Today, a real estate developer builds an airplane. 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.
After WW-I, airplane makers set out to do what their
dirigible-building cousins had done -- to create great flying hotels. They
made some pretty wild machines. The body of the 1921 Caprioni seaplane was
a huge houseboat for a hundred people -- a triple triplane with nine wings,
eight engines, and so many struts that it looked like a wood-framed apartment
building under construction. It got sixty feet in the air, then crashed into
Later , there was Tupolev's Maxim Gorky
with a wingspan over 200 feet, eight engines, a movie theater and a radio station
on board. It collided with a small escort plane on a propaganda flight. Everyone died.
Then there was Walter George Tarrant's flying monster. Tarrant, born in England
in 1875, showed an early talent as a builder -- not of airplanes, but of houses.
He set up business at the age of twenty. Working in the tradition of the Arts
and Crafts Movement, he created an elegant thousand [exactly 964] acre housing
development in 1911 -- complete with golf course. That sort of thing is common
enough today, but it was quite daring a century ago.
WW-I found Tarrant putting women to work building prefab wooden huts for the military,
and assembling them in France. This was before Nissen and Quonset
huts were invented.
Then, late in the war, Tarrant used his construction talents to create a huge bomber,
intended to reach Berlin. He was almost surely thinking beyond war to civilian transport.
He finished his 22-ton behemoth, the Tarrant Tabor, six months after the Armistice.
Photos of the Tabor are awesome -- a wingspan greater a Boeing 707, six engines between its
three wings. A man standing on the fuselage, back against the middle wing, looks like a
The Tabor's first takeoff was going well enough while the pilots used the lower four engines.
Then they put power to the two engines below the top wing. That was a mistake. Located so
far above the Tabor's center of gravity, their turning moment nosed the plane over. Both
pilots were killed.
Tarrant went back to his distinguished career erecting gracious buildings, but his brief
flirtation with flight had been only a harbinger. Others succumbed to big-airplane fever.
Airplanes just a bit too large to manage kept appearing: the B-19, the
B-36, and ultimately the fabled Spruce Goose.
Even the airworthy ones were regularly trumped by smaller and better all-around designs.
Size is a seductress. When we first learned to make steel-framed buildings we ran them up
as high as the Empire State Building before we paused to question ourselves. Same with
airplanes: On the whole, airplanes, like buildings, have kept growing, but slowly, as we
widen the supporting technological base. All the while, we keep seeing the mad excess,
the attempt to break away from the modulated rhythm of design evolution. That's what
Tarrant tried to do. And it's what so many after him have tried to do, as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
P. Scott, The Wrong Stuff? (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2006): pp. 90-95.
For more and Tarrant and his airplane, see:
The Tarrant Tabor, (image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.