Transcontinental Airline, 1849
The Golden Spike was still two decades away when Ruins Porter promised a three-day trip from New York to San Francisco—by air
In December 1848 President James K. Polk told America in his State of the Union address that the persistent reports of gold in California were true. Within days Eastern cities were rocking and humming with a feverish mania unequaled before or since. Companies of eager young men pooled their funds and bought sailing ships for the long voyage around Cape Horn to the golden shore; others consulted hastily published guidebooks to find the best overland route to the mines; ministers assailed the sinful greed afflicting their flocks, then quietly booked passage for California; merchants leaped into print with ads for “Whitney’s California Rifle” and a “California daguerreotype” that forty-niners could leave behind with their folks and a surefire beacon to wealth called “Bruce’s Hydro-Centrifugal Chrysolite or California Gold-Finder.” The gold rush, and the gold-rush hustle, had commenced.
Overnight the prevailing atmosphere of Yankee skepticism was replaced by a gaping willingness to swallow any scheme, however preposterous, if it promised a quicker trip to the gold fields or a bigger haul for the would-be miner. It was the perfect ambiance for a genius or a hustler, and thus ideal for a fifty-six-year-old inventor-artist-journalist-promoter named Rufus Porter, who was both.
Porter’s handbills appeared on New York City streets in March 1849. “ AIR LINE TO CALIFORNIA ,” they said. “The Æriel Locomotive will leave the city positively on the 15th of April, on its first trip to the Gold Mines. Passage $50; wines included. Baggage extra.” Porter claimed that his “Æriel Locomotive,” a steam-powered, 800-foot-long craft, could transport up to a hundred passengers from New York to California in three days at sixty to one hundred miles per hour. The only hitch was that it wasn’t built yet.
The promoter detailed the mechanics of his revolutionary invention in a sixteen-page promotional pamphlet. The airship would have a frame of twenty-four curved spruce rods covered with rubber-coated cloth and filled with hydrogen gas. A 180-foot-long passenger compartment and engine room, containing two steam engines, would hang below the ship on wires. The engines would provide power to turn two propellers mounted atop the compartment, or saloon. To steer it, a helmsman would pull a cord attached by pulley to a 20-foot rudder at the tail. An elevator built into the compartment floor would facilitate loading and unloading; the hydrogen would be confined in a system of separate airtight compartments, preventing an abrupt plunge should one of them spring a leak.
Porter grew rhapsodic in describing the possibilities of powered flight. He foresaw passengers “leisurely cruizing along by the steep and rugged sides of the Rocky Mountains and laughing at the astonished countenance of the harmless grizzly bear, or at the agility of the frightened antelope.” Others might glide ten feet above the grain fields of New England and then pop down to New York City for dinner.
The projected ship was quite similar to the modern rigid airship, with its multiple gas compartments enclosed in a framework. It was sound in its basic principles, although Porter considerably exaggerated its speed and carrying capacity. It might even have flown. But like many geniuses, Porter was too far ahead of his contemporaries to prosper. Only two hundred of them bought tickets, and the vehicle was never built. Scientific American expressed most people’s skepticism: “Just think of it—to see a vessel 800 ft. long flying thro’ the firmament to California, or to England. … We intend to put down our name for the second trip.” The irony was that Porter himself had founded Scientific American four years earlier.
Porter’s flirtation with powered flight was one of dozens of similar episodes in a career of extraordinary creativity and persistent obscurity. Porter almost willed his own anonymity: he was a brilliant and original painter who rarely signed his work and a prolific inventor who often sold his inventions without patenting them. The unifying threads in his life were spontaneity and mobility; he made it up as he went along, and he never stopped moving. He was a nineteenth-century Renaissance man—at one time or another a successful musician, painter, writer, mechanic, and inventor. He could fix a clock or design a plow, write a sonnet or an essay, paint a barn or a portrait.
