December 11, 2013
The holiday season just started and, like many of you, I’ve already spent way too much time in crowded airports, cramped airplane seats, and desolate, freezing train platforms. It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when we didn’t shove our faces with overpriced fast food before elbowing our neighbor out of the way to get the last spot in the overhead bin or the only train seat that doesn’t have a weird stain on it. Long distance travel (for those who could afford it) used to be different, civilized even. Back when railroads began stitching the United States together, one name was synonymous with comfortable train travel: Pullman.
George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) made his name famous as the designer of the eponymous sleeping car, which made its debut in 1865. But sleeping cars had been around since the 1830s – so what made Pullman’s stand out? Comfort. The older 24-person sleeping cars left a lot to be desired and savvy designers leaped at the chance to improve long-distance train travel. George Pullman was a cabinet-maker, engineer, and building-mover who first made a name for himself in Chicago by raising buildings above flood levels after the city raised its streets and sewers; his system involved hundreds of men using jackscrews to lift the building then shore up its foundation. Supposedly he did it so smoothly that businesses stayed open while their buildings were being raised. After a particularly uncomfortable train ride, Pullman, flush with cash and growing notoriety from his experience in Chicago, got the idea for his next venture.
In 1858, he worked with the Chicago and Alton Railroad Company to redesign and remodel two of their 44-foot-long passenger coaches. These prototype Pullmans were very basic and, though a slight improvement over existing stock, a far cry from the luxurious train cars that would come to define the Pullman brand: hinged seats transformed into lower berths, while iron upper berths were attached to the ceiling by ropes and pulleys; curtains provided a modicum of privacy; small toilet rooms bookended the passenger area. The cars were not a success. Pullman moved on to other ventures but was drawn back to the train industry four years later. This time, however, he tried a different tactic: creating luxury models.
The Pioneer, as he dubbed his second design, was wider and taller than anything that came before and used trucks with rubberized springs to reduce bouncing and shaking. Thick curtains or silk shades covered the windows and chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was painted with elaborate designs. The walls were covered in a rich dark walnut, the seating was covered in plush upholstery, and the fixtures were brass. During the day, the sleeper looked like a regular, if especially lavish, passenger car, but during the night it transformed into a 2-story hotel on wheels. Seats were unfolded into lower sleeping berths, while upper berths, instead of lowering from the ceiling on pulleys, folded out from it. Sheets and privacy partitions were installed by Pullman Porters to complete the effect. The only problem? The train didn’t exactly fit existing platforms. According to American Science and Invention, Pullman said, “My contribution was to build a car from the point of view of passenger comfort; existing practice and standards were secondary.” But this was 1865 and a national tragedy worked to Pullman’s advantage. After President Lincoln’s assassination the government elected to use the luxurious Pullman car for the last leg of his funeral train, requiring the renovation of every station and bridge between Chicago and Springfield. The publicity turned the Pullman sleeping car into an overnight success.
The train that transported Lincoln was soon put into commercial service. And, of course, civilized travel came with a slightly steeper price tag. But in the 19th century, and even into the 20th, long-distance train travel was almost exclusively enjoyed by the wealthy and the growing middle class. And though the Pullman Sleeper required a small addition fare, a berth wasn’t unreasonable for people who could afford to travel far enough to need one. As the rail network great, so did Pullman’s empire. He rapidly expanded his enterprise and by 1867, he was running nearly 50 cars on three different railroads. He also developed some new designs: a hotel car, which was basically a Manhattan apartment on wheels, a parlor car, a dining car, and, perhaps most importantly, a train vestibule, which made it easy to safely move from one train car to another. After losing a patent suit related to his folding berth design, Pullman bought all his rivals’ patents to further solidify his empire and the dark green pullman sleepers became ubiquitous on trains across the country. As decades passed, the designs became more ornate Pullman’s personal taste continued to shape Americans’ idea of luxury – perhaps to a fault, as some women’s magazines of the late 19th century objected to the ostentatious interiors as violations of good taste.
Unfortunately, bad taste isn’t the only offense for which Pullman is remembered. The company has a long and complex relationship with African Americans. Famously, it was a calculated incident on a Pullman car that launched the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which ultimately established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would not be legally repudiated until the 1950s. But long before Plessy sat in a “whites only” car and long after the Supreme Court made their decision, Pullman Porters dealt with inequality on a daily basis. Though travelers favored the cars for their luxurious accommodations and services, the Pullman staff, did not enjoy comparable luxuries. And though the company was both praised and derided for the hiring of African Americans at a time when few jobs were available to them, advancement for the “Pullman Porters” was almost unheard of. What’s more, they worked long hours, received low wages, and were often treated poorly by passengers.
