Charles F. Ritchel’s flying machine made a sound like a buzzsaw as its pilot turned a hand crank to spin its propeller. It was June 12, 1878, and a huge crowd, by some accounts measuring in the thousands, had gathered at a baseball field in Hartford, Connecticut. The spectators had each paid 15 cents for a chance to witness history.

The flying machine—if one could really call it that—was an unsightly jumble of mechanical parts. It consisted of a 25-foot-long, 12-foot-wide canvas cylinder filled with hydrogen and bound to a rod. From this contraption hung a framework of steel and brass rods that the Philadelphia Times likened to “the skeleton of a boat.” The aeronaut would sit on this framework as though it were a bicycle, controlling the craft with foot pedals and a hand crank that turned a four-bladed propeller.

The device did not inspire confidence.

“When I was making it, people laughed at me a good deal,” Ritchel later said. “But so they did at Noah when he built the ark.”

A self-described “professor,” Ritchel was the inventor of such wacky, weird and wild creations that a recounting of his career reads as though it were torn from the pages of a Jules Verne novel. Supposedly friends with both P.T. Barnum and Thomas Edison, Ritchel for a time made a living working for a mechanical toy company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he designed talking dolls, model trains and other playthings. But he was more than just a toymaker.

Charles F. Ritchel
Charles F. Ritchel filed more than 150 patents over his lifetime. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Ritchel's patent for his flying machine
Ritchel's 1878 patent for his flying machine Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Some years after the flying machine demonstration, the inventor proposed an ambitious attraction for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair): a “telescope tower” that would rival France’s Eiffel Tower. The design consisted of a 500-foot-wide base topped by multiple nested structures that rose up over the course of several hours, eventually reaching a height of about 1,000 feet. After this proposal was rejected, Ritchel launched a campaign to raise funds to build a life-size automaton of Christopher Columbus, which the Chicago Tribune reported would speak more than 1,000 phrases in a human-like voice, rather than the “far-away, metallic sounds produced by a phonograph.”

By the mid-1880s, Ritchel claimed to have filed more than 150 patents. Not all of them were fun. He invented more efficient ways to kill mosquitos and cockroaches, a James Bond-esque belt that assassins could use to inject poison into their targets, and a gas bomb for use in land or naval warfare.

Yet never in his career was his quirk-forward blend of genius and foolishness more apparent than on that June day in Hartford. Because the balance of weight and equipment was so delicate, Ritchel was too heavy to fly the craft. Instead, he employed pilot Mark W. Quinlan, who tipped the scale at just 96 pounds. Quinlan was a 27-year-old machinist and native of Philadelphia, but little else is known about him. The record, however, is crystal clear on one count: Quinlan was very, very brave.

When preparations for the craft were complete, the crowd watched in eager anticipation as Quinlan boarded the so-called pilot’s seat. The airship rose 50 feet, then 100 feet, then 200 feet. Such a sight was uncommon but not unheard of at the time. The real question was: Once the craft was in the air, could it be controlled?

The first heavier-than-air flight (in which airflow over a surface like a plane wing creates aerodynamic lift) only took place in 1903, when the Wright Brothers conducted their famous flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But by the late 19th century, flying via lighter-than-air gases was already close to 100 years old. (This method involves heating the air inside of a balloon to make it less dense, leading it to rise, or filling the balloon with a low-density gas such as helium or hydrogen.) On November 21, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes completed the first crewed, untethered hot-air balloon flight, passing over Paris on a craft built by the Montgolfier brothers. Later, balloons were used for reconnaissance during the French Revolutionary Wars and the American Civil War.

A drawing of the Montgolfier brothers' hot-air balloon
A drawing of the Montgolfier brothers' hot-air balloon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But free-floating balloons were, and still are, at the mercy of the winds. While balloon aeronauts can achieve limited control by changing altitude and attempting to catch different currents, they can’t easily return to the spot where they took off from, which is why even today, they have teams following them on the ground. Mid-1800s aviation enthusiasts dreamed of fixing this problem, which led to the development of dirigibles—powered, steerable airships that were inflated with lighter-than-air gases. (The word dirigible comes from the French word diriger, “to steer”; contrary to popular belief, the term, which is synonymous with airship, is not derived from the word “rigid.”) While some early aeronauts successfully steered dirigibles, none of these rudimentary airships could truly go against the wind or provide a controlled-enough flight to take off and land at the same point consistently.

In 1878, Ritchel was unaware of anyone who had successfully taken off in a dirigible and landed at the same spot. He hoped to change that with his baseball field demonstration. A month earlier, Ritchel had exhibited the airship’s capabilities during indoor flights at the Philadelphia Main Exhibition Hall, a massive structure built for that city’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. But there is no wind indoors, and the true test of his device would have to be performed outdoors.

