Today, America finally manages to fly a dirigible.
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.
America lagged far behind
Europe in inventing the dirigible. Our early
airship attempts were concentrated in our still
primitive West. The dream of flight fitted the
restless migrant mind, but it foundered in the
roughhewn technology of a new land. In other
episodes we talk about failed efforts to fly
dirigibles between California and New York. Yet, in
the end, our first successful dirigible flights
actually were made in San Francisco.
Two dirigibles compete for priority. The first was
Dr. August Greth's California Eagle.
Greth came to America from Europe with some
knowledge of early French airships. He formed a
company to build a dirigible in San Francisco in
It took him six years to build the California
Eagle -- an 80-foot hydrogen-filled sausage.
Its two propellers were driven by an early 12 HP
automobile engine. The engine weighed 500 pounds.
He first sent his dirigible up over Market Street
on a tether cable at summer's end in 1903. He was
ready for free flight in October -- 2 months before
the Wright Brothers flew.
He buoyed 2000 feet into a gray morning sky and
flew about the city. Then the sun burned away the
overcast and began to heat the gas bag. While he
struggled to maintain altitude by venting hydrogen,
his motor died. He finally ditched safely into the
cold waters of San Francisco Bay.
A year later a daredevil named Scott Baldwin
entered the scene. Baldwin was an exhibition
balloonist. In 1887 he'd parachuted from a balloon
over Golden Gate Park on a deal that paid him a
dollar a foot for his leap. He collected $3000.
He built a lighter dirigible than Greth had.
Powered by a motorcycle engine with one propeller,
it was not only smaller but less sophisticated as
well. He called it the California
Arrow, and it first took to the air over
Oakland, California -- 9 months after Greth's
flight and 7 months after the Wright Brothers'.
Baldwin's flight was modest. He climbed only 500
feet. But it was an unvarnished success. He
repeated it two days later and then took his
airship off to win prizes at the St. Louis Fair. He
finally sold the machine to the German Imperial
I'd give the crown to Greth, even if he did land in
the Bay. Beyond being first, he'd produced the more
innovative and controllable airship. Baldwin had to
walk back and forth along the length of his
dirigible to control its pitch. Baldwin's edge over
Greth lay in his access to a better, lighter
engine. With the new internal combustion engines in
hand, all kinds of people were suddenly able to do
what had so recently seemed impossible.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds