A few weeks back, @TroveAirBot found a short article from the Port Lincoln, Tumby and West Coast Recorder entitled 'Dropped From the Clouds':

A balloon which ascended from the Welsh Harp, Hendon, on October 14 [1904], carried with it into the clouds a large flying machine.
As no one was in the car of the balloon or in the flying machine, the experiment was conducted with a minimum of danger.
No such untoward incident occurred, however, and the experiment, which is the first of a series being carried ont by Messrs Spencer Bros, in order to test the powers of Senor Alvares's aeroplane, was conducted with marked success.
The balloon, inflated with 25,000 cubic feet of coal gas, carried the aeroplane to a height of 3,000 feet. At that altitude the machine was automatically liberated. Three thousand feet below a little group of experts watched its movements.
Carrying the weight representing that of an average man, the airship made its way earthwards. At first it plunged rather excitedly towards the watching scientists, bat then, recovering itself, it proceeded steadily in a horizontal direction for a considerable distance. The propellers revolved rapidly, and the machine kept its balance in a manner which augured well for the success of the experiments which are to be made later with a man on board instead of a dead weight.
After travelling at a high speed over the country for a mile or so, the airship came to earth in an open meadow, where it was at once recovered quite uninjured.((Port Lincoln, Tumby and West Coast Recorder, 17 March 1905, 7.))

This caught my eye. It's not unusual (especially on this blog) to find aviation activity at Hendon, the most famous aerodrome in Britain before 1914 and home of the RAF's aerial theatre for most of the 1920s and 1930s. But it is unusual to find any this early: this was in 1904, which is five years before there was actually an aerodrome at Hendon, and for that matter less than a year after the Wrights' first powered flight.

There was, in fact, aviation at Hendon before the aerodrome: in particular, in 1908 H. P. Martin and G. H. Handasyde (as in Martinsyde) built an unsuccessful monoplane 'in the unused ballroom of the Old Welsh Harp public house at Hendon', while Everett, Edgecumbe & Co., a Hendon instrument firm, built another, even less successful, one on the site of the future aerodrome. (Local lad C. R. Fairey -- as in Fairey -- got his start in aviation on that one.)((David Oliver, Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1994), 7.)) But according to David Oliver, author of the best history of the Hendon aerodrome, Martin-Handasyde and Everett, Edgecumbe represent the beginning of heavier-than-air flight there. He doesn't mention this 1904 unpiloted flight by Señor Alvares's flying machine; nor does Charles Gibbs-Smith, the authority on early aviation.((Ibid; Charles H. Gibbs-Smith, Aviation: An Historical Survey from Its Origins to the End of World War II (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1985).))

Of course, neither Oliver nor Gibbs-Smith had access to digitised newspaper archives, so they can hardly be blamed for missing one particular obscure flight. But nobody else seems to know about it either, or at least some desultory googling throw up nothing about it. This made me curious to see if I could find anything more about this mysterious aeroplane or its mysterious inventor. I managed to find one, but not the other -- as I will discuss in the next post.

Truth was a British political newspaper first published in 1877, founded by Henry Labouchère, a sometime Liberal MP. By the 1930s it was infamous as a scurrilous and often libellous pro-appeasement and often anti-semitic rag; in the Edwardian period it was still Liberal in inclination. At the end of May 1909 it issued no. 1581 of its many reader 'puzzles' on the topic of the recent phantom airship panic -- actually a satirical poetry competition:

One of the most engrossing topics of the past week has been the nocturnal manoeuvrings of the mysterious, but now happily exploded, German airship -- or, as it has been happily christened, 'Scare ship' -- which has been so vigorously exploited by a certain class of imaginative journalists that any number of people's legs seem to have been effectively pulled thereby. The topic is certainly one that lends itself to humorous treatment in verse, and I now present it to my numerous poets to see what they can make of it. That is to say, I offer herewith the usual Prize of Two Guineas for THE BEST ORIGINAL POEM, OF A HUMOROUS, BURLESQUE, OR MOCK-HEROIC CHARACTER, DEALING WITH THE MYSTERIOUS GERMAN BOGEY-AIRSHIP WHICH CAUSED SUCH A PANIC, LAST WEEK, IN THE BOSOMS OF OUR NERVOUS PATRIOTS.1

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  1. Truth (London), 26 May 1909, 1301. []


Last year I tried to run to ground the phrase 'England is no longer an island', usually said to be uttered by Lord Northcliffe in 1906 after hearing of an early Santos-Dumont flight.1 But the earliest source I could find which claimed that Northcliffe said it dated to 1922, it only became common in an aviation context after Blériot's cross-channel flight in 1909, and it was anyway used in non-aviation contexts as early as 1846, positively as well as negatively. So I suggested that Northcliffe took a phrase that had been bouncing around in the British public sphere for decades and applied it to the coming of flight. But even so, there's no contemporary evidence that he was the first to do so, or even that he ever did so publicly or influentially. As he was a powerful press baron with a deep interest in aviation it just seems plausible that he must be the origin.
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  1. Based on the accounts of two biographies, one of Northcliffe and one of his aviation correspondent Harry Harper; but the details differ slightly, suggesting they are drawing on different sources. []