Rufus Porter was born in West Boxford, Massachusetts, in 1792. He grew up in Massachusetts and Maine, finishing his formal education at the age of twelve. A few years later he was supporting himself playing the fife, drum, and fiddle and painting houses, boats, and signs. After serving briefly in a Maine militia unit during the War of 1812, he billed himself as “Professor Porter” and opened a dancing school. By twenty-four he had turned to portrait painting, with time out for a two-year cruise to Hawaii on a merchant ship. In 1819, when he was twenty-seven, he became a full-time itinerant, walking up and down the East Coast with a gaily decorated cart, painting portraits. Characteristically, he devised a way to speed up the artistic process. He invented a camera obscura, which projected the features of his subject onto a sheet of paper. He could then trace the outline, fill in the details, and produce a decent portrait in fifteen minutes.
He next became a landscape painter and muralist. This calling set a record for holding his attention; he stayed with it, sporadically of course, for about twenty years. His lifestyle remained peripatetic. He traveled from one New England town to another, stopping to paint the walls of a house or tavern, returning now and then to his family, in Billerica, Massachusetts. Porter’s wife, the former Eunice Twombley of Portland, Maine, must have been quite fond of him despite his wanderings; they had ten children.
Porter’s career as a painter was interrupted by frequent seizures of inventiveness. Without warning he would stash his brushes and go to work on some mechanical project he had been thinking about. The list of Porter’s inventions, some of them actually built and some only planned, includes a “revolving almanac,” or perpetual calendar, a horsepowered flatboat, a churn, a corn sheller, a cord-making machine, a clock, a steam carriage, a reaction wind wheel, a fog whistle, a cam-lever vise, an engine lathe, a balanced valve, a signal telegraph, a “thermo engine,” and a rotary engine.
Often he would construct a device, promptly sell it for the best price he could get, and then forget about it. He was also given to impulsive trips; he once took a stage to Philadelphia without his painting equipment, ran out of money, and earned his way back to New York cutting silhouette portraits out of paper. Perhaps Porter distinguished himself most as a muralist. Jean Lipman, an art editor who resurrected his buried reputation in a 1968 biography, called him “the most noteworthy mural painter in the history of American art.”
By the 1840s, though, Porter’s attention was straying again. He hankered for an audience for his ideas on mechanics, art, and even religion. In 1840 he became editor of a scientific magazine called The New York Mechanic . In 1842 he moved its offices to Boston and renamed it The American Mechanic , but by the end of the year Porter, true to form, had turned to other pursuits, and it soon ceased publication. In 1845 he tried again with Scientific American .
The weekly was primarily a showcase for Porter’s remarkably versatile mind and talents. He offered schematic drawings of his inventions, including a steam-powered automobile and a workable elevated railroad. He published a series of articles on how to paint and another on how to do dozens of practical things; one note explained “how to get a ring off your finger.” He wrote undistinguished poetry, made some rather leaden attempts at humor, and relayed assorted intelligence he had gathered from sources unknown. “Italy contains 30,000 professional musicians, 2,600 comic artists, 1,000 public dancers, 570 musical and 300 dancing operas,” one such item reported. “What a merry country it must be.” Then once again journalism lost its bloom, and in July 1846 Porter sold the paper (though he remained listed as editor for another ten months). He started yet another journal, The Scientific Mechanic , in 1847, but by the following spring it had failed.
Porter was now free to concentrate on the inventions that were forever bubbling up out of his imagination. (He once estimated their number at “upwards of one hundred.”) He developed a rifle with a revolving cylinder, the precursor of the revolver, and sold it to Samuel Colt of Hartford, Connecticut, for one hundred dollars. The sight of his wife working at a scrubbing board led him to design a washing machine. A dozen or more of his creations exist in some form today: the rotary plow, a trip hammer, an ice maker, a municipal fire-alarm system, a sewing machine.
