Saturday, July 21, 2012

John Ross Browne, "The Great Steam Duck" (1841)




Of a most useful and extraordinary invention for



“Tis not anger, but justice, makes us write:
Such sons of darkness must be dragged to light.” Walter Harte—Essay on Satire.


Printed by order of the Louisville Literary Brass Band.


N an essay published some time ago in one our periodicals, I took occasion to animadvert on the absurdities of a plan for navigating the air, recently presented to the public by an ingenious aëronaut of St. Louis. If, in the course of the present lecture, I find it convenient to repeat part of this essay, I shall do so with the belief, or least the hope, that none of you have read it. I shall also confine myself as closely as possible to this sublunary sphere, tho’ my subject is throughout susceptible of the highest flights of imagination.

The principles upon which aërostation, or the art of navigating the air, has been founded, are of some antiquity; altho’ the application of them to practice seems to be altogether of modern discovery. The peculiar property of the atmosphere which induced philosophers to make such experiments as finally led to this discovery, has long been known. It was an axiom among chemists and philosophers, before the seventeenth century, that ‘any body which is specifically or bulk for bulk, lighter than the atmospheric air encompassing the earth will be buoyed up by it and ascend; but as the density of the atmosphere decreases, on account of the diminished pressure of the superincumbent air, and the elastic property which it possesses at different elevations above the earth, this body can rise only to a height in which the surrounding air will be of the same specific gravity with itself.’ Other facts have since led to the discovery that in this situation the encasing body will either float or be driven in the direction of the wind or current of air to which it is exposed. Henry Cavendish, by his experiments on the specific gravity of the air, furnished material for the structure of a system which was first carried into practice by the French philosophers of the eighteenth century. We know that long previous to this era, one of the heathen gods attempted to reach the sun by means of artificial wings; but got a considerable fall in consequence of that luminary burning the wax by which they were attached; and, also that Rasselas Prince of Abbasynia witnessed a most deplorable calamity in his happy valley; but with the exception of some suggestions in Bishop Wilkins’ “Daedalus,” nothing possessing the least claim to a probability of success was either suggested or carried into execution until the time of Dr. Black, of Edinburgh.
By using a solution of soap so as to render the instrument of his experiment sufficiently light, this philosopher succeeded after the utmost perseverance in floating a bladder, and thus creating the first inflammable air-balloon ever known.
For the best statistics of the progress of art in France we are indebted to Lord Wm. Lennox, who has lately with much research collected a number of facts tending to elucidate the history of aerial navigation. Monk Mason has published at greater length an erudite work on ballooning; but for all practical purposes it is too voluminous. According to the former, France had the honor of having given birth to the first aëronauts who experimented on a large scale. These were two brothers of Annody, Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier, paper makers by trade. They distinguished themselves in 1782 by exhibiting their great aërostatic machines, which have since excited such attention.[1]
M. Pilatre de Rozier was the first aëronaut who ventured to ascend in a balloon.
Though aërostation progressed rapidly in France, no authentic account is given of aerial experiments in England until the close of the year 1783; and in fact they did not become frequent until 1784. Zambecarri, an Italian, made the first attempt, or rather the first of any promise. Vincent Lunardi performed the first aerial voyage. It took place in May 1784.
The most distinguished English adventurers from that time forward, were Mr. Sheldon, Mr. Saddler, Lieut. Harris and Capt. Snowden.
Of the French those best known are Monsieur Blanchard, the Marquis D’Arauds, Messieurs De Rozier and Romain, and the Chevalier De L’Epinard.
Having disposed of the distinguished foreign aëronauts let us proceed to examine the claims of our American adventurers.
The first aerial voyage in America was made by Mr. Blanchard, who ascended from Philadelphia on the 9th of January 1793, in the presence of General Washington and a multitude of people. Since that time ballooning has been as prevalent in the U. States as in any other country; and it is needless to mention our aëronauts consecutively.
Of those who have ever enlightened the world on aërostation none is more justly eulogized than Mr. Green. His system however is so generally known that it needs no description. Let it suffice to say this aëronaut is now making experiments which promise the most satisfactory success.
We learn from the American Magazine that “about three years ago a Mr. H. Strait of Rensselaer county N. York, made a communication to Prof. Silliman of New Haven, Ct. editor of the American Journal of Science and Arts, on Aerial navigation, which was lately published in that periodical. Little has been said of the plan of Mr. Strait, as to whether it was practicable or would probably be useful. But in this age of enquiry, it seems proper to lay before the public every project which is not evidently so visionary as to promise no useful results whatever. Mr. Strait, like all others who have formed plans with some labor and attention, thinks his project quite practicable, and with some improvements capable of becoming the means of frequent conveyance and transportation.
