FLYING CARS CHAPTER
Here we are, just 24 shopping days until the turn of the millennium, and what I want to know is, what happened to the flying cars? – Gail Collins, 1999
The bland headline appeared in the Washington Times on June 10, 1901: “A New Flying Machine” with the subhead “This Air Ship Can Also Be Used as an Automobile.” There it was, the first flight and the first flying car, delivered together in one neat package.
No invention ever had been as certain to appear as the airplane. For the past decade, world-famous engineers and backyard tinkerers had made the claim over and over. Newspapers reported attempts and “successes” regularly, although these seldom led to even a second mention. Not this time. This flying car received plenty of press throughout the rest of 1901, an awesomely symbolic start to what many people were convinced would be the American century.
The inventor was the enigmatic Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, CT, whose life would have made good fodder for Jules Verne. Born in Bavaria in 1874, his first “flight” was made at the age of thirteen when he jumped off a roof with a pair of wings. Two years later he was shanghaied by the crew of an Australian ship. Whatever his thoughts about that, he apparently loved the sailing life and roamed the world until he was shipwrecked off New Orleans in 1897. Whitehead bounced around the U.S. obsessed by flight, even listing “aeronaut” as his occupation on his marriage certificate. He later claimed that he had returned to Germany to study with the world’s expert on gliders, Otto Lilienthal, but no firm evidence exists. All we know for certain about his progress is that on December 6, 1899, one try was covered by the Pittsburg Post-Gazette under the headline “Didn’t Fly Yesterday.” (Pittsburgh spelled itself Pittsburg for a few years.)
Whitehead was the classic lone inventor who worked in secret, supported by a job as a night watchman. Doing so gave him complete freedom but not the funds to pursue an expensive hobby, having failed a claimed 56 times. He (or someone in the small crowd he confided in) learned to feed newspapers glowing accounts of his feats, to attract publicity and investors. The June 10 article recounts a tale told by Whitehead about two flights his batwing contraption had made back on May 3, one a short treetop-skimmer at about 40 ft., and the second a full half-mile, while carrying 220 pounds of ballast. And more: “The curious feature of Mr. Whitehead’s contrivance is that, as it stands now, it is a combination of an automobile and a flying machine. … [T]he machine traveled along the road with its own power from in front of his house on Pine Street to a place out near Fairfield, [CT], several miles away. It carried another man the whole distance.”
The hole in Whitehead’s story was immediately apparent. He never got in the plane. “Oh, no, I did not ride in the machine; not much,” he wrote in a statement. “It has not reached a sufficient state of perfection for that. I never for a moment had any intention of taking flight in it.” Those are not the heroic words that capture attention. After a few stories pointed out this failure, he dropped from the news for another month until he found a cannier partner, Richard Howell, an editor at his hometown Bridgeport Herald. If heroic achievement were necessary, then heroic achievement would be offered. The bigger, better, longer, and now triumphant tale appeared as a full-page article in the Herald on August 18, simply titled “Flying.” (The headline, oddly, was printed over a drawing of a coven of witches on broomsticks.) Some people even today, especially in Bridgeport, continue to support Whitehead’s claim to be the inventor of the first working airplane, using this article as evidence. The account is minutely detailed. Whitehead and his partner Andrew Cellie drove from Pine St. to Fairfield in the early morning of August 14, with another partner, James Dickey, and a reporter trailing them on bicycles. Whitehead’s powerful ground engine pushed the heavy craft on its foot-high wooden wheels up to 20 mph and maybe more. Once in Fairfield, they unfolded the white muslin and bamboo wings. Whitehead started the engine and the machine flapped its way into the air, landing gently when the power automatically shut off. With that success Whitehead took his place behind the controls and started the ground engine. His assistants ran alongside holding guide ropes, but when Whitehead switched to his flight engine and took to the air they dropped off. He skimmed the treetops at about 50 ft., shifting his body to avoid contact, and then went on for another half mile. When he shut off the power, it glided in for a landing so light “that Whitehead was not jarred in the least.” He had been in the air a total of ten minutes.
The Bridgeport sensation appeared in hundreds of newspapers, with less drab headlines like “Connecticut Yankee Has Flying Machine” and “Soars Like a Bird.” Syndicated news services meant that every reader in America, from huge city dailies to small town weeklies, could see the same news and the same pictures at the same time and share in the unfolding marvels of the age. Some, like the Cherryvale [KS] Republican, gave both halves of the feat equal billing under the forthright headline, “A Flying Automobile.” An article syndicated under the headline “Has Really Flown” quoted Whitehead in grandiloquent words the Wrights never would have uttered, “I never felt such a spirit of freedom as I did during the ten minutes that I was soaring above my fellow human beings in a machine my own brain had evolved. It made me feel that I was far ahead of my brothers, for I could fly like a bird, and they must still walk.” Nothing could stir more hearts and minds than that, although neither those words nor the many other long eloquent or technical statements that purport to quote Whitehead could have come from a recent immigrant who “spoke English poorly.” Historians recognize that most newspaper quotes of the era were written by reporters or editors hired for their ability to produce flowery language.