NHS Spitfire

Exactly six months ago today, I posted about some aerial theatre in the time of coronavirus. That was the first time I mentioned the pandemic on Airminded, and it is, of course, still here (Victoria is -- hopefully -- nearing the end of its second wave, with 42 new cases reported today, down from a peak of 686 on 4 August, and a total of 737 deaths), but so is the aerial theatre. The Aircraft Restoration Company's NHS Spitfire Project evolved out of the Clap For Our Carers social media movement to support NHS health workers. That ended back in May, but the NHS Spitfire is still flying around the UK (and is still looking for sponsors).
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In May 1911, two policemen were sent out from Yamba, a logging town at the mouth of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales, to investigate something odd which had been found on 'top of a sandhill near Ryan's waterhole, about six miles [away] and about 400 yards in from the beach':

a rudely-constructed aeroplane, 30 feet in length and 4 feet wide, with a wing on one side about 2 feet wide. Extending the full length in the middle was a sort of platform with a seat roughly fixed with fencing wire and padded with old bagging. Scores of fine wires were fixed to the platform and extending to all parts of the structure. There were two keels braced together with split bamboo rods, every six inches, like the timbers in a boat. Every joint was securely and neatly capped with fine wire. Only two nails were used in the whole construction [...] The most peculiar thing about the craft was
that it could be plainly seen that the only tool used in preparing the timber had been a knife [...] The whole floor of the structure was covered with newspapers pasted together, forming a very thick pad.1

None of the newspapers was dated later than 3 May 1911, and the aeroplane 'appeared to have been only a short period of time at the spot where it was discovered, as the papers were quite fresh and not discoloured'.2 Another odd detail was

that from low water mark on the beach near the sea is a deep and narrow track from the water's edge up the steep sandhill to where the airship was lying, appearing as if something from the sea had been dragged up to the spot where the structure was lying.3

One report suggested that 'the plane had evidently been damaged, since one of the flaps had been damaged', though here 'plane' should be taken to mean 'wing' rather than 'aeroplane'.4 Since 'There is no trace of any engine about', it was surmised that the machine was a glider:

The builder had evidently taken an aeroplane for a model, and attempted to construct a single plane, which would allow him to float with tbe wind from the top of one of the sand hills of the Terrace.3

But who was this mysterious builder? Suspicion quickly fell on 'an elderly man [...] a stranger to Yamba, who bought stores and papers a few times from local people' and who 'has since disappeared'.3 Within a few days of the initial story, it was being regarded locally as 'a hoax'.5 That can't be ruled out, though the possible motivation (other than sheer perversity) of leaving a fake aeroplane for somebody to stumble across is unclear.
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  1. Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55. This is a fairly close (and much easier to read) paraphrase of the original story in Evening News (Sydney), 13 May 1911, 5, 8. []
  2. Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55. []
  3. Ibid. [] [] []
  4. The Age (Melbourne), 15 May 1911, 6. []
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1911, 9. []


Wide World Magazine, April 1909

The 'flight' -- The machine reached the edge of the slope, shot out a few yards into the air with the impetus it had acquired, and then dropped with a crash onto the rocks.1

I am very nearly done with N. R. Gordon, who built at least five completely unsuccessful flying machines over a period of several decades, from well before Kitty Hawk to after the First World War, when how to fly was pretty much a solved problem. But a post at the Aerodrome alerted me to the existence of some further photographs of his first and most ambitious attempt, before a large holiday crowd at Chowder Bay on Boxing Day 1894. The most remarkable is the one above, which shows Gordon's oddly sinuous machine just at the moment of being launched over the precipice. In the background there are many small boats out on the bay, and in the foreground eight or nine people with their backs to the camera, watching the flying machine. All the accounts frame the trial as a failure -- or worse, as I'll come to -- but at this very instant the possibility of success was still there. Did these spectators believe, or hope, that they were witnessing the beginning of the conquest of the air?
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  1. J. S. Boot, 'The Sydney "flying machine"', Wide World Magazine, April 1909, 32-36, at 35. []


Wreck of the Hindenburg

Alexander Rose. Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World. New York: Random House, 2020.