His plan is to have the united assistance of inflammable or rarified air and the percussion of wings. The first is to supply the means of ascent, and this power is to be governed at pleasure by the percussion of wings; the latter to be so constructed as to be moved with the greatest facility, whatever the size or shape. The materials of which they are made should be light, strong, durable and capable of elasticity. He thinks they may be made so as to be very little heavier, in proportion to their surface, than birds’ wings, and equally movable. They are also to supercede the need of a parachute, and to regulate ascent and descent, to insure and assist progress, and to prevent fatal consequences from the rarified air envelope bursting, or being torn. A description is given of the wings as to shape, construction, connexion with the balloon, and their operation; and he supposes their motion will be easy, and in a great measure independent of weight, shape, or size, and the percussion powerful and constant. He also shows the manner in which the wings are to be fastened to the balloon; but supposes a sufficiency of rarified air to overcome the weight of the balloon, its apparatus and load.
He is of opinion that the form of the balloon should be similar to that of the vessel which tracts in the denser medium of water. The wings he proposes to fasten about five feet below the balloon. The car is to be attached to the wings. The pilot is to stand upright if he chooses, and so that his hands shall come upon, or have full command of the wings for moving them.”
An improvement on this plan was lately presented to the citizens of this place in the shape of a miniature model by a Mr. Angleson. This gentleman, like many before him, did not discover till too late that the invention which he was honestly exhibiting as his own, was several years old, and if well investigated, probably several centuries.
In a pamphlet published some time ago, by Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson, we are informed that the author is the true and original inventor of the Aërostat. To this assertion we may reply in the words of a Roman satirist—”Obsecro tuum est? vetus credideram!”—”Is it thine? I thought the invention was an old one!”
Mr. Davidson very wisely determined in his own mind, when he first conceived the thought and plan of the Aërostat, not to disclose them until after he had experimented on and established their practicability. ‘Because,’ he adds, ‘I was aware of the fact that hitherto inventors and discoverers have been deprived of their rights by designing interlopers, who happened to have the means for experimenting on, and consequently forestalling the true and original discoverers, both as to the honor and profits of their intellectual labor; and secondly, to save my feelings the chagrin and mortification occasioned by the exposition, ridicule, and derision invariably heaped upon all innovations.’
Again he says: ‘I had no means for experimenting on my theory, and to keep it to myself, under the daily apprehension of its being discovered by some one else, placed me in a peculiar situation indeed.’ To remove this difficulty, he has disclosed his secret to an enlightened public, trusting to their generosity and to the practicability of his invention, to furnish him with means for the experiment. He offers FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS for and in consideration of the loan of FIVE THOUSAND—predicated on his chance of success—as flattering a speculation for the monied man as ever a Gregory or a Sylvester offered; and, in this financial revolution and bank-plague, the speculator who has no other use for five thousand dollars could not dispose of them better or to greater advantage than by accepting the proposal.
Proceed we next to examine the gentleman’s claims to originality. He introduces his disclosure by a historical sketch of aëronautic navigation, from the time of Friar Bacon, in the thirteenth century, to that of himself in the nineteenth century—an era in which ‘a great number of extraordinary and useful inventions have marked, as with the finger of inspiration,’ the mighty march of intellect. Richard Oglesby Davidson’s sketch is ingenious and shows some research; but it is deficient in one point—it cannot make him the inventor of the “aërostat—a point which he labors so assiduously to prove.
If he examines the annals of modem improvement a little more closely than he seems to have done, he will at once perceive that he has been preceded, and that the honor of the invention is due to another—perhaps a less learned explorer in the ‘airy world,’ but one who has certainly carried the science to greater perfection than Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson or any of his predecessors. It is not for me to say whether the invention referred to was or was not original—for few things can now claim that title—and some have even doubted whether there is such a trait at all in the human mind as originality—but the description given of the aërostat, though less prolix, and therefore falling under Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson’s strictures on ‘abstract theories,’ is substantially the same as that of the American Eagle. Let an extract suffice:
