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 created them.
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 two
generations of failure when he flew his 3 HP
steam-driven dirigible over Paris in 1852.
Four years before Giffard's flight -- in January,
1848 -- gold was discovered 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 -- 2000 miles over scarcely-charted
wilderness or an 18,000 mile ocean voyage around
Just before gold was found, a man named Rufus
Porter had flown some nice dirigible models. Now
there was motivation for funding the real thing.
Early in 1849 he published a pamphlet titled
Aerial Navigation: The Practicality of
Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New York to
California in Three Days.
And he was serious. The pamphlet described plans to
build an 800-foot steam-powered dirigible with
comfortable accommodations for 100 passengers. It
would go 100 mph. That was pretty grand thinking in
1849. Still, his specs weren't far from those of
the great Zeppelins that flew 80 years later.
Porter went on to advertise that New
York-to-California service would begin in April. He
wanted a $50 down payment on a $200 fare.
He began building immediately. His first
"aeroport," as he called it, was actually only 240
feet long. But it was destroyed by a tornado. Later
that year, he began a 700-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 could have
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 oh-so-close to success. All he actually
flew was a series of large steam-powered models.
His ideas were sound, but his dream was too large.
It's as though the person who invented the boat had
tried to begin with the Queen Mary.
His ideas about the internal structure of the
dirigible and the partitioning of the airbag were
eventually used in the successful airships. If
Porter had been a better manager and money-raiser,
he could well have flown first.
Failure is a teacher. Porter honed the technologies
that gave us the really grand Zeppelins. And the
people who did succeed were buoyed by the very
magnitude of Porter's eerie, visionary, gold-driven
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds