The Weird World of Folk Aviators

With his whimsical sculptures, Gregory Bryant celebrates early ideas about winged flight.

aerial steamboat
Eric Long, NASM

In 2004, Gregory Bryant was asked to scan an illustration of a steam-powered flying machine that never flew, and in fact never could have come close to flying. Tom Crouch, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, had been researching the “Aerial Steamboat” proposed by one A.A. Mason of Ohio, who, according to a newspaper article from 1834, was planning to fly his invention that summer in Queen City.

After seeing the illustration, Bryant—an artist who has worked at the Museum for 34 years—was inspired to make a model of Mason's contraption (above). The model took him three months to complete. “I found out after the fact,” he says, “that the drawing that I based the model on was extremely inaccurate. In contemporary newspaper accounts there's absolutely no mention of wheels whatsoever. And the type of steam engine that the illustrator used didn't come into existence until the 1880s.

“The illustration is whimsical and absurd, and that caught my fancy,” says Bryant. So began his obsession with what he calls “folk aviation,” which has led him to create replicas of nearly a dozen would-be flying machines proposed by mostly forgotten inventors and dreamers. See the gallery above for more of Bryant's sculptures.

Made of cardboard, twine, paper, cooking skewers, wood dowels, tempera paint, fingernail polish.

William Powers

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

During the Civil War, engineer William Powers came up with an idea for breaking the Northern blockade of Southern harbors. “His idea was to create this—again, steam-powered—helicopter-type design,” says Bryant, “which he was going to use to bomb the northern ships.”

"The engine was to rotate a shaft and gears," writes historian Juliette Hennessy, "and drive two pairs of rotors or air-screws, one pair to raise the craft vertically, the other pair to drive it horizontally. A rudder was provided for steering and a rolling weight for balancing the craft fore and aft." After completing his design, Powers worried that it would fall into Yankee hands, so he hid the plans in his attic, where they remained until 1940. That was when Paul Garber (the first curator of the Air Museum, which later became the National Air and Space Museum) acquired the model and the drawings.

After modeling his first two flying machines, Bryant began casting about for other things to build. “It's a fascinating, fascinating field,” he says. “We know about people like William Powers, and because Tom Crouch happened to stumble across A.A. Mason, we preserve his memory. But how many others are there? We have no way of knowing. In North America [alone] it could be dozens, or even hundreds of people. We just don't know the scope of folk aviation.”

Made of Federal Express cardboard boxes, paper, found materials.

Nicolas Margalis

(Matthew Breitbart, NASM)

Shortly after World War II, a Greek laborer named Nicolas Margalis sent the Smithsonian his concept for an interplanetary airplane in a 22-page workbook titled Planes, Planets, Planes. “Apparently what happened is that the workbook moved around, and it finally landed in Mr. Garber's lap. And Mr. Garber wrote Margalis a very nice letter thanking him, and telling him we shall keep your plans on file at the Smithsonian. And that was the end of it." The file sat there from 1947 until 1983 or so, at which point Bryant and his coworker Elizabeth Hand found it in the course of cataloging the Museum's technical files—sorting and photographing every document, newspaper clipping, magazine article, and letter in the collections, a decades' long project. “We just fell in love with Margalis' workbook," Bryant says. "He spends all this time developing this [vehicle] that will fly to all the planets. The scale of it...here we go. It's 630,000 feet across. It's so ambitious. The propeller blades themselves are 300,000 feet, or 60 miles long.'”

Nothing more is known about Margalis. “He could have been a teenager,” says Bryant, “he could have been in his 60s, we don't know.”

Bryant got it in his mind to make the Margalis Planet Plane. “I had to do it from memory because I hadn't seen the book in almost 25 years. And I see I got a great deal of it wrong. I tried to do it to scale; I couldn't, really. The base of it is the map of Greece. That was to get it to scale. If I were to build it to Margalis' scale, it would stand taller than my office.”

Made of cardboard, fingernail polish, colored pencil.

Charles A.A. Dellschau

(Eric Long, NASM)

Crouch suggested that Bryant take a look at the work of Charles A.A. Dellschau, a visionary artist of the late 19th and early 20th century. “He was a butcher who immigrated to the United States from Germany in the early part of the 19th century,” says Bryant. “After he retired, he filled out 13 huge notebooks with his drawings of his concepts of aerial vehicles in the 19th century, which he claimed were real.”

According to a 1998 article by Cynthia Greenwood of the Houston Press, in 1899, Dellschau “began to paint amazing airships. His intricate collages show shiplike decks supported by striped balloon pontoons; they show bright-colored helicopters and evil-looking striped dirigibles outfitted for war; they show crews of dapper little gentlemen accompanied by the occasional cat. Many pages are bedecked with little newspaper clippings about aviation, and text in his weird Germanic lettering celebrates the pure, unexcelled marvelousness of the flying machines.

“Taken at face value, Dellschau's collages document the feats of the Sonora Aero Club, a secretive group dedicated to the creation of 'aeros,' or flying machines. In code, and bad spelling in both English and German, Dellschau recounted how, in his youth 50 years before, he and fellow club members gleefully ruled the skies of Gold Rush California, piloting fantastical airships of their own invention.