‘It has long been considered,’ says the author, ‘that steam cannot be employed successfully in aëronautical navigation; but I have proof incontestible that this is a crude prejudice, based upon neither equity nor justice. [For on[2]] November, 1839 [I] invented an extraordinary Flying Duck. This animal partakes of rara avis, and is shaped like the ordinary wild duck, but has greater breadth of wing and beam. I have constructed its wings of whale-bone and very stout silk, and plastered them with a certain slippery compound, to ease their motion. In the breast, or craw, are the works; and the hind part is partitioned off into berths; a large window in the stern giving light.’ There is but one material difference between this Aërostat and that of Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson, but it constitutes a vast superiority, viz.: The propelling power in the former is steam—that in the latter is manual labor; and it must be evident to the most casual observer, that steam is infinitely superior, no human power being able to endure the exertion necessary to raise itself. The Steam Duck, exclusive of other advantages, is a self-propeller—i. e., the machinery being the only foreign aid—and, from its peculiar construction, is capable of enduring all the dangers of flood and storm.
Although Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson endeavors to prove that we must adhere in every particular to nature, yet it has frequently been found convenient to depart from it—as in the formation of the wings of this Aërostat. As it is, let us see their affinity to nature:
‘The principle of ascending the air by means of a balloon,’ says the learned aëronaut, ‘grows out of the atmosphere, and is susceptible of the clearest demonstration. But instead of its aiding the world in discovering the means for navigating the air, I have no doubt that it operates as a blind in the matter. In itself it is perfectly sui generis. It acts upon no natural principles; it employs no power, natural or artificial; nor does it imitate any animal belonging to the three great elements, earth, water, and air.’
We cannot coincide with Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson in many points of this paragraph. Instead of the balloon operating as a blind as regards discoveries for navigating the air; by what means, we ask, in the absence of the balloon, could we have discovered the actual resistance of the air?—the height to which it extends?—how and in what manner it ceases to support life?—the invaluable uses of aëromancy and of the gases?—and numberless other branches of the sciences of Aëronautical navigation?
‘How then,’ he suggests, ‘is man to carry himself upon the atmosphere with safety and expedition?’ I answer, by adopting a principle founded in, and imitating a model in creating his machine, and employing a power furnished By nature. Now he has not only answered the question to the satisfaction of every one, but imitated a model, so closely indeed that he has hatched an Eagle out of a Duck, and produced by the process, a most wonderful specimen in ornithology.
Literally speaking, the American Eagle is a noble bird—
‘The emblem of the brave and free?’ but a question arises, in ‘following nature,’ whether he can fly as fast or swim as buoyantly as the common duck? Every ornithologist knows he cannot. Therefore, in the same ratio as the duck can fly faster and swim better than the eagle, is the original Aërostat or Steam Duck superior in model and construction to the American Eagle.
Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson, after some philosophical reflections on the probable resistance of that airy nothing, which has proved too subtle for the unsuitable means hitherto suggested by the ingenuity of man, proceeds with a very ingenious, though somewhat intricate account of the construction and mode of operation of the Aërostat. It is formed as the bird from which it derives its name. The chief framing of the body is made of whalebone covered with oiled silk or varnished linen. The wings are jointed and moved by cranks acted upon by a series of compound levers. The rudder is formed like a shovel and made out of thin plank. The internal machinery is propelled by the conductor who seats himself in the centre of the Aërostat when it is ‘in transitu.’
The great obstacle to this plan is, that, governed by a certain law of gravity, the conductor could not raise his own weight, much less that of a machine several hundred pounds heavier; but Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson seems to have calculated his power otherwise.
Anticipating its progress through the air, he says:
‘Each revolution of the cranks of the large wheels produces four strokes with the wings, the points of which describe sections of a circle twelve feet in length. This motion of the wings raises the Aërostat gradually at an angle of about five degrees, during the space of fifteen minutes; in which time it has traversed a distance of six or seven miles. It is now at a point sufficiently elevated above all obstacles connected with the earth, and the conductor regulates the application of the power so as to maintain his altitude; and the motion of the wings and the influence of gravitation move the Aërostat through the atmosphere at the rate of 100 miles an hour.
Imagine him for a moment, poetically describing his flight in the language of Cowper. He is taking a voyage to heaven in his “American Eagle.”

