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No. 188:
An American Dirigible

Today, some thoughts on success, failure, and flying to California. 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.

Success is fun, but it's not much of a teacher. Take the dirigible: inventors began working on rigid, navigable airships just after the first manned balloon went up in 1784. Henri Giffard finally capitalized on two generations of failure when he flew his 3 HP steam-driven dirigible over Paris in 1852.

Four years before Giffard's flight -- in January, 1848 -- gold was discovered in California. The spring thaw saw everyone trying to get to the gold fields. But it was a daunting journey no matter how you went -- 2000 miles over scarcely-charted wilderness or an 18,000 mile ocean voyage around Cape Horn.

Just before gold was found, a man named Rufus Porter had flown some nice dirigible models. Now there was motivation for funding the real thing. Early in 1849 he published a pamphlet titled Aerial Navigation: The Practicality of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New York to California in Three Days.

And he was serious. The pamphlet described plans to build an 800-foot steam-powered dirigible with comfortable accommodations for 100 passengers. It would go 100 mph. That was pretty grand thinking in 1849. Still, his specs weren't far from those of the great Zeppelins that flew 80 years later. Porter went on to advertise that New York-to-California service would begin in April. He wanted a $50 down payment on a $200 fare.

He began building immediately. His first "aeroport," as he called it, was actually only 240 feet long. But it was destroyed by a tornado. Later that year, he began a 700-foot version with new backers and more support. During a showing of the almost complete dirigible, on Thanksgiving day, rowdy visitors tore the hydrogen bag. It could have been fixed, but rain got in and waterlogged the whole thing. So he started a third dirigible. A new round of technical troubles ended that one in 1854.

Porter was oh-so-close to success. All he actually flew was a series of large steam-powered models. His ideas were sound, but his dream was too large. It's as though the person who invented the boat had tried to begin with the Queen Mary.

His ideas about the internal structure of the dirigible and the partitioning of the airbag were eventually used in the successful airships. If Porter had been a better manager and money-raiser, he could well have flown first.

Failure is a teacher. Porter honed the technologies that gave us the really grand Zeppelins. And the people who did succeed were buoyed by the very magnitude of Porter's eerie, visionary, gold-driven dream.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Crouch, T.D., The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

This episode has been revised as Episode 1648.