Above & Beyond: The Oldest Powered Flying Machine?

Above & Beyond: The Oldest Powered Flying Machine?

From contemporary news articles and earlier hints from Sir George Cayley, a cartoonist created this depiction of what the 1834 mystery craft could look like.
From contemporary news articles and earlier hints from Sir George Cayley, a cartoonist created this depiction of what the 1834 mystery craft could look like. Jim Baker/Ohio Historical Society

For more than four decades I have nursed a fascination with what one might call the prehistory of aviation, or, as a friend would have it, crypto-aviation history. In a nutshell, I am fascinated by pre-1903 attempts at winged flight.

The fascination began in 1969, when I was conducting research on the history of flight in Ohio as part of curatorial planning for what was to become the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in the astronaut’s hometown, Wapakoneta. While scouring the fragile pages of Cincinnati newspapers for information on Thomas Kirkby, who launched the state into the air age with a balloon flight from Cincinnati in 1834, I ran across a series of intriguing articles on the work of one Mr. Mason, or Masson, who was preparing to fly his Aerial Steamboat in the Queen City that summer.

The Liberty Hall & Cincinnati Gazette introduced Mason to readers in an article appearing on June 24, 1834. “Perhaps it is not generally known,” the article began, “but one of our ingenious local citizens has invented, and has now in preparation, the model of an aerial steamboat.” While the reporter had “but little expectation of the success of the experiment,” the inventor was said to be “very sanguine, having already made (to him) a very successful experiment.”

The hull of the craft was shaped like a boat and lined with ribs: “to render it very light,” the builder covered it in silk. A two-horsepower steam engine, positioned in the center of the boat, turned “four vertical shafts projecting over the bow and stern into each of which are fixed four spiral silken wings which are made to revolve with sufficient velocity to cause the vessel to rise.” Also included: a “moveable silken cover designed to assist in counteracting the gravitating force, [while] at the same time tending to assist in its propulsion forward.” The craft, which had cost $300 to build, weighed only 60 pounds. The inventor intended to fly his creation on July 4. Until then, it was on display “on Race Street nearly opposite the old Lathe factory, below Third St.”

July 4 came and went without a flight. On August 23, the Daily Cincinnati Republican and Commercial Register reported that the Aerial Steamboat would be displayed at the Commercial Exchange early the following week. “Mr. Masson, an ingenious mechanic, has spent some months constructing this vehicle, in which he expects to navigate the air by the force of steam.” There is, the paper noted, “nothing of the balloon principle connected to this apparatus.” Having inspected the craft, the reporter was unwilling to predict success or failure, but assured readers that it was “a beautiful and ingenious piece of mechanism.”

On October 22, 1834, the inventor, signing himself A. Masson, announced in the pages of the Daily Cincinnati Republican that he had opened a subscription, hoping to raise $1,500 to cover his expenses. He was quick to assure potential supporters that no money need be paid until he had actually flown his machine. That would seem to remove the inventor from the ranks of mountebanks and confidence men. Four days later, the Cincinnati Chronicle and Literary Gazette offered additional technical details. The four vertical spindles were driven by leather bands that the engine kept moving.

“Upon each of these spindles are placed four wings, shaped like a paper fan, when open, with the broad end from the spindle; these wings are not horizontal, but one edge is raised higher than the other. When the spindles are made to revolve, the wings, thus inclined, strike the wind with so much of their broadside as to occasion considerable resistance and the consequent tendency is to make each wing, instead of round against this resistance, to move at an angle upward, cutting the air with its edge. It is in a manner screwing up into the air.”

At this point, A. Masson and his Aerial Steamboat vanish from the city’s newspapers. Who was this fellow, and what can we make of his valiant attempt to build and fly a heavier-than-air craft? First, what was his name? The Cincinnati directories for the 1830s fail to list anyone named Masson, the name provided by the inventor in the only article he seems to have written himself. The Cincinnati Directory for 1834, however, the year in which the craft was built and exhibited, does list an Albert Mason, a steamboat mate living on East Front Street. The fact that a steamboat mate would be familiar with the propulsion system described, combined with the nautical references in all of the accounts of the vehicle, suggests that the inventor was a steamboat man. It does not seem too much of a stretch to regard Albert Mason as a prime suspect for our “ingenious mechanic.”

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.

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