I bid adieu to bolts and bars,
And soar with angels to the stars,
Like him of old to whom ‘twas given,
To mount on flery wheels to heaven.
“Boötes’ wagon” slow with cold,
Appals me not; nor to behold
The sword that vast Orion draws,
Or even the Scorpion’s horrid claws.
Beyond the Sun’s bright orb I fly,
And far beneath my feet descry
Night’s sable goddess, seen with awe,
Whom her winged dragons draw.
Thus ever wondering at my speed,
Augmented still as I proceed,
I pass the planetary sphere,
The Milky Way—and now appear
Heaven’s crystal battlements, her door
Of massy pearl and emerald floor.
But here I cease; for never can
The tongue of once a mortal man,
In suitable description trace,
The pleasures of that happy place!

To return to the matter of fact part of our subject:—It is a well known principle in mechanics that the influence of friction is such as to prohibit all possibility of increasing the power with a similar increase in the velocity of the machine acted upon by the propeller. Hence instead of gaining power at every revolution, by his levers, steel-wheels and elastic wood-springs, he would lose nearly four-fold, besides the resistance or friction, which may be subtracted as one-fifth part of the original power—allowing the cranks propelled by the conductor to produce four revolutions or strokes with the wings—and this loss is calculated without reference to any diminution of power in raising the wings or giving the onward impetus. And yet the learned Aëronaut pens such a paragraph as this: ‘The machinery of the aërostat is in nature a compound lever, and without entering into a mathematical calculation or demonstration of its power, it is sufficient for my present purpose to state that nothing, or but very little, is lost of the power applied to the cranks, in its passage to the wings. And it will be recollected the wings move four times as fast, or, in other words, make four strokes while the cranks perform one revolution. Then I am safe in saying that, in this case, there is a facility imparted to the wings equal in effect to four times the power applied to the cranks.’ This is a bold assertion for an experienced mechanist. Let us suppose one wheel, three feet in diameter, with cogs or band, stationed so as to act upon several smaller wheels, compound levers and springs—the whole directly or indirectly uniting their powers to propel a wheel of Similar dimensions to the original one; will the first or propelling power, be increased, in effect or otherwise, by their agency? It is obvious that in a case like this, the more complicated the machinery, the greater is the friction, and consequently the greater the decrease of power. Then allowing, as all must, that a wheel of similar dimensions to the original one, loses more or less power, varying according to the combination machinery intervening, in being acted upon by the propelling agent, what power will be lost by a wheel, under the same circumstances, and only one-fourth the diameter. The result is apparent: it has not one-fourth the original power.—Hence we cannot ‘take it for granted’ that Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson’s power is sufficient to put his wings in motion, although he does endeavor to prove that in this case the velocity is power. He calculates largely on the assistance to be derived from the atmosphere in driving down the tail or rudder and thus elevating the head so as to give the aërostat an upward direction—by which means, he opines, the American Eagle will nearly fly of itself. And in another version of the plan, he seems to think that under the arrangement stated, the blowing of the wind instead of being a disadvantage, will aid the conductor in going directly against it.—’The stronger it blows the faster will be the speed of the aërostat.’ This sounds not unlike the invention which caused such commotion a few years ago amongst the ship builders of the East. A hull was fitted up with wheelhouses, paddles, flywheel, &c. and other appurtenances of a steam-ship. In the middle, instead of a mast, stood a wind-mill, to which cog-wheels or bands from the axle of the flywheel below, were attached and thus caused the paddles to revolve as if propelled by steam. The intention was that it should so far gain upon the wind as to make rapid progress against the most stormy opposition, and in calm weather create a wind to drive itself, increasing in its velocity until it had raised a gale.
The great misfortune was that, like a pedestrian climbing a slippery hill, every two steps forward produced three steps back; and we are sorry to think Mr. Davidson’s Eagle would share the same fate.