The two men of the title both led a great aviation enterprise. Both dreamed of spanning the world with their passenger aircraft. Both struggled at times, and prospered at others. But one was outlived by his company, while the other died knowing that his life's work had been reduced to ashes. The former was Juan Terry Trippe, the head of Pan American Airways (PAA; better known as Pan Am) from 1927 to 1968; the latter, Hugo Eckener, who ran Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and DELAG, the Zeppelin airline, after the death of Count Zeppelin in 1917.1 Both wanted to span the world's continents and oceans by air: Trippe championed aeroplanes as the best way to do this; Eckener, obviously, airships. We all know how that turned out, but well-known stories are often worth revisiting because, well, you don't always know what you thought you did. And so Alexander Rose -- who is perhaps best known as the author of Washington's Spies, which was turned into a successful television series, but wrote his PhD on British air defence policy in the 1930s -- has written a thoroughly researched, fully referenced, hugely informative and compellingly readable account of the struggle for the future of civil aviation.
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  1. Citing a newspaper obituary, Wikipedia claims that Trippe got his first name from 'the Venezuelan wife of his great uncle'. But according to Rose he was actually named after his mother's stepfather, Juan Terry, a Venezuelan millionaire. Trippe hated his name and his non-WASP family connections; the fact that PAA's empire began in Latin America was a coincidence. []

East Melbourne Historical Society Newsletter, June 2016, 7

When we first met N. R. Gordon, it was in Sydney in 1894 and he was preparing a steam-powered ornithopter for flight. When we last saw him, it was 1900 and he was filing a patent application for a human-powered ornithopter. Here he is again, in May 1907, this time at Footscray in Melbourne's west, attempting another 'experiment with a flying machine':

The body consisted of a small canvas boat on two pneumatic-tyred wheels, and had four great white canvas wings, each 17ft 6in in length. The flying machine was hitched on by a rope to a motor car, which, when all was ready, set off at full speed. The flying machine, which carried no passengers, of any kind, rose gradually about a foot from the ground, but when apparently about to soar off to the sky the wings carried away, being too fragile to stand the strain.1

I think that is the machine pictured above, which has the tires though maybe not a 'boat'2 It seems quite different to the Chowder Bay machine, chunky rather than spindly.
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  1. Singleton Argus, 14 May 1907, 3. []
  2. From Sylvia Black, 'Dreaming the impossible dream', East Melbourne Historical Society Newsletter, June 2016, 7; she doesn't refer to the photograph and it doesn't appear in any of the sources she cites. []

N. R. Gordon was behind the Chowder Bay flying machine, but who was N. R. Gordon? His full name was Newton Roberts Gordon, and he emigrated from Britain in 1882.1 Although he described himself on a 1900 patent application as an 'engineer', and worked at one point as a mining engineer, it's not clear if he had any formal training.2 He was, though, said to be 'an exceptionally clever mechanical draughtsman' who did 'professional work for various civil engineers'.3 This no doubt helped him to draw up plausible blueprints, and he certainly had a penchant for invention -- besides aviation-related patents, he also dabbled in motion picture technology.
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  1. Sylvia Black, 'Dreaming the impossible dream', East Melbourne Historical Society Newsletter, June 2016, 6-7. Though brief, this is the best source for Gordon's life. See also David Craddock, 'Antipodean aeronautica', Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales 135 (2002): 1–15; The Aerodrome. []
  2. National Archives of Australia [NAA], A4618, 10449, 'Correspondence with Newton Roberts Gordon concerning invention entitled - Improvements in aerial machines'; Evelyn Observer, 30 August 1907, 2. []
  3. Table Talk (Melbourne), 16 May 1907, 7. []

On Wednesday, 27 May 2020, I was privileged to give a seminar to the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University on my aerial theatre research -- via Zoom, as is the current fashion. I really enjoyed giving it, and I think it was a great success (and thanks to everyone who listened in and especially those to took the time to ask questions). Because the seminar pulls together some of the different things I've been working on in some kind of coherent way, I wanted to make it available to a wider audience, and so yesterday I post-tweeted my own seminar. And to make it less (?) ephemeral, now I'm embedding the entire 51-tweet thread here in a blog post. It is of course very much a condensed version of what I said, but it's always surprising how much of the essence gets through in tweet form. (Well, I understand what I'm trying to say, but then I would, wouldn't I?)

The seminar title is 'History from below, looking up: aerial theatre, emotion and modernity'. The abstract is:

In the early 20th century, the aeroplane was the symbol of modernity par excellence. Technological change is an essential part of this sense of modernity, and few technological changes have been as dramatic or as unmistakable as the conquest of the air. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, flying was the object of intense popular fascination, and yet few people actually flew themselves, even as passengers, before the tremendous expansion of aviation during and after the Second World War. Even so, their experience of flight was often intensely exciting, since one of the most common ways to encounter flight was through seeing it, as an aviation spectacle in the form of aerial theatre such as air displays and air races. People flocked to aerodromes in their cumulative millions to watch aircraft in flight, performing aerobatics or fighting mock battles. This was a mass form of popular culture, which explicitly and implicitly made claims about the present and -- even more so -- future ability of technology to change the world, for better or for worse. In this talk I will sketch out an emotional history of aerial theatre, focusing on how it helped to construct popular ideas about modernity, primarily in Britain and Australia.

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