Engines of Our Ingenuity
No. 1308:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1308.

Today, a Texas immigrant dreams and draws flight. 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.

In 1850 Charles Dellschau immigrated from Prussia to Galveston, Texas. By the time the Civil War started he'd married a widow with a young daughter and was working as a butcher in Fort Bend County, near Houston. Other than service in the Confederate Army, he lived an unremarkable life. He had two more children of his own. His stepdaughter married the noted saddle-maker Stelzig.

Then, in 1877, disaster struck 47-year-old Dellschau. In rapid succession his wife, then his six-year-old son, died. Dellschau moved into Houston to work for Stelzig as a clerk. Here he stayed until 1923 when he died at the age of 93.

That would've been that, if it hadn't been for Dellschau's secret hobby. Somewhere along the way, maybe after he retired in 1900, he began drawing great airships. Lynne Adele, of the Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas, tells his story in the catalog of a traveling exhibit of self-taught Texas artists.

She also shows us his gorgeous, detailed, and annotated mixed-media images of heroic flying machines -- Barnum and Bailey, Buck Rogers and Jules Verne all stirred together -- mazes of exotic detail, circus-tent gas-bags, bicycle wheels, belts and pulleys -- crazily painted pods shaped like the space shuttle boosters. Each fantastic vehicle has its own name -- Aero Mio, Aero Doobely, and Aerocita. So much hope and feeling radiates from each picture!

Twelve of Dellschau's scrapbooks surfaced in a junkyard in 1967, forty years after his death. From there they found their way into art museums. Then people began deciphering the coded writings he'd left with the pictures. And a strange story emerged.

Dellschau had, it seems, belonged to a secret society that'd formed in the California gold-rush region around 1850 -- the Sonora Aero Club. One member was supposed to've known how to distill a green crystal called Supe from coal. Add water to Supe and you generate a gas that negates gravity. Of course, when that member of the Aero Club died, the recipe for making Supe died with him.

But Dellschau's pictures kept pouring forth. Twelve notebooks survived, and Dellschau's numbering system suggests that twenty more have been lost. By now, UFO people have adopted Dellschau's pictures. Some think that mysterious sightings around Oakland, California, in the 1890s were actually airships built by the Sonora Aero Club and carried aloft by Supe.

I'm afraid I see both less, and much more, in Dellschau's wild drawings. Flight was in the air in 1890, all right. We were just beginning to feel hope for the deep-seated atavistic craving of our species. The Wright Brothers were only two of a great company -- some drunk with dreams, others cold sober in their purpose -- who fullfiled that craving. Dellschau's imaginings are tame alongside the machinery which, by now, we've actually levitated into the sky.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Adele. L., Charles Dellschau, 1830-1923. Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth-Century, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, pp. 40-47.

I'm grateful to Susana Monteverde of the UH Blaffer Gallery, who recommended Dellschau for an episode and provided me with an early copy of Adele's catalog. The exhibit is scheduled (at this writing) to appear in the University of Houston's Sara Campbell Blaffer Gallery between August 21 and October 11, 1998.

Image from the Adele source above, property of the Menil Collection, Houston

Charles Dellschau

To view Dellschau's airship Aero Mio,
click on the thumbnail below

Image from the Adele source, property of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, TX

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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