After rising into the air, Quinlan managed to steer the craft out over the Connecticut River. To onlookers, it was clear that the aeronaut was in control. But as he flew, the wind picked up, and it began to look like a storm was gathering. To avoid getting caught in the poor weather and facing an almost-certain disaster, Quinlan steered the craft back toward the field, cutting through the “teeth of the wind until directly over the ball ground whence it had ascended, and then alighted within a few feet of the point from which it had started,” as the New York Sun reported.

Ritchel's dirigible, as seen on the July 13, 1878, cover of Harper's Weekly​​​​​​​
Ritchel's dirigible, as seen on the July 13, 1878, cover of Harper's Weekly Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The act was hailed far and wide as a milestone. An illustration of the impressive-looking flying machine was featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

“The great problem which inventors of flying machines have always before them is the arrangement by which they shall be able to propel their frail vessels in the face of an adverse current,” the magazine noted. “Until this end shall have been achieved, there will be little practical value to any invention of the kind. In Professor Ritchel’s machine, however, the difficulty has been in a great measure overcome.”

Across the country, observers hailed Ritchel’s odd but impressive milestone in flight. In the years and decades that followed, this achievement was forgotten by almost all except a select group of aviation historians.

Wikipedia incorrectly lists the flight of the French army dirigible La France as the first roundtrip dirigible flight. But this event took place six years after Ritchel’s Hartford demonstration, in August 1884. Why has a flight so seemingly monumental in its time been relegated to the dustbin of history?

Given his eccentric nature and creativity, it’s easy to root for Ritchel and think of him as a Nikola Tesla-like genius robbed of his rightful place in history. The reality of why his feat was forgotten is more complicated. As Tom Crouch, an emeritus curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, says, it’s possible Ritchel’s craft was the first to complete a round-trip dirigible flight. But other aircraft in existence at the time probably could have accomplished the same feat in favorable conditions. “La France made the first serious round-trip,” Crouch says.

Additionally, while Ritchel’s machine worked to a point, it wasn’t a pathway to more advanced dirigibles. Richard DeLuca, author of Paved Roads & Public Money: Connecticut Transportation in the Age of Internal Combustion, points out that the hand-cranked nature of Ritchel’s craft made it nearly impossible to operate with any kind of wind. “On the first day, he got away with it and directed the ship out and over the river and back to where he started, and that was quite an accomplishment,” DeLuca says. “But the conditions were just right for him to do that.”

Dan Grossman, an aviation historian at the University of Washington, has never come across evidence that any later pioneers of more advanced dirigible flights were influenced by Ritchel. “There are a lot of firsts in history that got forgotten because they never led to a second,” Grossman says.

An artist's depiction of the La France airship
An artist's depiction of the La France airship Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The day after their first successful public outdoor flight in Hartford, Quinlan and Ritchel tried again at that same ballfield. This time, the weather was less cooperative, and the wind came in sharp gusts. Still, the pair persisted in their attempt. “Little Quinlan, even if he does only weigh 96 pounds, has confidence and nerve enough to go up in a gale,” the Sun reported. Up he went about 200 feet, but this time, the wind carried him away with more force. Quinlan was “seen throwing his vertical fan into gear, and by its aid, the aerial ship turned around, pointing its head in whatever direction he chose to give it.” Although he could move the ship about, “he could not make any headway against the strong wind.”

Quinlan descended about 100 feet, trying to catch a different current, but the wind still pushed him away from the ballfield. He raised the craft, this time going higher than 200 feet, but still couldn’t overcome the wind and was soon swept off toward New Haven, vanishing from sight like some real-world Wizard of Oz.

Eventually, Quinlan safely brought the airship down in Newington, about five miles away from Hartford. The inventor and his pilot were unfazed by this setback. They held more public exhibitions that year with a mix of success and failure—including an incident that nearly cost Quinlan his life. During a July 4 exhibition in Boston, the machine malfunctioned and continued to rise, soaring to what the Boston Globe estimated to be 2,000 feet. Quinlan couldn’t get the propeller to work, and the craft continued to rise, reaching as high as 3,000 feet.

Charles Ritchel's Flying Machine - 1876

Terrified but quick-thinking, Quinlan tied his wrist and ankle to the craft and swung out of his seat to fix the propeller, using a jack-knife he happened to have on him as a makeshift tool. The daring midair repairs worked, and the craft gradually descended. Quinlan landed in Massachusetts, 44 miles from his starting destination, after a 1-hour, 20-minute flight.

Per Grossman, the human-powered method Ritchel attempted to utilize was doomed from the start. “In the absence of an internal combustion engine, there really was no control of lighter-than-air flight,” he says.

Ritchel stubbornly refused to consider powering dirigibles with engines and did not foresee how powerful a better-designed aircraft truly could be.