Although Pullman eventually became a sort of power-mad baron of his railroad empire responsible for whose name is forever attached to unfair labor practices and a disastrous railroad strike, his contributions to the passenger train industry defined the way the nation travels for nearly a century and continue to make holiday vacationers nostalgic for a time when long-distance travel could actually be an enjoyable experience.
November 8, 2013
October 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end for New York’s old Pennsylvania Station. It took three years and countless hours of manpower to tear down what was the fourth-largest building in the world. In remembrance of the station, last Wednesday the Center for Architecture held the event, Lights, Camera, Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage & In Pictures. The highlight was a reading of a The Eternal Space, a new play about the unlikely relationship between two men – a construction worker photographing the station as he tears it down and an aging professor determined to save it. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station–some famous, some never seen–are critical to the play, serving as a background for the actors, silently telling the story of a changing city and offering their own compelling provocations alongside a compelling debate about progress, preservation, and of course, Pennsylvania Station.
Following a reading of the play, a panel was convened to discuss the station, its legacy, and the photographs that continue to inspire. Panelists included playwright Justin Rivers, myself, noted biographer of Penn Station Lorraine Dhiel, and renown photographer Norman McGrath, whose vast archive of personal photos includes hundreds of never-before-seen images documenting the demolition of Penn Station, photos that feature prominently in the play (and in this post).
Pennsylvania Station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1902. McKim, a Beaux-Arts educated architect and co-founder of the American Academy in Rome, was the lead designer on the project which was a grand display of his idiosyncratic Beaux-Arts Classicism. He draws inspiration from the great train stations of Europe, the Baths of Caracalla, John Soane’s Bank of England, and surely myriad other sources, all artfully combined into a monumental pink granite structure. It was a testament to the our technological prowess, craftsmanship, and artistry. It was a monument to our culture; a station scaled to the ambitions of a country at the peak of its power – a modern Rome. And indeed, at times it seemed that all tracks lead to New York – or, to be more specific, Penn Station. It was to be a gateway to the city.
But times change. And cities change. By 1963, New York was a very different place and Penn Station was no longer the gateway into the city. New highways and air travel gave travelers more, sometimes better, options. And while automotive infrastructure was being built by governments, privately owned railways were going bankrupt and bleeding passengers. In a time of high speed and efficiency, Pennsylvania Station was a decadent, inspiring and expensive masterpiece. As it fell into decay and disrepair, the owners of the railroad believed they had no choice but to sell the rights to build on their valuable property, making it possible for a new, modern, and incredibly ugly Madison Square Garden to rise where Penn Station stood, while the while the waiting rooms, ticketing areas, and train concourses were pushed underground. The opposition to the demolition was led by a small but local group, but at the time the city was powerless to stop it. And it seems that few New Yorkers held the station in high regard because although the Penn Station that exists in the popular imaginary looks like this:
The station was quite a bit worse for wear in 1963:
McGrath’s color photos of Penn Station’s demolition capture the vast spaces in all its Piranesian glory and communicate a sense of its scale in an almost morbid way. The demolition may have been an ignoble end to a truly beautiful building but it was undeniably sublime.
By the time of its demolition, Penn was full of unsightly newspaper kiosks, advertisements, and an jarring, modernist ticket counter that drastically changed the circulation through the building’s waiting room. But that is not the Penn Station we remember. There’s a line in The Eternal Space about a soldier who died in World War II: “how perfect he seems in death.” The same could be said about the station. Penn Station lives on through widely distributed photographs depicting the station at the peak of its monumental grandeur, such as those seen at the top of this post. The Penn Station we miss–even those of us who weren’t even a gleam in our father’s eye at the the time of its demolition–is one that hadn’t existed for a long time. And yet, these photos create a longing.
Wednesday night it occurred to me that contemporary architectural renderings serve a similar purpose. A good rendering of a beautiful design evokes a sort of reverse nostalgia; not a longing for something that’s gone, but a longing for something to exist. They can be incredibly convincing and they can reach a massive audience incredibly quickly. Renderings have become powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. Are they informative? No doubt. Are they manipulative? Maybe a little.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, the nostalgia-provoking photos of old Penn were/are manipulative in their own way. Images of a pristine Penn Station were used by advocacy groups to sway public sentiment and garner support for new policy, eventually leading to new legislation and the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – the first organization in the city empowered to protect New York’s architectural heritage.
