Rufus Porter
1792 - 1884

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Rufus Porter


Rufus Porter was someone with deep interests in many subjects. He was at turns an artist, a painter of murals and landscapes, a portraitist, founder of the Scientific American magazine, an inventor of rotary engines, windmills, churns, washing machines, railroad signals, clocks, labor-saving devices for farm workers, a revolving rifle (which led Samuel Colt to produce the revolver hand gun), and a schoolmaster, among other activities. However, it is his interest in aerial ships which is of concern here.

Aerial Navigation booklet - 1849

Cover Of The 1935 Reprint Of Rufus Porter's Pamphlet Of 1849

Porter's interest in aerial navigation dates from sometime around the 1820's, when he began to ponder the design requirements for an aerial ship. His booklet "AERIAL NAVIGATION - The Practicability Of Traveling Pleasantly And Safely From New-York To California In Three Days," published in 1849, set out his design in considerable detail. His AERIAL LOCOMOTIVE, with a hydrogen-filled compartmented gas "spindle" 800 feet in length and 50 feet in diameter, was to carry between 50 and 100 people at a speed of 60 to 100 m.p.h. The great machine was to be remain aloft for 12 hours at a time, propelled by two steam engines driving two "fan wheels or propellers" each of which would be 20 feet in diameter and revolve at 200 r.p.m. He estimated that the machine would weigh a total of some 14,000 pounds and would generate a total buoyant lift of 56,000 pounds, leaving 42,000 pounds for 200 passengers and luggage. Passengers were to be assured that they were in little danger, and each was to be provided with a parachute to further allay any fears. The gas-filled spindle would be constructed of a spruce framework covered with cloth and coated with "India rubber." Porter believed that by revolving the spindle the resistance of the spindle through air would be reduced markedly; he thus termed his gas-filled spindle a "revoloidal spindle."

The Aerial Transport

Advertisement For Rufus Porter's Aerial Transport
New York To California In Three Days - 1849

Rufus Porter gave public demonstrations of a model clockwork-powered version of his Aerial Locomotive on a number of occasions in New York during the winter of 1848-1849, and at which his booklet "AERIAL NAVIGATION" was sold. Most, if not all, of these demonstrations took place indoors, at Tabernacle Church, a large domed building with a large and open interior. Porter's small, cigar-shaped, hydrogen-filled, clockwork-powered aerial ship would be released by him from the high pulpit and its two propellers would send it moving ahead, while its rudder was set to ensure it would move in a large circle. Around it went and then back to the starting point. His lectures and demonstrations were well attended, and the paying crowds were both amazed and enthused, but Eastern newspapers were, by and large, skeptical of Porter's announced plans for the 800 foot long AERIAL LOCOMOTIVE. It must be beyond question that Rufus Porter actually intended to build the flying machine, for he was an inventor with a long series of practical inventions to his credit. He was not merely a dreamer, and though he was an artist he had amply demonstrated that he could be practical and 'down-to-earth' even while contemplating aerial transport. The fact that no record exists of construction beginning does not mean that it did not. We have his word that he believed that one could have been operating as early as April of 1849, had he raised sufficient funds to begin construction. Of course, Rufus Porter's AERIAL LOCOMOTIVE never ran the rails in the sky to Sacramento, and never set its passengers down at the gateway to the gold fields with its onboard elevator, but it was, all in all, a well thought out plan (even though it had a couple of real design problems), and it's too bad that Rufus Porter was not able to see this one of his inventions come into use.

Porter's AERIAL LOCOMOTIVE was popularized in a Currier (Mr. Ives was not yet with Mr. Currier) print from 1849. The AERIAL LOCOMOTIVE can be seen in the upper left corner of the humorous print, which was known as a "burlesque" print. The connection between humor and Porter's flying machine has left a legacy which has caused many to disbelieve Rufus Porter's honest intentions to actually build the machine. It ought to be apparent that Porter was not one to take such matters lightly or in humor, even if others were all too willing to do so.

Currier Print - 1849

N. Currier Print "The Way They Go To California" - 1849


Link to an informative web site about Rufus Porter

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