
football fitted with control surfaces. Its two
propellers were driven by a beautiful little
alcohol-powered steam engine only a foot long. He
called it the Hermes Jr. Avitor. He
planned to follow it with the Hermes
Avitor -- a 150-foot manned airship.
He flew his Avitor over and over
during the summer of 1869. A ground crew would run
after it setting its controls with a rope. It was a
clear success, and Marriott rhapsodized over it:
"No savages in war paint," he said,
shall interrupt its passage ... across our
continent. No malaria, or hostile tribes nor desert
sands shall prevent the exploration of Africa. ...
Man rises superior to his accidents when for his
inventive genius he ceases to crawl upon the earth
and masters the realms of the upper air.
Marriott was ready to build the large
manned version when disaster struck his company in
the form of the 1870 stock-market crash. By the time
he died in 1884, he'd bounced back. He was then
trying to build an aeroplane. By then, a little
hand-cranked airship had finally flown in America.
Perhaps Porter and Marriott were three parts
showman to one part engineer. But we stop laughing
when we look at the first successful dirigibles. By
1900 machines of the same size and shape were doing
just what they'd claimed was possible.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kurtz, G.F., 'Navigating the Upper Strata' and the
Quest for Dirigibility. California
History, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, Winter 1978/9, pp.
Crouch, T.D., The Eagle Aloft.
Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,
1983, Chapter 11.
For more on early dirigibles and California, see
Episodes 188, 331, 349,
An unidentified photo of an early dirigible --
not much later than Marriott's
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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