Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chapter 88: In Which I Reprint a Letter

I've started working on my story about New York in 1906 once again. It's a really freewheeling kind of tale, and I'm honestly not sure where it's going to go. Well, I know how it ends, but the getting there is hard, hence why it didn't go in the new book. The most fun part is doing research into the time period, and I've been reading old issues of the New-York Tribune on the Library of Congress site. Loving it. It really teaches you a lot about the time period, like how so many advertisements, articles, and editorials are about banks. Gilded Age, for sure. Also a Golden Age of invention. Here's a letter to the editor that I just had to share.

To the editor of the Tribune,
     Sir, I have for many years been interested in the problem of navigating the air. I know its history, and have witnessed many balloon ascensions and parachute descents. I believe inventors will in some way ultimately imitate bird flight, as they have imitated the swimming of fish. Having neither time nor money to enter the lists of experimental aeronautics, I have yet dreamed dreams, and have constructed an intellectual airship on lines of seeming simplicity and stability, which, I believe, offers better promise of success than any others before the public.
     I submit it to experimenters in the field for what it may be worth, only stipulating that he who may realize my dream "will remember Joseph."
     A balloon, dirigible or otherwise, is cumbrous and imperfectly under control. An aeroplane offers attractive possibilities as imitating a soaring bird. But no stable invention has yet been made known in that line. A properly constructed parachute dropped from a balloon drift with the wind in a graceful and not rapid descent to the earth. It is the nearest approximation to a successful aeroplane known.
     My air castle airship consists of a car, with motor and propeller suspended at the centre of gravity from a large modified parachute. The parachute should be forty or more feet in diameter, according to the weight of the car. It should be slightly concave with an air vent, about two feet across, at the top. The hande should be a sufficiently strong tube about twenty feet long. The rim of the umbrella should be stayed to the handle at its middle point. The lower half of this handle should fit into a larger tube with ball bearings at either end, so that it could revolve and not slip either way. The outer tube should be fastened to the car like a mast, and securely guyed from its upper end to the car's rim.
     The parachute handle shoud terminate in a gear connected with the propeller shaft. The parachute could thus be revolved.
     Another essential feature of the parachute is to build it on lines of a modified windmill or propeller. I would have the circumference a light but rigid ring a foot or so high. Then I would run stout wires from the hub to both the upper and lower edges of the tire, just the reverse of a bicycle wheel. The cover I would put on in this way: Start with an upper spoke and carry the material to the lower spoke 120 degrees to the right. Then begin again with the upper spoke 60 degrees to the first one, and carry that to 180 degrees from the start, and so on round the circle. This will give a six-leaf, flat propeller, with greatly overlapping blades.
     The action of this ship when properly rigged would seem to be as follows: In ascending start from a state of rest by revolving the parachute propeller alone, and pulling the ship into the air. Having attained a suitable height, couple on the propeller proper and with it and the rudder go where you please. Either disconnect the motor from the parachute and use it simply as an aeroplane, or reduce its revolutions to a point where the ship would maintain a given altitude.
     The descent would be accomplished either by using the upper propeller simply as a parachute, applying a brake to resist any tendency of the propeller to revolve by the outrush of air, or by using the motor to retard the fall to the gentleness of a bird alighting.
     If the parachute were covered with canvas, because of the overlapping of its sections, it would probably act as a sufficient safeguard, should the motor break down, then land the operator without accident.
     The application of the clutches and speeds of the modern automobile should solve the minutiae of working the two propellers in varying combination. The weight of the car well below the parachute would prevent the possibility of turning turtle in any gale.
     On lines something like these, aerial navigation, I believe is possible, is feasible.
     Having pictured my air castle, I shall be glad to aid further any one inclined to experiment on these lines.
Charles L. Newbold
Manhasset, Long Island, Nov. 10, 1906.

First off, I can say the mental image I had while reading his description looked nothing like any airplane I've ever seen in this world. I was envisioning some kind of steampunk air balloon while reading this. Such a wonderful letter. I don't know if Mr. Newbold ever got his idea for an "air castle airship" off the ground (no pun intended), but this letter just brims with passion. We take it for granted that we can fly above the clouds, sitting in a chair and reading magazines. A hundred and six years ago, it was the stuff of marvel tales. The sky was an undiscovered country like the ocean once was. Faced with such a lofty goal, it makes sense that he would refer to his plane as a "castle," and that the description sounds so fantastical. Look at his language, "I have yet dreamed dreams," "the gentleness of a bird alighting."

He is not thinking "I want to take my shoes off to get through security, take some Valium and snore into my own shoulder for five hours." He's thinking, "I want to see the world as a bird sees it." That was how they viewed flight back then. I love it. Men like Mr. Newbold paved the way for the Wright Brothers, no doubt. Every failure was a step closer to success.

I wasn't looking for anything on aeronautics when I was reading the Tribune article. I just chanced upon it. It's always nice to be reminded that we didn't always have the amazing things we have now. It all started with somebody staring at the impossible--and taking that leap.

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