But that’s all in the past. There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of Penn Station thanks to the recent decision by New York City Planning Commission to renew Madison Square Garden’s permit for only 10 years and a design competition recently organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), who invited four prominent local architects to submit a vision of Penn Station’s future. These projects are described in length on the MAS site but I just wanted to focus on one project –one image, really– that I think really starts to get at this idea of inverse nostalgia:
This rendering from Shop feels so well thought-out. It seems to have been carefully designed to imitate the iconic photos of New York’s two great train stations. To speculate a bit, I think architectural renderings in general will become more influential as they evolve to either become 1) more realistic, and/or 2) more artistic – that is to say, able to be considered a work of art, or at the very least to be able to evoke an emotional response. I think the above rendering is more a case of the latter. The soft lighting, the sunbeams, the massive space and sense of scale. It’s beautiful. And it evokes some halcyon past. This photo of Grand Central came immediately to mind:
Images have power. Even before this recent discussion about moving Madison Square Garden, Penn Station has had a hold on New Yorkers’ imagination thank largely to its photographs. As for its future – what should a modern Penn Station be like? Should there even be a new Penn Station? Those are questions people will be asking a lot over the next 10 years. Architects will talk about sustainability and new technologies and radical formal possibilities, and civic space –all important considerations to be sure– but at the end of the day, if there is going to be a new Penn Station it should be beautiful. It needs to satiate that longing and mitigate that sense of loss felt every time we see a picture of what was or an image of what could be.
March 26, 2013
The minivan turns 30 this year. If it were a person, it might be shopping for a minivan of its own to haul the kids to soccer practice and take family vacations to Myrtle Beach. But it also might stare at itself in the mirror, check for a receding hairline, and ask some serious question like “How did I get here?” and “What am I doing with my life?” To celebrate this important milestone in the life of the minivan, let’s look back on its origins.
When Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1983, the company was on the brink of collapse. It was a situation that sounds like it could have come from yesterday’s headlines: the company was nearly bankrupt and surviving off a $1.5 billion loan from Uncle Sam. At the time, Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich were heading up Chrysler. Both men had worked on the 1963 Mustang and both had been ignominiously fired from Ford. Sperlich’s dismissal resulted, in part, from his constant exhortations to Henry Ford II to move forward with something Sperlich was calling the “mini-max” – a smaller version of Ford’s popular Econoline, named for minimum exterior, maximum interior. Market research had determined that for such a veheicle to be a success, it needed three critical elements: the floor had to be kept low enough for women to comfortably drive it, it must be small enough to fit in a garage, and the engine had to be far enough from the driver to provide “crush space” in the event of an accident. Ford dismissed the idea but by the time Sperlich ended up at Chrysler he would, with Iacocca’s help, get the struggling auto manufacturer to put nearly half of that $1.5 billion toward the development of a truly game-changing vehicle.
In the early 1970s, a team of 100 Chrysler engineers had been collaborating on a project that was being referred to in-house as the “garageable van.” The name pretty much describes what they were going for: a spacious family vehicle that could fit in a standard garage. Money was obviously a huge problem for Chrysler, and due to the massive development costs tied to creating an entirely new model, the project was never approved. The failing company was afraid to be the first to market with an untested vehicle. The thought was, if there was a market for these miniature vans, someone else –GM and Ford, namely– would be producing them. But Chrysler needed to take a risk. And in 1980 Iacocca forced the company to allocate the necessary funds and, under the guidance of Sperlich, the design team moved forward.
Sperlich’s background was in product planning. This meant that it was his job to find the right balance of power, speed, space, and cost that’s essential to a successful vehicle. He envisioned a van that could be built on a car chassis. Something more than a station wagon but less than a full size van. Luckily, Chrysler had just the thing. The minivan was built on a modified version of the recently introduced K-Car chassis that was the basis for most of Chrysler’s cars at the time. The front-wheel-drive K-Platform let Chrysler keep the overall size down and maintain an expansive, open interior – qualities that previous research proved to be essential. The final height of the first minivan would be just 64 inches – 15 inches lower than the smallest van on the market at the time. The overall form of the new vehicle was called a “one-box” design, as opposite to the three-box design –hood, cabin, trunk– of standard cars. The other distinguishing features of the new minivan were its car-like features – notably including power windows, comfortable interiors, a nice dashboard, and front-wheel drive. These also explain the appeal of the vehicle. Not only did it fit in a garage like a car, but it actually drove like a car, while also providing plenty of room for the kids and luggage and giving mom a nice, high view of the road.