What, it may be asked, is the remedy? We answer, a different organization of the powers employed; a less complex quantity of machinery; a total distrust of manual labor; and a model founded upon principles the most practicable and convenient.
Although Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson patriotically calls upon his countrymen, and asks them if they will suffer this invention—aye, this new invention—‘for it has never been tried in any age or country, nor by any person living or dead’—to remain untried, and has secured himself the patent by Act of Congress—yet the laurel can no longer sit upon his brow after the following disclosure from the MS of the true inventor, whom modesty forbids me to name, dated Nov. 1839.
‘There are five reasons why the Steam Duck is superior to any other model or version that can be founded on it:
‘1st. It is an original invention.
‘2d. Its construction is peculiarly adapted to aerial navigation.
‘3d. The velocity of the duck is greater than that of any other bird.
‘4th. There is no danger from flood or storm.
‘5th. The machinery is simple; the propelling power is furnished by nature, and is inexhaustible as long as material is supplied; and the whole is founded upon the strictest philosophical principles.
‘The Steam Duck is fifteen feet long from beak to tail, and six feet in diameter at the base or thickest part. It is constructed in the form of a Mallard Duck, a fowl well known for its swiftness of wing and powers of swimming—and the frame work is of light seasoned hickory, and is covered with canvas varnished and airtight.—The wings are not complex—they have but one joint, but are so constructed and worked as to revolve with the necessary motion. This end is attained by having them made similar to the shutter windmill. Thus when they describe an ellipsis, the whole power except the Weight of the wings, is used in raising the Aërostat; and while the impetus given by each revolution or ellipsis shoots the Aërostat several feet in the air, the wings will have elevated themselves for another start downwards. (Here it may be remarked that Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson has miscalculated his power, although he does allow a loss of nine feet out of twelve, in every stroke of the wing. Constructed as his wings are, their resistance against the atmosphere in their upward motion, added to their weight, would indubitably destroy the advantage gained by the stroke downward.) I have ascertained that the total weight of the wings is not more than five pounds, including the resistance of the atmosphere. Hence the impetus, allowing half a second for every stroke, would not suffer any thing to be detracted from the advantage gained by the downward or main stroke.
‘The internal machinery is as remarkable for its simplicity as the external. A small, light, and powerful engine is placed in the breast or craw. The piston moves upward; and drives two slight flywheels, on the spokes of which are two sliding pins describing a circle, as they revolve, of any convenient diameter. These pins, one being at each side, are attached by globular joints to the shoulders of the wings, which extend inward about a foot; and by sliding the pins so as to produce a larger or a smaller circle inside, the outward motion of the wings can be varied. The [es]cap[e]-pipe, passing along the bottom, is conducted out of a small hole under the tail or rudder, and thus gives an additional impetus to the Aërostat, every puff.
‘The fire-place and grate are in front of the boilers; and to save all possible power, by lightening, the ashes and cinders as soon as created fall through a hole in the breast and are lost in the air.
‘In the engine-room is a small partition for fuel, which may be coal or wood; but the latter is preferable, when good and well seasoned, from its efficacy in raising steam.
‘Separated by a partition from the front or engine-room, is a small cabin containing two berths, a table, two chairs, a library of selected and scientific books, thermometer, &c, and other accommodations appertaining to a well furnished study. (We think this is a proper place to say a word on Mr. Richard Oglesby Davidson’s apparent want of consideration. He speaks of the advantages to be derived from being provided with a thermometer, telescope, &c., as if the conductor were not under the penalty of breaking his neck or being dashed to atoms, should he for an instant leave his work. Now the fact—exclusive of any other obstacle to his mode of Aërostation—that he could not spare a hand, even though called by nature, to scratch his head or blow his nose, ought to deter him from making the experiment.)
I have made a calculation to ascertain the power of the Steam Duck, which, I think proves conclusively that success is inevitable:

