Today, new futuristic-looking technologies often attract investors hoping to make gobs of money. And airships of the past were no different. In the first few decades of the 20th century people scrambled to figure out how they might cash in on these exciting new inventions, which were slowly beginning to prove themselves technologically reliable.
But not everyone thought that commercial flight was a good investment. The January 2, 1909, issue of Literary Digest re-published portions of a December 10, 1908 editorial in Engineering News under the headline, “A Warning to Air-Ship Investors.” The article spells out the various ways people of the era thought there may be money in flight — transporting freight, passenger travel, warfare — but the author remains extremely skeptical that any of those applications would pay off financially anytime soon.
Literary Digest explains that “companies to build, sell, and operate new types of flying-machines will before long be seeking stock subscriptions in every city in the country. How shall we distinguish the false from the true? The advice of the [Engineering News] is to keep clear of the whole business.”
From the December 10, 1908 Engineering News:
So far as the possibilities of freight transportation are concerned, it may be passed with a word. Wherever ordinary methods of transportation on land are available, it will be absurd to carry goods of any sort through the air. The cost of such transport would be measured not in mills per ton mile, as in rail or water carriage, or cents per ton mile, as in wagon haulage, but in dollars or hundreds of dollars per ton.
It is true that for exploration in difficult country, as over the Arctic ice or in rough mountain regions, there are possibilities in the air-ship. But such use, of course, is rather scientific than commercial.
The article continues by laying out the impracticality of passenger air travel, seeing it as more of an amusement that might be useful at fairs, rather than as a practical means of transportation. Interestingly, the author also calls out the high-speed automobile as a toy of the rich which allows them to “vent their surplus energies.”
For the carriage of passengers, the necessary risks attendant upon flight through the air, either with the dirigible balloon or the aeroplane, are certain to limit passenger traffic to the field of sport and amusement. This is, of course, a much more considerable field than is often realized. The public is willing to pay very high prices for mere amusement, and it is altogether probable that a few years hence aeroplane flights will be a drawing card at county fairs and other public occasions, just as ordinary balloon ascensions have been for a century past. The experience of the high-speed automobile, too, has proved the existence of a very large leisure class of wealthy men who find vent for their surplus energies in undertaking all sorts of risky exploits. Flight through the air may very likely become as popular a fad a few years hence as automobile racing is to-day; but it will have just as little relation to the serious, practical, every-day business of carrying freight and passengers for the great workaday world as have the hundred-horsepower automobiles that break speed records in France or America.
Warfare of the future isn’t even seen as a possible use for airships. As Engineering News explains, flying machines are far too vulnerable to bullets from the ground.
It is said that the leading military nations are vying with each other at the present time in the development of military air-ships, but this does not prove that these structures can be made practically useful in the serious business of actual warfare... Of all the apparatus ever proposed for use on the battle-field, a flying-machine is beyond all question the most vulnerable. It offers an ideal mark to the bullets of the enemy. Its limitations of weight forbid its protection by any sort of armor. Had the flying-machine been developed forty or fifty years ago, when projectiles were limited to small velocities and short ranges, it might have performed some service in observing the enemy’s forces; but with modern infantry rifles discharging projectiles with an initial velocity of 2,700 feet per second, and with light artillery fitted to discharge a perfect hail-storm of bullets having equal velocity and range, the rise of an air-ship at any point within several miles of a hostile army would be merely the signal for its immediate destruction.
Engineering News was correct that military airships were being developed. These planes would advance considerably in the lead up to the First World War, where they were not only used for reconnaissance, but also mounted with machine guns and used for strategic bombing. In 1909, on July 27, the Wright Brothers tested a military airplane in Fort Meyer, Virginia. Film from the National Archives of the Wright Brothers testing that plane is embedded below.
This post originally appeared at Smithsonian.com.
Photo: Thomas Scott Baldwin’s airship at the St. Louis Exposition (Library of Congress, 1904)