Today, let us hop across the ocean. 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.
Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927
by turning a specially designed Ryan monoplane into a
flying gas tank. Over half its take-off weight was
gasoline. When Burt Rutan's
airplane, Voyager, circled the world nonstop
in 1986, its takeoff weight was eighty percent
fuel. Fuel in a three-stage rocket greatly outweighs the
space shuttle it carries into orbit. Any long trip that
has to be made without refueling poses a problem of
At the time of Lindbergh's flight, it appeared that
crossing the Atlantic nonstop would be very inefficient.
Two years later, the Curtiss-Wright
Company proposed that America should be served by a
system of small airports, each within a few hundred miles
of the next. Longer flights, while possible, were
not feasible. How then could we establish
transoceanic air service?
Canadian/American engineer Edward Armstrong began selling
a solution to the problem fourteen years before
Lindbergh's flight. Armstrong hoped to build strings of
floating airports, called seadromes, across the
Atlantic. A seadrome was to weigh fifty-thousand tons and
have an eleven-hundred-foot-long deck. Its flotation
system would extend about 180 feet into the water. To
hold it in place, Armstrong went to John A. Roebling and Sons. Roebling had
invented wound-steel cable, and
his company had built the Brooklyn Bridge forty years
earlier. Now they designed a deep-water anchoring system
Author Stewart Nelson tells how each seadrome would
include a forty-room hotel, café, lounge, and
other amenities. He also tells how, on October 22nd,
1929, the New York Times announced that
construction of the first seadrome would begin within
sixty days. Seven days later, on what we now call
Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed, and the
Great Depression was upon us.
Armstrong struggled on. He almost gained PWA support for the project. Nelson
tells how, in 1934, he briefly had Roosevelt's interest.
All the while, airplane engines were improving, and the
feasibility of nonstop transatlantic service increased.
In fact, the great Zeppelins already provided such
Ideas, however, turn and evolve. Armstrong's dream had
pretty well died by the end of WW-II; but, driven by new
needs, the Japanese built a one-kilometer-long floating
airport in 1999. They called it Megafloat. They
meant to create offshore airports that don't consume the
precious land of crowded coastal cities. That was the
same thing that big seaplanes achieved until they were
doomed because their high-drag profiles limited them to
So Armstrong's seadromes are still with us, but they've
split in two. That same design has evolved into the
floating offshore oilrigs, but now we're also considering
the idea of floating coastal airports. Thus we see, yet
again, how no inventor ever knows just where any
invention will really come to rest.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.