Above and Beyond: The Oldest Powered Flying Machine?
- By Tom D. Crouch
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
Jim Baker/Ohio Historical Society
(Page 2 of 2)
And what would the Aerial Steamboat have looked like? The articles several times refer to the craft as a model, and one weighing only 60 pounds sounds too light to carry an adult into the air. Moreover, in his article of October 22, 1834, Mason says only that he will cause his “machine to ascend beyond the surface of the earth to an elevation of, say 100 feet.” It seems clear that the machine was meant to demonstrate the basic principle, and that a later and larger craft would carry the inventor to higher altitudes.
Oddly, the best clue regarding its appearance was published nine years later, in 1843, by the great English aeronautical experimenter Sir George Cayley, who proposed an “aerial carriage” with the essential features of Mr. Mason’s craft. Cayley’s design featured four vertical spindles on each side of a boat-shaped hull, extending fore and aft, each supporting a fan-shaped rotary wing of exactly the sort the Cincinnati inventor described. Perhaps this configuration was something that naturally occurred to two very different men separated by an ocean and nine years’ time. Or could word of Mason’s craft have made its way across the Atlantic to inspire Sir George?
Of course there are no photographs of Mason’s craft. When I first discovered the strange case of the Aerial Steamboat, I was the Chief of Education for the Ohio Historical Society and wrote a short article for the society’s newsletter, Echoes, that was illustrated by Jim Baker, a Columbus cartoonist who produced newspaper comic strips and illustrated comic books on Ohio history. Last year my colleague Greg Bryant, a National Air and Space Museum registrar, produced an Aerial Steamboat model based on Jim Baker’s vision. While both the drawing and the model show the boat hull sheathed in wood, rather than covered in silk, and with a forward propulsion system not described in the newspapers, my guess is that Mr. Mason would recognize the craft depicted.
And now the most important question: Who cares about any of this? Well, I do. If we are to believe the articles published in the Cincinnati papers, and there seems no reason to doubt them, then Albert Mason, or Masson, was the first person in history to produce a heavier-than-air craft, powered by a prime mover, that was actually intended to fly.
The problem is, I don’t know any more about this fellow than I did when I first ran across his name 40 years ago. The point of this story is not simply to introduce readers of Air & Space to an interesting if somewhat arcane bit of aeronautical trivia, but also to spread the word in the hope that someone can help me discover a bit more about this long-lost aerial dreamer.
Tom D. Crouch is a curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum.