Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is It Weirdsday Already?

First, I stumble across a fellow who may have flown a heavier-than-air vehicle prior to -- though less controllably -- than the Wrights. In a twist right out of a Gothic novel, there's even a secret contract between Wright descendants and the Smithsonian, promising that institution will never accord others credit for the first flight!*

After that, my wander took a turn for the strange; in the late 1800s, the American West and Midwest saw a series of airship sightings, at a time when nobody was -- openly! -- in the airship business. It is widely reported in Ufologist publications but rarely gets more than cursory coverage, as it doesn't quite fit; the vehicles are cigar-shaped, for one thing, and the technology described is (in most cases) very much of the time.

Enter the notebooks of Charles August Albert Dellschau, self-proclaimed draughtsman of the Sonora Aero Club. Found in a town dump in Texas and drawn and painted in an exuberant "outsider" style, they seem to chronicle his involvement decades before with a reclusive group of early airship pioneers in Sonora, California. Of course, there's not a shred of evidence for it outside his books....that is, none if you don't count the reported sightings. Of course there's a book out now. Merely a little Fun With History? Time-blurred recollections of actual events? Harmless lunacy? Hey, I just link to it. Kinda reminds me of my own Hidden Frontier.

Which reminds me, there'll be an update soon at I Work On A Starship.
* In fairness to both parties, the contract appears intended to address the museum's shameful partisanship for Professor Langley over the Wright Brothers, even after they had succeeded while he failed. And I should point out the Wright Brothers well-established primacy in the understanding and implementation of controlled flight, from just-barely in the original Flyer to their later designs, moderns constructions of which are highly flyable. Their (early) competitors either lack or have only rudimentary control surfaces and linkages to allow the pilot to move them; after Kitty Hawk, word got 'round: suddenly everyone had learnt how to do things...the Wright way.


reflectoscope said...

Adventure! Intrigue! Wit! Now you see why we keep coming back here.

A point of logistical interest: Where would they get enough hydrogen for an airship, given the state of industry then?


Will Brown said...

If you find this general catagory of topic interesting, you shoulf consider this book as well (assuming you haven't already - you make no mention I noticed). A reasonably well-written look at the recorded evidence and some insightful speculation as to means, but with some curious opaque spots (one example; a witness reports seeing wings extending from the sides of a blimp/dirigable "flapping like a bird" - an artful if non-technical description of wing warping as a source of motive force but a possible explanation not mentioned by the author). A number of other open questions are left so as well.

An interesting read I recommend, have you funds and shelf space to spare.

@ reflectoscope

Where would they get enough hydrogen for an airship, given the state of industry then?

If you're building an X-craft, the lack of commercial availability of some critical component of the build is resolved in the time honored fashion familiar to government contractors all/when: more money. Hydrogen is usually not a cost effective solution, but the chemistry of it's manufacture has been reasonably well worked out for several centuries now (in the Western Canon, at least).

reflectoscope said...

Will: I agree they knew how to do it, what I want to know is if there was sufficient industrial capacity to make it possible, never mind economical.


Roberta X said...

Gentlemen, gentlemen...! Given electricity, you can get hydrogen.

The trick is not so much keeping it, as it is keeping it from going up in flame.

Hot air's safer but comes with its own issues.

Given the known record of LTA flight, it is difficult to avoid speculation that a large handful of folks may have got machines in the air much earlier, even steerable vehicles capable of prolonged flight...and came to grief. We're not wired up to navigate in three dimensions and there's no walking home if something goes amiss. What's to find years later if the airship wrecks unheralded?

Will Brown said...

Not so much speculation as you seem to think, Roberta; try 1863. Given the ~35 years between the two occasions, I don't think the second in 1896/7 all that unreasonable an assertion. None of the technology required would have been original in the 1890's at least. Unique, challenging and expensive certainly, but still refinement of previous invention, I believe.

Use Jim's example of the logistics of hydrogen storage for example. Take (read: build) the equivelant of several (many?) olympic-size swimming pools. Secure several bags equivelant to those in the dirigable to the bottom of each pool, each bag's fill neck having an air-dam similar in design to that in the bottom of a modern toilet bowl. Half-fill each pool with water and pump hydrogen into each bag. Cut-off of pressure into the bag collapses the fill neck preventing any fuel/air mixture, while the covering layer of water prevents (easy) ignition of the stored gas. No supporting industry required, other than for transport of the components and the money. :)

Just because something isn't done the way we would doesn't make it un-do-able, especially for what would have been essentially a one-off effort (apparently - certainly there's no record of attempts to industrialise this effort AFAIK).

A fun discussion, thanks Roberta.