“I have overcome the fatal objection of which has always been made to the practicability of aerial navigation—that is, I have made a machine that can be steered,” Ritchel told a reporter in July 1878. “I claim no more. I have never pretended that a balloon can be made to go against the wind, and I am sure it never could. It is as ridiculous as a perpetual motion machine, and the latter will be invented just as soon as the former.”

A page from Ritchel's ballooning scrapbook
The scrapbook covers the years 1878 to 1901. National Air and Space Museum Archives
A page from Ritchel's ballooning scrapbook
A page from Ritchel's ballooning scrapbook National Air and Space Museum Archives

Even so, Ritchel was influential in his own way. “He was one of the first to really come up with the notion of a little one-man, bicycle-powered airship, and those things were around into the early 20th century,” says Crouch. After Ritchel, other daring inventors launched similar pedal-powered airships. Carl Myers, for example, held demonstrations of a device he called the “Sky-Cycle” in the 1890s.

Ritchel stands as one of the fascinating early aeronauts whose work blurred the line between science and the sideshow. “I refer to them as aerial showmen, these guys who came up with the notion of making money [by] thrilling people [with] their exploits in the air,” Crouch says.

According to Crouch’s 1983 book, The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America, Ritchel and Quinlan took the airship on tour with a traveling circus in the late 1870s. Ritchel also operated his machine at Brighton Beach near Coney Island. He sold a few replicas of his device and later attempted to develop a larger, long-distance version of the craft powered by an 11-person hand-cranking crew. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this idea failed to gain momentum, and Ritchel faded from the headlines. Soon, the exploits of new aeronauts would upstage him, among them Alberto Santos-Dumont’s circumnavigation of the Eiffel Tower in 1901.

Alberto Santos-Dumont's first balloon, 1898
Alberto Santos-Dumont's first balloon, 1898 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Santos-Dumont circles the Eiffel Tower in an airship on July 13, 1901.
Santos-Dumont circles the Eiffel Tower in an airship on July 13, 1901. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite many earlier dirigible flights, Crouch and Grossman agree that the technology only became practical when German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin built and flew the first rigid dirigible in the early 1900s. Over the first decade of the new century, Zeppelin perfected his namesake design, which featured a fabric-covered metal frame that enclosed numerous gasbags. “By 1913, just before [World War I] begins, Zeppelin is actually running sightseeing tours over German cities,” Crouch says, “so the Zeppelin at that point can safely carry passengers and take off and land from the same point.”

For a brief period, airships ruled the sky. (The spire of New York City’s Empire State Building, built in the 1930s, was famously intended as a docking station for passenger airships.) But the vehicles, which use gas to create buoyancy, were quickly eclipsed by airplanes, which achieve flight through propulsion that generates airflow over the craft’s wings.

While the 1937 Hindenburg disaster is often viewed as the end of the dirigible era, Grossman says that’s a misconception: The real death knell for passenger airships arrived when Pan American Airways’ China Clipper, a new breed of amphibious aircraft, flew from San Francisco to Manila in November 1935. “Partly because they flew faster, they could transport more weight, whether it’s people or cargo, mail, whatever, in the same amount of time,” Grossman explains. “They were less expensive to operate, they required much, much smaller crews, [and] they were less expensive to build.”

Airplanes were also safer. “Zeppelins have to fly low and slow,” Crouch says. “They operate in the weather; airplanes don’t. An airplane at 30,000 feet is flying above the weather. Weather, time after time, is what brought dirigibles down.”

Today, niche applications for passenger airships endure, including the Zeppelin company’s European tours, as well as ultra-luxury air yachts and air cruises. But “it’s always going to be a tiny, tiny slice of the transportation pie,” Grossman says.

Crouch agrees. “People still talk about bringing back big, rigid airships. That hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it will,” he says.

The USS Los Angeles, a United States Navy airship, in 1931
The USS Los Angeles, a United States Navy airship, in 1931 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In some ways, Ritchel’s flying machine was a microcosm of the larger history of dirigibles: fascinating, fun and the perfect fodder for fiction, but ultimately eclipsed by more efficient technology.

As for Ritchel, he died, penniless, of pneumonia in 1911 at age 66. “Although during his lifetime he had perfected inventions that, in the hands of others, had brought in great wealth, he died a poor man, as he lacked the business ability to turn the children of his brain to the best advantage to himself,” wrote the Bridgeport Post in his obituary.

Even so, the public had not forgotten the brief time three decades earlier when Ritchel and his airship ruled the skies. As the Boston Evening Transcript reported, his flights captured “the attention of the world. In every country and in every language, newspapers and magazines of the day printed long stories of the wonderful feats performed by the Bridgeport aviator and his marvelous machine, of which nothing short of a cruise to the North Pole was expected.”

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