But what explains the minivan’s most iconic feature – the single, sliding door? That, it seems, was a bit of value engineering that just stuck. From early in the design process, it was determined that the new vehicle would be targeted toward families. The sliding door made it easy to for people to quickly enter or exit the vehicle and, with its lack of hinges, the sliding door was seen as a safer option for children. Initially, the door was only installed on one side to save on manufacturing costs during the cash-strapped company’s tentative foray into an entirely new market. When the van debuted, no one complained. So why mess with success?
Although Chrysler may have been the first to market with the minivan, but they didn’t invent the idea of the miniature van. Small vans and large cars were in production in Europe and Asia since the 1950s, such as the idiosyncratic Stout Scarab, the iconic Volkswagen bus, and the DKW Schnellaster (above image), a 1949 FWD vehicle that has been called “The Mother of all modern minivans.”
But in 1983 when Chrysler introduced the Voyager and the Caravan –named for its origins, “car and van” – they almost literally created the mold for the minivan. Not only that, but they created an entirely new market. The vehicle wasn’t sexy and it wasn’t even that great of a car, but it was an immediate success. Road and Track called it “a straightforward, honest vehicle. Honest in the sense that is is designed to be utilitarian. Yet it is clean and pleasant to look at. It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not.” Car and Driver were even more effusive, reporting that the new models from Chrysler were “a sparkling example of the kind of thinking that will power Detroit out of its rut and may very well serve to accelerate Chrysler’s drive back to the big time.” Indeed, Chrysler couldn’t make them fast enough, and drivers waited weeks for the minivan. It was a practical car that the baby boomers needed. The success of the minivan helped bring the company back from the edge of bankruptcy. As the minivan turns 30, its story seems more relevant now than ever. Hopefully, history will repeat itself and Detroit will once again start producing some exciting, game-changing automobiles.
Paul Ingassia, Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012); Michael L. Berger, The Automobile in American History and Culture: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2001); ”The Caravan/Voyager Development Story,” Allpar; United States International Trade Commission, Minivans from Japan (1992); Paul Niedermeyer, “The Mother of All Modern Minivans,” The Truth About Cars(March 29, 2010); Charles K. Hyde, Riding the Roller Coaster: A History of the Chrysler Corporation (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003)
March 7, 2013
I recently went skydiving for the first time. It was possibly the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. A couple days later, once I had time to process everything, my thoughts turned to that backpack that kept me alive. When was it designed? Who was the inventor that made it possible for me to survive a fall of 10,000 feet? Some quick research told that that I owed my life to a Russian actor named Gleb Kotelnikov, who is credited with inventing the first backpack parachute in 1911. Surprisingly little is written about Kotelnikov –at least in English– but assuming Google translate can be trusted, he was compelled to create the parachute after witnessing the death of pilot Leo Matsievich during an air show in St. Petersburg. From that horrible moment, Kotelnikov, a former theater actor, dedicated the rest of his life to preventing the unnecessary deaths of airplane pilots. By the early 20th century, basic parachutes were already widely used to perform jumps from hot-air balloons, and of course the idea of the parachute famously goes back all the way to Leonardo da Vinci, but these early parachutes were elaborate and cumbersome, and the high speed at which planes traveled required a more efficient design.
Kotenikov wasn’t alone in his realization that planes required a new type of parachute, but many early designs were actually attached to the plane itself and could get tangled with the crashing vehicle or separated from the pilot. Kotelnikov’s innovation came with the realization that for a parachute to save lives, it had to meet two primary qualifications: it had to always be with the pilot –ideally, it would be attached to him in some way– and it had to open automatically – presumably to protect the pilot if he lost consciousness. He developed several prototypes that met these qualifications, including a parachute helmet, a parachute belt, and a parachute attached to several points of the body via an elaborate harness. Eventually he came up a working model for a stable parachute in a hard knapsack that would be attached to the pilot by a harness. He dubbed the invention the RK-1 (Russian Kotelnikov 1). The RK-1 was attached to the plane by static line that would pull the chute open once the pilot reached the proper distance from the aircraft, but it could also be opened manually by pulling a cord. The race for the parachute patent was competitive and Kotelnikov conducted several tests in secret, including one particularly noteworthy experiment at a race track. He attached his RK-1 to a racing car, drove it up to full speed, and pulled the cord. The pack opened successfully, the resistance stalled the engine, and the car was dragged to a full stop. So not only can Gleb Kotelnikov be credited as the designer the backpack parachute, but also, incidentally, as the inventor of the drag chute (although in 1911 nothing really moved fast enough to actually require a drag chute). Kotelnikov took his field-tested design to the Central Engineering Department of the War Ministry, which promptly –and repeatedly– refused to put his design into production. Kotelnikov’s design had proven that it could save lives, but the Russian military were concerned that if their pilots were given the means to safely evacuate their planes, they would do so at the slightest sign of any danger, and unnecessarily sacrifice the expensive vehicle instead of trying to pilot it to safety.
