Today, let's take a chance. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I dropped into a used book
store in the little town of Tillamook, Oregon. I
told them about The Engines of Our
Ingenuity and asked if they had any offbeat
material in a dusty corner. "We don't have much
here," they said, "but you should take a look in
that big hangar just south of town." So I did.
"That big hangar" was an old WW-II garage for
anti-submarine blimps. It was a quarter mile long.
In it men were were building a machine that might
have drifted in from outer space. It was called a
CycloCrane -- a great floating crane, half airship,
half helicopter. Its body was a fat blimp that
rotated on a central shaft. Four adjustable
airfoils, each shaped like the letter T, reached
radially outward from its midsection -- up, down,
left, and right. At the end of each was a
The weight and buoyancy of a normal blimp have to
be balanced. You can't suddenly add a big load. But
those rotating airfoils not only let the CycloCrane
navigate and hover in one spot; they also overcome
its huge buoyancy before it's loaded.
The CycloCrane is meant to fly into position, grasp
as much as 35 tons of cargo, and then reverse the
aerodynamic forces so they double the buoyancy.
It's meant to take logs out of remote forests, to
work on large construction sites, and generally to
duplicate the functions of both a helicopter and a
crane. It should be simpler and cheaper to run than
a helicopter, and it will carry more load.
It all makes sense, but it's radical. Naturally,
the work has been plagued with design problems. The
company that developed it is in financial trouble.
Beyond that, investors never have liked new
technology. They want their money safe.
Yet stumbling across this new machine in the Oregon
woods was pure delight. There was the old
risk-taking, inventive dream that made America. I
was granted a glimpse of the self-expressive beauty
of a new idea -- and a good one -- riding somewhere
beyond the reach of balance sheets.
It was like stepping into Boulton's lab in 1765, or
looking at Carlson's first Xerox machine, or
visiting Babbage in the shop that built his
Analytical Engine. For technology to flourish,
someone has to put his neck on the line. How many
times have you seen America undertaking such risky
business in your lifetime?
The CycloCrane's company might survive. It might
fail. But I was deeply touched to find people still
willing to gamble on the fruits of their inventive
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Photo of the Cyclocrane in flight, courtesy of the
Tillamook Air Museum
Besides looking over the actual CycloCrane, I used
literature available in the offices of
to develop this episode. The inventors
of the CycloCrane were Arthur J. Crimmins and Donald
J. Doolittle and the CycloCrane engineering office
was, at the time, in California:
4105 Blimp Blvd.
Tillamook, Oregon 97141
FAX (503) 842-8897
17316 Edwards Road
Cerritos, California 90701
FAX (213) 802-8169
Since then, the project did fail, and "that big
hanger just south of town" has been converted into
a museum of which the CycloCrane now forms a major
US satellite photo of the Air Museum
which now displays the Cyclocrane
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.