Engine Room
A light and powerful engine…………….             200
Fireplace, boiler, &c………………………..            50
Poker, tongs and shovel………………….            10
Sundries…………………………………………            10

Chairs, tables &c……………………………            50
Candlesticks, snuffers &c………………            5
Books, and papers………………………….            10
Thermometer and other scientific apparatus.....………………………………         20
Two berths—or in case of a lady adven-turer accompanying, say one…….             50
Power of engine wings in raising
the Aërostat or Steam Duck          700
To spare …………………………………..lbs. 305

‘From this table it will be seen that exclusive of its own weight, the machinery can give a velocity to the wings of the Steam Duck equal to 120 strokes in a minute, by which I conclude it would travel with amazing swiftness—say two hundred miles an hour. I make this calculation with suitable deduction for the resistance of the atmosphere.
But this description has already occupied an undue portion of our time.
Without any intention to damp the ardor of modern explorers in the airy regions, we must say that we have very little faith in artificial flying, or the means of navigating the air by mechanical contrivances of any sort. We fully concur in what a late philosopher says on the subject. ‘Man,’ he observes, ‘should be satisfied with the earth and water, to aid him in passing from one region to another. The air is so light that I believe it is not practicable to travel in it, except before the wind. From the time of Daedalus, there have occasionally been projects and attempts for imitating the mode of conveyance of the birds of the air. But they have not been successful. The hazard is too great to justify the experiment. When balloons were invented forty years ago in France, it was predicted that it would soon become common to journey this way; but heavy bodies cannot be transported through the air. The ostrich never flies: it is too ponderous to rise on so attenuated an element.’
The manuscript before alluded to seems to evince more sanguine hopes of success.
‘In conclusion,’ it adds, winding up with the account of the great Steam Duck, ‘nothing has been said of the danger to which the Aëronaut is exposed from sportsmen and others given to the destruction of the feathered tribe.
Flying over an immense tract of country, it is not to be expected that a bird of this description, so rare and wonderful, can escape the unerring bullet of the rifleman or the scattering charge of the cockney. But any one of common sense can perceive that there never was a real bird with a scape-pipe in the situation described; nor wings shaped and constructed as those of the “steam duck”: yet it might not be amiss to attach to the works an alarm bell, which would prevent all possibility of mistake.’
Many other obstacles of a less serious nature remain to be overcome before Aërostation can attain any degree of perfection. A new and less complex construction in the formation of the Aërostat must be carried into effect; the atmosphere must be conquered; the absurd doctrines of enthusiasts cast aside as leading to error and failure; the visionary schemes of theorists given up for sound and practical experience; an adherence to the laws of nature closely observed; the resources of art and of science ransacked for auxiliary powers; various antidotes resorted to for the annihilation of natural obstacles; and a true and logical system of reasoning substituted for the absurd sophistry with which the world of invention is now enslaved and benighted.
When all these improvements are effected; when men suffer themselves to be guided by reason; when knowledge usurps the place of ignorance; then may we safely prophesy that the triumph of ingenuity is at hand; and that at some future period man can display the mighty offspring of his genius in the face of high heaven itself, and

“—cleave the ethereal plain,
The pride, the wonder of the main.”

[1] In this lecture, before the Lyceum, I stated that for a concise and accurate sketch of the aëronauts from the time of the Montgolflers to that of Mr. Gypson, I was indebted to a late number of the London Review; and with that understanding quoted it at some length. As it has already appeared in the papers of the day, I do not deem it necessary to present here more than an abstract of the statistics therein given.
[2] In the interest of euphony we here insert these words which do not appear in the original. [ed.]

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