The story gets a little hazy from there. From what I can discern with the help of automatic translators, an aviation company helped Kotelnikov market his invention in Europe. The RK-1 was met with wide acclaim but the company backed out of their deal with Kotelnikov – conveniently around the same time that one of the two prototype parachutes was stolen from the Russian inventor. In the years leading up to World War I he returned to Russia and found that the government was more receptive to his invention, but by then parachutes inspired by –and sometimes copied from– his original design were appearing throughout Europe.
After World War I proved the importance of aviation and the value of the parachute, the U.S. Army assembled a team to perfect the design of this new life-saving device. The key members of this task force were test pilot James Floyd Smith and film stuntman Leslie Irvin, who patented his own static-line parachute in 1918 and would go on to start the Irvin Airchute Company the following year. Smith also had a couple patents under his belt, including “The Smith Aerial Life Pack,” which The Parachute Manual calls the first “modern free type” (re: manually operated) parachute. Whether or not these American designs were at all inspired by Kotelnikov’s, or one of the many other experimental parachutes that were in use during the war, is hard to say. But Smith’s innovation seems to be simplicity: his Life Pack consisted of a single piece of waterproof fabric wrapped over a silk parachute and held together by rubber bands that would be released when the jumper pulled a ripcord. It has the distinction of being the first patented soft-pack parachute (Kotelnikov’s soft-pack design, the RK-2, didn’t go into production until the 1920s.).
The military team led by Smith and Irvin eventually came up with the Airplane Parachute Type-A. Modeled closely after the Smith Life Pack, the primary components of the Type-A were a 28-foot diameter silk canopy, a soft backpack and harness, a ripcord, and a two-foot diameter pilot chute (a small parachute used to help deploy the main chute). Naturally, Irvin was the first man to test this new design and upon doing so on April 28, 1919, he became the first American to jump from an airplane and open a manually open a parachute in midair. The Type-A was approve and produced for the military by Irvin’s recently formed company.
The team led by Smith and Irvin was in charge of parachute design through the next World War and into the 1950s. Irvin’s company dominated the market. Not only did they produce the parachutes for the U.S. military, but they eventually also pioneered the development of the civilian and recreational parachute industry. After the Type-A, designs evolved quickly and are too numerous to mention in this post. Although its history is inextricably tied to the history of aviation, it took a complete outsider, an actor moved by tragedy, to create the first successful parachute nearly a century ago. Countless innovations, both large and small, have since refined the design of the parachute so much that it is now safe enough for even a shaky-kneed amateur to defy gravity at 10,000 feet.
Dan Poynter, The Parachute Manual: A Technical Treatise on Aerodynamic Decelerators (Santa Barbara, CA: Para Publishing, 1991); “Parachute Russian, Kotelnikov,” http://www.yazib.org/yb030604.html; “Leslie Irvin, Parchutist,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Irvin_(parachutist); “James Flloyd Smith,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Floyd_Smith; Google Patents, http://google.com/patents
March 5, 2013
From the moment the first hot-air balloon took flight in 1783, the earliest pioneers of human flight believed that the true future of aviation depended on the lighter-than-air inflatables and the creation of massive airships. Benjamin Franklin believed hot-air balloons “to be “a discovery of great importance, and one which may possibly give a new turn to human affairs.” He even suggested that they may herald an end to war. By the late 19th century balloons had been used for sport, travel, commerce, adventure, and, despite Franklin’s dreams, even war. But these designs rarely deviated from the now-iconic balloon-and-basket that’s now familiar to anyone who has ever seen The Wizard of Oz or Around the World in 80 Days. However, there were a few mad visionaries who thought bigger than the basket, designing incredibly elaborate, sometimes ingenious, balloon machines that could carry hundreds of passengers across the globe or a single individual across a city.