But none of his ideas made him rich, or even comfortable for very long. His son described him as “improvident.” Lipman said that financial shrewdness was the one Yankee trait he lacked. Material comfort didn’t interest him; he changed home base often, moving from Massachusetts to Connecticut to Washington, D.C., to New York and back to Connecticut. Porter was an idea man, self-contained and selfmotivating. He had the impulses of a promoter but lacked the necessary skills. His promotions were long on scientific detail and short on salesmanship. He could have used an agent.
The idea for an aerial locomotive had first occurred to Porter in 1820, when he was an itinerant portrait artist. He said later that he was inspired by the notion of liberating Napoleon from captivity on the island of St. Helena. He built his first model in 1833 and published the airship’s specifications the next year. He offered to split the patent claims with anyone who would back him, but there were no takers. In 1841 he tried again; this time he said he would settle for 10 percent if someone would come up with the money to build it. Again nothing happened. By 1845, when he featured the airship in an early edition of Scientific American , he was beginning to run into hostility. The reaction to his latest invitation to investors was so unfavorable that it threatened to capsize the paper. He built and exhibited two more models in 1847, to even further public apathy. Then came the gold rush.
The forty-niners, alas for progress, chose to stick with the three options they already had for travel to California: the long sea voyage around the Horn, the arduous overland trek by wagon, and the harsh journey via Panama, where they crossed the inhospitable isthmus by mule and canoe. Except for the two hundred ticket buyers, they shunned the opportunity Porter offered to expand their horizons as well as his. The scheme quietly faded.
Porter was back a few years later, displaying a working model in Boston, New York, and Washington and finally eliciting some of the interest he sought. Children were let out of school to see his exhibit in the capital. The newspapers at last were paying attention. The model flew “like a thing instinct with life,” the New York True Sun exclaimed, adding that it drew repeated bursts of applause. The Washington Evening Star observed that people had dreamed of flight for centuries, but “never prior to the introduction of Mr. Porter’s model aéroport [i.e., airship], has anything appeared upon which creeping humanity could base a rational anticipation of the long desired art.” The reviews were not all raves, however. “We have heard of nothing more ridiculous,” snorted the Philadelphia Bulletin , “since a theater was once filled, on the other side of the Atlantic, to see a man get into a pewter pot.”
Porter formed a stock company in 1852 and succeeded in selling some six hundred shares at five dollars each. With the proceeds he was finally, after more than thirty years of trying, able to build his flying machine. He set up shop on a field in Washington and constructed a 160-foot-long vessel 16 feet in diameter, covering it with varnished linen. He built a 60-foot-long passenger saloon complete with seats and glass windows. He installed the engines, mounted the propellers, and fastened the rudder in place. All that remained was to inflate it with hydrogen and take a test flight. Then catastrophe struck.
Porter discovered that the varnish had so weakened the linen shell that it was beginning to disintegrate. Before he could repair it, vandals slashed the craft’s skin. The next day a violent storm ripped the vessel and damaged the framework. There wasn’t enough money to start again, and with winter approaching, the sixty-year-old Porter was left to stare at the tatters of his dream.
Unknown to Porter, a Frenchman named Henri Giffard completed and successfully tested a steam-powered airship in that same year of 1852. The first American-built dirigible did not fly until 1904. Porter went back to his tinkerer’s bench; he invented a punch machine and a fog whistle in 1856, a prefabricated portable house (which would certainly have come in handy for someone of Porter’s peripatetic bent) in 1857, and an air pump in 1863. He devoted his time increasingly to religious writing. In 1869, confident as ever, he remarked casually that he would have no problem building an airship capable of carrying five hundred passengers to Europe in three days or less. He didn’t discuss the financing.
Rufus Porter died in 1884, at the age of ninety-two, while visiting his son in New Haven, Connecticut. No one paid much attention to his passing; the New Haven Register noted the funeral with a nine-line story under the heading FEW PRESENT . Porter himself no doubt would have appreciated the epitaph printed in his own creation, Scientific American : “So long as he was at liberty to do whatever happened to come into his head, he was perfectly happy.” Most of us would settle for that.