Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Picture and a Thousand Words - A Rebuttal

Airship Cover of Scientific American
By Bill Taylor
The Star

Editor's note--The following (subsequent to the introduction to the piece in question) is my response to the author of the a fore mentioned article; the piece is "way off the mark," and is certainly not representative of historical facts--it is what I (politely) call pure "flapdoodle!"--FW

     At the tail end of the 19th century, when millions were out of work, North Americans craved airships. The fact that there weren't any did absolutely nothing to stop people from seeing them

. . . A hundred years later, as evidenced by this picture from a leading popular science weekly, what North Americans craved were airships, preferably real, but imaginary would do. The technology required for a powered, lighter-than-air vessel that could be steered and travel against the prevailing winds, was far from being perfected.

But technical journals of the time were happy to write about such craft as if they were an established, flying fact. And people all across America proved themselves capable of believing they'd seen something that wasn't there.

Mass hysteria, wish fulfillment or a desperate dream to counter desperate times make the "Great Airship of 1897" the UFO (though that term hadn't yet been coined) of its time, J.P. Chaplin wrote in his book, Rumor, Fear and the Madness of Crowds. Hundreds of thousands of people believed they'd seen ... something in the sky that was man-made, had engines and could fly . . ..
Dear Mr. Taylor,

I have to admit that I got a chuckle in reading your piece, "A picture and a thousand words"; at the same time I was a little surprised, as one would think that as a writer for "the Star" there would be some prerequisites in regards to presenting a "human interest essay” . . . like for example, some “facts.”

I was amused by the irony, as you write about, “mass hysteria,” “madness,” and a “great willingness to believe” which certainly doesn’t represent the reality of the matter nor the historical record. The piece was so far off the mark, that it gave me pause about its author in relationship to the very descriptions he was using; however in the end, giving you the benefit of the doubt, methinks you just failed to do your homework.

In your second paragraph you wrote:

“The technology required for a powered, lighter-than-air vessel that could be steered and travel against the prevailing winds, was far from being perfected.”

Just the opposite is true! There is a myriad of “Airship patents,” and related contrivances beginning in the early 1800’s. Moreover, there had been many successful test flights, as well as unsuccessful ones as early as the 1840’s; these were heavy-then-air ships, some “more like planes,” then the more popular “cigar-shaped” airships of the time. The point being, is that “actual craft” were being built and patented both in this country and Europe, and although the ideas started in the imagination of man, spurred by his desire to conquer flight, this precipitated the beginnings of man’s trek into the heavens and certainly wasn’t hallucinations as you intimate in your article.

John Stringfellow's steam powered tri-plane of "1868," flew successfully in short distances; it by the way was a tri-plane with a steam engine and is now on display at the Early Flight Gallery of the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D. C. This was but one of several he built in that time period.

Jean Marie Le Bris's "The Artificial Albatross" had a successful test flight in 1856.

Mariott's, "Avitor Hermes performed a successful test flight in Burlingame Ca. in "1869!" This, a hydrogen gas filled cigar-shaped-envelope powered by a steam engine.

Paul Haenlein performed successful test flights of his Airship in "1872"; his ship was powered by 4 cylinder "gas engine." His ship was about the same size as today's "Goodyear blimps."

Henri Giffard performed a successful test flight of his Airship in "1852;" a propeller was powered by a small steam engine.

FĂ©lix Du Temple successfully flew his steam-powered aircraft in "1857."

Solomon Andrews flew his "Aereon" over "New Jersey" in "1865!"

These are but a few samplings what took place in the 19th century in regards to man’s quest for flight, and particularly the “airship,” and or “aeroplane.” The a fore mentioned men and their respective inventions were highly publicized, and gave birth to “Aerial companies,” as they needed funding to further their ideas and contrivances. There was nothing “imaginary” about it!

In fact, the very founder of Scientific American, “Rufus Porter, “ in 1849 flew a scale model” of an airship in New York which he had been working on since the 1820’s.

In conclusion, “man’s imagination” certainly played a part in “conquering the skies,” and began much earlier then most realize, as well as more successfully then you erroneously portray in your piece; however, “the imagination” in use was “ingenuity and cunning,” not hallucination or “mass hysteria” as you’ve lead your readers to believe.

Throughout man’s history there have been those who couldn’t conceive or accept advancement in science or technology; in fact this is usually the majority, as it wasn’t prudent to go against the “status quo.” Henceforth men like “J.P. Chaplin” try to explain extraordinary events of a time in more palatable way, (although one might argue whether “mass hysteria” is “more palatable”) often times ignoring the evidence or just not doing their respective homework, as I believe is the case here.

In regards to what has become known as the “Mystery Airships of 1897,” to suggest that this was a result of “mass hysteria” is quite frankly, preposterous! This was an “international phenomenon,” which publicly began in Sacramento, Ca. in 1896. Near-by in San Francisco the local newspapers “ridiculed Sacramentans,” depicting them in caricatures coming out of opium dens, and or local taverns regarding the sightings of the airborne contrivances; the Bay Area locals treated the stories in “like manner” . . . that is until the airship flew over their towns, and homes!

This is not to say that there weren’t any “hoaxes” or misidentifications as sightings took place in different parts of the country; however, to write the multitude of events off as some sort of psychosis is nonsensical. Moreover, anyone who’s bothered to look into the matter knows there is some “wheat in the chaff.”

Frank Warren


  1. Anonymous1:08 PM

    Frank - I'm very glad you called this reporter on his condescending attitude toward the fascinating airship sightings of 1896-97. From our lofty perch here in the 21st century, it must seem easy for some to assume that our great-great-grandparents were a bunch of rubes. Seeing that they counted such luminaries as Edison and Tesla in their number, I hardly think this is the case. In fact, I would say that the average high school graduate of the 1890s was better educated and, perhaps, less prone to mass hysteria than his 2008 counterpart.


  2. Hi JX,

    Thanks for your input, and I tend to agree with you. I wrote my response in haste; however, I must admit, I was flabbergasted by Taylor's piece; the inaccuracies and innuendo was/is in my view abominable, to be polite.

    Even worse, is the fact that "little effort" was/is required to recount a more accurate picture of history as it pertains to man's early attempts at flight in the 19th century.

    Additionally, the "Great Airship Mystery" of 1896-97 was an "international" phenomenon, and to brush it off as "hysteria" or the "desire to believe" is just plain


  3. Nice rebuttal Frank. I also feel that many of those airship sightings were real sightings of early experimental airships test flown by inventors.

  4. Good Day Avinash!

    Thanks for your input. Yes, I felt Taylor's article could not go unanswered; it was a gross misrepresentation of history for the 19th century.



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