“Dellschau never seems to explain why the club worked so hard to protect its secrecy, but he shows the members going to great lengths to do so. By day, the Aero Goeit was disguised as a gypsy wagon, so it could travel open roads undetected. Dellschau writes that a club member was banned from developing a machine because he'd talked to outsiders. And of course, even years after the club disbanded, many of Dellschau's own comments are rendered in code. Apparently, whatever it was that he had to say was too private even for his own notebooks.”

Made of cardboard, gold foil, soda bottles, fingernail polish.

W.F. Quinby

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

“An aspect of folk aviation that I like,” says Bryant, “is that the characters come from everywhere. There are those that are very, very good. The founder of the Scientific American, Rufus Porter, designed an airship very early on, in the 1840s I think, which was very similar in shape and design to the Hindenburg, which came out in the 1890s. Scientific American magazine is very good at documenting many of these early concepts, through their Letters to the Editor and the like.”

The sculpture above is based upon a patent drawing by W.F. Quinby. “I don't know how much about Quinby is known,” says Bryant. “In the late 19th century the Patents Office was granting patents—perhaps one or two dozen—for anybody who sent them plans for an aerial machine, on the theory that it was impossible, so why not? Let them have their patents. And W.F. Quinby was prolific with his concepts. He came up with three that I know of, maybe four, and his designs are all delightful.

“Quinby did another concept, which I'm anxious to get to, which is something you wear. It's a belt, with batwings attached to it with rigging that comes up the sides. I want to do that one full-scale and maybe get someone to wear it. Not me! Somebody."

Made of cardboard, paper, chopsticks, plastic produce bag, twine, thread, tempera paint.

Quinby Patent

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

This piece is based on Quinby's November 26, 1861 patent. "This one looks like a wonderful children's toy," says Bryant. "Even with the patent in-hand, it isn't very clear what he was going for.”

Made of cardboard, paper, tempera paint.

Frank Barnett

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

"Part of the intrigue for me in this work," says Bryant, "is that there is so little available information about these inventors—in many cases, I am working from a single citation, sometimes nothing more than a short verbal description in an old newspaper. And part of my goal in creating these pieces is to raise the profile of the subject of folk aviation—the more attention it gets, the more information will surface, we can hope." This piece is based on a May 15, 1877 patent filed by Frank Barnett.

Made of cardboard, paper, tempera paint.

Mr. Lemka

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

For this Aerial Cabin, Bryant had nothing more to go on than a single illustrated reference in a Russian-language book. "The book offered little information," he says, "except to note its 1876 appearance in the Letters to the Editor section of Scientific American from a Mr. Lemka. “That's one I like in particular,” says Bryant, “because it's so unaerodynamic. The rigging does not make a lot of sense. I know that the rigging is supposed to go through the wheel, but to what purpose is impossible to say, because it is tied down on both ends. The inventor planned it to fly at the rate of 60 miles an hour.

Bryant says the Aerial Cabin is as faithful to Lemka's drawing as he could make it. "It's not like this person was just idly daydreaming, he says. "To come up with the logic of the sails and wings—this is the work of several days or weeks or months."

Made of cardboard, paper, toothpicks, plastic (for the windows), cooking skewers, tempera paint.

Pullman Car

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

For this Pullman Car as Aerial Craft, Bryant found a single reference in Helicopters Before Helicopters. "The book notes the concept first appeared in 1848," he says.

Made of cardboard, paper, plastic (for the windows), cooking skewers, toothpicks.

1902 Helicopter

None
(Eric Long, NASM)

“This 1902 helicopter proposal was a serious proposal,” says Bryant, “put out not by an individual, but by a group of people. There were mechanical drawings. What the mattress-looking thing on top is meant to be, I have no idea. The propeller-looking things...I don't know. This one does give some clues to a propulsion system; there are tanks at the base, but again, I don't know anything about it. Many of these designers were working before notions of lift and drag and thrust. And so they were working...freely."

The concept is also mentioned in one book, Helicopters Before Helicopters, by E.K. Liberatore.

“That's another thing about this subject that I find so intriguing: In retrospect, these things are laughable. But that's not fair. At the time, with everything they had available to them, these are very intelligent concepts. And it emphasizes that the progression of the history is not a straight line; it's bushy. The evolution of technology is bushy. That's Stephen J. Gould's term.”

Made of cardboard, paper, copper wire, cooking skewers, tempera paint.

Aerial Windmill

(Eric Long, NASM)

After going through the Museum's technical files for several years, Bryant began to dream about early attempts at flight. This Aerial Windmill is based upon one of his dreams. "I dreamed that Tom Crouch and I were doing research in 19th-century folk aviation, and we came across this illustration. With the logic of dreams, the scaffolding is so it can take off in forests."

Made of cardboard, paper, cooking skewers, plastic (for the windows), twine.

Gregory Bryant

None
(Carolyn Russo, NASM)

Bryant has been with the Museum since 1978, and with the Registrar's office since 1997. "The Registrar's office maintains the legal documentation that supports our title to the objects in our collection. My position," says Bryant, "gives me a comprehensive overview of our holdings, from 19th century Chinese kites, to our V-2 missile, to balloon memorabilia to artifacts from the space station."

Inspired by the folk aviators he has researched, in his spare time Bryant is writing a fantasy novel incorporating lighter-than-air concepts.