“Not Yet, But Soon”

June 15, 1907

Alanson Burton Walker

“Not Yet, But Soon”

Business, Delivery; Transportation, Aircraft;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

In this cartoon, the artist envisions a time in the near future when airships (dirigibles) will deliver household staples, such as ice, coal, meat, and groceries, via chutes on the rooftops of urban residential buildings.  In his enthusiasm for the developing aeronautical technology of lighter-than-air crafts, the artist's prediction underestimates the impact of two other recent innovations in transportation, the airplane (a heavier-than-air vehicle) and the automobile.  

Yet, the Wright brothers' first successful flight of an airplane in 1903 had not been widely publicized or believed, and their accomplishment did not begin to gain exposure and acceptance until their flight demonstrations in 1908 and 1909.  Also, although the production and sale of motorcars began in 1895, they remained a luxury item until Henry Ford revolutionized the industry in 1913 when he applied the assembly line to automobile production.  So, the artist's futuristic sketch was a reasonable and clever extrapolation from the state of transportation in 1907, even though it was ultimately wrong.

The idea of a lighter-than-air vehicle goes back at least as far as Roger Bacon, the thirteenth-century English philosopher and scientist, who speculated about a contraption made of thin metal and filled with rarefied air.  However, it was not until 1783 that brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier of France built the first hot air balloon that successfully carried aloft, first, animals and, then, men.  Over the next century, ballooning became a popular pastime for the daring and a profession for the pilots.  

Also in 1783, Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, a captain in the French Army's engineer corps, designed the cigar-shaped model for the airship (dirigible) that is still used today.  But it was not until 1852 that Henri Giffard, a French engineer, successfully launched the first man-carrying airship.  His 144-foot-long craft used a steam engine and large propeller to travel at 6 miles per hour for nearly 20 miles before landing safely.  Yet the heavy weight of the steam engine was a barrier to faster and longer flights, so designers did not follow his example.

The invention of the gas engine in 1860 provided a possible solution, and five years later Paul Haenlein, an Austrian engineer, received a patent for an airship powered by gas from burning coal.  His test flight in 1872 was the first successful use of an internal combustion engine in an airship, but it, too, proved to be too heavy.  In 1883, brothers Albert and Gaston Tissandier of France first used electricity to power an airship, but the electric batteries were even heavier than Giffard's steam engine.  However, the next year, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs of the French Army's engineer corps used electrical power in a faster dirigible.

In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler, a German engineer, unveiled his invention of an internal combustion engine run on gasoline.  In 1888, tests on a gasoline-powered dirigible were unsatisfactory, but improvements were made over the years.  In 1897, airship designer Karl Wölfert was killed when his gasoline-run dirigible burst into flames, and the disaster put airships out of favor in some quarters for a while.  The gasoline engine, though, became standard in dirigibles until replaced by the diesel engine decades later. 

In 1898, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a dashing and wealthy young Brazilian living in Paris, began building and flying gasoline-powered dirigibles.  Over the next several years, he gained the public's attention by setting several records for airship speed and distance and by using his dirigible for personal trips to visit the homes of friends or favorite cafes in Paris (tying the vehicle to a lamppost while he went inside).

The mass production of aluminum beginning in 1886, led to the light yet strong metal being used in the development of rigid lighter-than-air crafts.  The most successful designer of rigid dirigibles was Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a German count whose name became synonymous with the airship.  His 420-foot-long aircraft used an aluminum frame covered by fabric and powered by two 16-horsepower engines, and first flew on July 2, 1900.  Zeppelin continued improving the design, and his airships were notably employed by Germany to bomb London and Paris during World War I.

Despite the artist's fancy in this cartoon, there were no airships in the United States in 1907 and little apparent interest in them.  The U. S. Army bought its first airship in 1908, but the vehicle was not manufactured commercially in America until 1911.  Production and use of dirigibles in Europe and North America expanded during the 1920s and 1930s.  The first transatlantic crossing was in 1919, and regular passenger service from Germany to the United States began in 1936.  However, the disastrous explosion the next year of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg was a severe blow to the industry.  More general factors leading to the collapse of the commercial airship industry were their high cost, slow speed, and vulnerability to bad weather, as well as technological improvements of its rival, the airplane.  Today, the non-combustible gas of helium is used in dirigibles.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Not Yet, But Soon”
December 9, 2022

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