Today, some thoughts on success, failure, and flying to
California. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines that
make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Success is fun, but it's not much
of a teacher. Take the dirigible: Inventors began working
on rigid, navigable airships just after the first manned
balloon went up in 1784. Henri Giffard finally
capitalized on almost seventy years of failure when he
flew his three-horsepower steam-driven dirigible over
Paris in 1852.
In January, 1848, four years before Giffard's flight,
gold was found in California. The spring thaw saw
everyone trying to get to the gold fields. But it was a
daunting journey no matter how you went -- two to three
thousand miles over scarcely-charted wilderness, or some
eighteen thousand miles by sea around Cape Horn.
Just before the discovery of gold, an inventor named
Rufus Porter had flown some model dirigibles. Now he saw
a chance to get rich on the real thing. Early in 1849 he
published a pamphlet entitled Aerial Navigation: The
Practicality of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New
York to California in Three Days.
He was serious. He planned to build an eight-hundred-foot
steam-powered dirigible with comfortable accommodations
for fifty to a hundred passengers. It'd go a hundred
miles per hour. That was pretty grand thinking, but it
was also a good description of the great Zeppelins that
flew eighty years later. Porter went on to advertise New
York-to-California service beginning in April. He wanted
a fifty-dollar down payment on a two-hundred-dollar fare.
He began building immediately. His first aeroport,
as he called it, was actually only 240 feet long. And it
was destroyed by a tornado. Later that year, he began a
seven-hundred-foot version with new backers and more
support. During a showing of the almost-complete
dirigible on Thanksgiving day, rowdy visitors tore the
hydrogen bag. It might've been fixed, but rain got in and
waterlogged the whole thing. So he started a third
dirigible. A new round of technical troubles ended that
one in 1854.
Porter was breathing down the neck of success, but all he
actually flew was a series of large steam-powered models.
His ideas were sound, but his dream was too large. We
hear echoes of something Thoreau wrote at the same time
that Porter was building his third aeroport:
The youth gets together his materials to build a
bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple, on
the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes
to build a woodshed with them.
But Porter did better than that. His ideas
about the internal structure of the dirigible and
partitioning the airbag were eventually used in
successful airships. If he'd been a better manager
and money-raiser, if he'd had a proper technological
infrastructure, he might well've flown first.
And so, without failure, we'll never have success. Porter
honed the technologies that gave us the really grand
Zeppelins. The people who did succeed rode upon the very
magnitude of Rufus Porter's visionary, gold-driven dream.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.