Today, a Texas immigrant dreams and draws flight.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1850 Charles Dellschau
immigrated from Prussia to Galveston, Texas. By the
time the Civil War started he'd married a widow
with a young daughter and was working as a butcher
in Fort Bend County, near Houston. Other than
service in the Confederate Army, he lived an
unremarkable life. He had two more children of his
own. His stepdaughter married the noted
Then, in 1877, disaster struck 47-year-old
Dellschau. In rapid succession his wife, then his
six-year-old son, died. Dellschau moved into
Houston to work for Stelzig as a clerk. Here he
stayed until 1923 when he died at the age of 93.
That would've been that, if it hadn't been for
Dellschau's secret hobby. Somewhere along the way,
maybe after he retired in 1900, he began drawing
great airships. Lynne Adele, of the Huntington Art
Gallery at the University of Texas, tells his story
in the catalog of a traveling exhibit of
self-taught Texas artists.
She also shows us his gorgeous, detailed, and
annotated mixed-media images of heroic flying
machines -- Barnum and Bailey, Buck Rogers and
Jules Verne all stirred together -- mazes of exotic
detail, circus-tent gas-bags, bicycle wheels, belts
and pulleys -- crazily painted pods shaped like the
space shuttle boosters. Each fantastic vehicle has
its own name -- Aero Mio, Aero Doobely, and
Aerocita. So much hope and feeling radiates from
Twelve of Dellschau's scrapbooks surfaced in a
junkyard in 1967, forty years after his death. From
there they found their way into art museums. Then
people began deciphering the coded writings he'd
left with the pictures. And a strange story
Dellschau had, it seems, belonged to a secret
society that'd formed in the California gold-rush
region around 1850 -- the Sonora Aero Club.
One member was supposed to've known how to distill
a green crystal called Supe from coal. Add
water to Supe and you generate a gas that negates
gravity. Of course, when that member of the Aero
Club died, the recipe for making Supe died with
But Dellschau's pictures kept pouring forth. Twelve
notebooks survived, and Dellschau's numbering
system suggests that twenty more have been lost. By
now, UFO people have adopted Dellschau's pictures.
Some think that mysterious sightings around
Oakland, California, in the 1890s were actually
airships built by the Sonora Aero Club and carried
aloft by Supe.
I'm afraid I see both less, and much more, in
Dellschau's wild drawings. Flight was in the air in
1890, all right. We were just beginning to feel
hope for the deep-seated atavistic craving of our
species. The Wright Brothers were only two of a
great company -- some drunk with dreams, others
cold sober in their purpose -- who fullfiled that
craving. Dellschau's imaginings are tame alongside
the machinery which, by now, we've actually
levitated into the sky.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Adele. L., Charles Dellschau, 1830-1923. Spirited
Journeys: Self-Taught Artists of the
Twentieth-Century, University of Texas Press,
Austin, TX, pp. 40-47.
I'm grateful to Susana Monteverde of the UH Blaffer
Gallery, who recommended Dellschau for an episode
and provided me with an early copy of Adele's
catalog. The exhibit is scheduled (at this writing)
to appear in the University of Houston's Sara
Campbell Blaffer Gallery between August 21 and
October 11, 1998.
Image from the Adele source above,
property of the Menil Collection,
To view Dellschau's airship Aero Mio,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
click on the thumbnail below
Image from the Adele source,
property of the Witte Museum, San Antonio,
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