The early success with balloon flight inspired designers to push the limit of possibility and inventiveness. One of the largest ships imagined by early balloonists was proposed by a physicist named Robertson in 1804, the Minerva (top image), “an aerial vessel destined for discoveries, and proposed to all the Academies of Europe.” Robertson’s great ship was supported by a 150-foot diameter silk balloon coated in india-rubber and designed to carry up to 150,000 pounds. For its maiden voyage, Robertson planned for the Minevra to carry 60 people, mostly academics, halfway around the world for a period of up to six months. These scholars and scientists would observe, collect data, and conduct experiments. The trip would be particularly useful for cartographers, who would create new maps of previously impenetrable and unexplored landscapes. The great ship that carried these prestigious passengers was equipped with “all the things necessary for the convenience, the observations, and even the pleasures of the voyagers.” This included a large barrel for storing water and wine, a gym, an observatory equipped with all manner of instruments, a kitchen (“the only place where a fire shall be permitted”), a theater, and a boat. Robertson, it would seem, had planned for everything – even the failure of his invention.
“Over what a vast space might not one travel in six months with a balloon fully furnished with the necessaries of life, and all the appliances necessary for safety? Besides, if, through the natural imperfection attaching to all the works of man, or either through accident or age, the balloon, borne above the sea, became incapable of sustaining the travellers [sic], it is provided with a boat, which can withstand the waters and guarantee the return of the voyagers.”
It all sounds very civilized, doesn’t it? A cruise ship in the sky.
Of course, Robertson wasn’t alone in his dreams of mastering the skies for economic and cultural gain. This cartoonish vehicle, referred to as “The Great Aerial Navigator or Atmospheric Machine” was created by the presumably short-lived London-based Aerial Conveyance Company to move troops and government officials to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. A single engine controls the many paddles, wheels, arms, wings, and the amenities are otherwise similar to those offered by the Minerva.
The “Aeronautic Chariot” was designed in the 1780s, shortly after the first successful balloon flight in history, by Richard Crosbie, “Ireland’s First Aeronaut.” It was one of the first designs for air travel and, as a result, a relatively straightforward combination of old and new, joining traditional ship design with its masts, sails, paddles, and rigging, with a 40-foot-diameter hydrogen-filled balloon. The large paddles attached to the hull of the ship were designed to be spun so quickly that the resulting gusts would fill the sails with enough air to move the ship forward. The main hull of the Chariot was actually built for an exhibition, although it never successfully took flight.
Breaking from the nautical tradition completely, French balloonist Petin designed an 160-yard-long airship held aloft by four balloons, “each of which should have the diameter of the Corn Exchange of Paris.” Unlike some of the other designs, there was no primary cabin or ship’s hull for passengers, but rather an enormous platform – a sort of aerial promenade. One of the biggest challenges facing early aeronauts was devising a way to actually steer the balloon, and Petin’s proposed design for a steering mechanism was almost elegant in its simplicity. He created an airscrew that looks and works like a cross between air airplane propeller and a Venetian blind that could be opened and closed to catch the wind and steer the ship (an exhaustive and exhausting scientific explanation of the how the ship was flown can be read here). Petin petitioned the French government for financing but they would have none of it. Their reluctance may be explained by what some reported as a fear that ballooning would adversely affect the custom-house and possibly destabilize the country.
From massive creations designed to convey hundreds of people, we now turn to an early personal hot air balloon. The “saddle balloon” was designed by German engineer George Rodek around 1895. The above illustration, which is uncredited, looks something like a flying police officer surveying the city below him with an incandescent searchlight; the all-seeing eye of the Berlin’s flying finest. Or it could be some sort of pulp, fin-de-siecle superhero: The Aeronaut. This particular aeronaut, surrounded by his meteorological equipment, sandbags, and enormous grappling hook, may well have been the daring Rodek himself, who actually built this device and astounded onlookers by ascending in his ingenious, though surely uncomfortable vehicle.
When the Wright Brothers took to the air with their 1903 flyer, plans for balloon travel were largely –though not completely– abandoned. There was still a cultural and strategic use for balloons, and dreams of airships never quite died, but with the dawn of the 20th century, scientists, designers, and engineers seem to have switched their attentions to mastering the aeroplane. Today, with a few notable exceptions, the hot-air balloon that once seemed poised to change the world is mostly just used for sightseeing and wedding proposals, but the inventiveness of these early designs will always inspire wonder at what could-have-been.
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