Even for the public, who were willing participants in this game, doubt crept in. Whitehead never demonstrated the plane publicly, nor did he ever show a picture of it in the air. A half mile was three times as long as the Wright’s longest first flight, which rose only ten feet into the air rather than fifty, and nobody else made a flight last ten minutes for several more years. Reporters never got Howell or Cellie to comment. Dickey gave an angry affidavit in 1937, saying, “I believe the entire story in the Herald was imaginary, and grew out of the comments of Whitehead in discussing what he hoped to get from his plane. I was not present and did not witness any airplane flight on August 14, 1901.” For all the detail, Howell’s distanced rendition reads very much like someone taking earlier newspaper reports and rewriting them with a properly heroic ending instead of a witness reporting an actual incident. Now that the earlier accounts have surfaced in newspaper databases we know this to be true. Whitehead’s claims were little more than a promotional scheme to gain backers, not the first or last time in history reporters would puff a small or imaginary achievement to the level of a huge one. If a story about slipping the surly bonds of earth was what people wanted, then a story they received. A story is a better introduction to the tantalizing, always-just-out-of-reach Future than the reality would have been. Many more stories would be told over the next decades.
The flying car appeared before the car. And also before flight. Flying was a primal wish, but one usually tied to a mechanism, as in the story of Icarus or the flying carpet from One Thousand and One Nights. Uncounted thousands of attempts to emulate their mythic forebearers must have followed but history credits the Montgolfier brothers’ manned hot air balloon in 1783 in France as the first success, setting off a craze that has never ended. Ballooning made mythology real, lifting humans into a realm literally and figuratively higher, placing them in spaces once reserved solely for numinous beings, a line drawn through history to create a before and after. Balloons had a conspicuously less than magical flaw, however; they were subject to the mercy of the winds, so controlled flight became the obvious next goal of inventors. Or, even better than a mere flying machine, a multi-purpose vehicle that could travel on land as well as through the air.
One of those aiming for glory was Thomas Walker, a portrait painter from Hull, England, who in 1810 produced what may be the first full-length work on a proposed mechanical flying car (although he admitted he was surprised to see that Sir George Cayley had already published the first of a three-part article on the same principles in 1809 ). Walker’s A Treatise Upon the Art of Flying, By Mechanical Means, with a Full Explanation of the Natural Principles by which Birds Are Enabled to Fly; Likewise Instructions and Plans for Making a Flying Car with Wings, in which a Man May Sit, and, by Working a Small Lever, Cause Himself to Ascend and Soar Through the Air with the Facility of a Bird, applied large amounts of ingenuity to the subject, but for a full century imaginations like his flew well ahead of any possible mechanical reality.
French writers, with Paris the world center for aeronautics, spent the 19th century obsessed with air travel, and hundreds of illustrations of personal flying machines filled books and magazines. Whether they were intended to double as land vehicles is uncertain, so Louis Jacolliot may have been the first to incorporate the notion of a machine that would transform itself to accommodate any mode of transportation. In Les Manguers du Feu (The Fire Eaters), published in 1887, he writes of a winged cigar-shaped machine with pointed ends, the Remember.
What was the “Remember”?
It wasn’t a boat destined solely to cross the Ocean.
It wasn’t a balloon built expressly to move through the air.
It wasn’t only some monstrous motor car intended to ride across our roads.
Instead it was these three things at the same time. The “Remember” achieved the definitive conquest of land, air and water.
Jules Verne, never one to allow his Brobdingnagian imagination to be outdone, brought his evil genius Robur the Conqueror back in a 1904 sequel, Maître du monde (Master of the World). The Epouvante (Terror) also conquered the air, land, and sea and at speeds unthinkable in the real world. Better, it also quadrupled as a submarine, vanishing from view whenever a clean getaway was required, an invincible war machine. Verne did not know that reality had already passed him by, that the Wright Brothers had achieved heavier-than-air flight the year before, but he always claimed that his works were not what we would call science fiction but imagination extrapolated from current fact. Americans cared somewhat less about fact. An early example appeared in Arthur Twain & Robert Williams Wood’s 1914 novel, The Man Who Rocked the World. They called the invention a flying car, but it was in fact a flying saucer, a seventy-five-foot ring of aluminum, which used metallic uranium as its power source and could fly above the atmosphere if needed.
The exceedingly practical and level-headed tinkerers at the close of the 19th century turned to flight not to fulfill mythic fantasies but for the most literally down-to-earth reason: roads were terrible, so awful that achieving flight seemed easier and more practical than redoing the road system, particularly in the vast, still-primeval stretches across America. After a brief spurt of funding for the creation of an interstate road system, whose primary legacy was the National Road from the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, inland to the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia, Andrew Jackson vetoed a continuation of work on the road to Kentucky in 1830, believing that the Constitution offered no authority for the federal government financing local projects. Bad roads thereafter were an unintended consequence of the overwhelming dominance of railroads. Those coincidentally came into being in the 1830s and soon snaked their way from major city to major city with stops as needed at every wide patch in between. Horse-drawn stages on mud could not compete with steam-powered engines on clean and level rails. The railroads were so much faster and more efficient that road building paused as a waste of tax money for the rest of the century. As late as 1900, only 4% of the roads in the country could claim to be paved. Roads suffered from the chicken-or-egg problem so common in new technologies: few people wanted to use unimproved roads; few roads would be improved without demand. For all those who imagined leapfrogging the traffic to arrive unimpeded at their destinations, a better way surely existed.
The month of August, 1894, treated readers of The New York Times to twin harbingers of the future: the first mention of a “horseless carriage” appeared in its densely written columns shortly before a headline blared news from England: “Maxim’s Flying Car.” The car in question was the work of Hiram Stevens Maxim, already so famous as the inventor of the Maxim machine gun that the article, along with a follow-up, referred to him solely as Mr. Maxim, assuming that all readers would surely recognize the name. That oddity is least among the many in the two-paragraph piece, reprinted from a British newspaper called London Truth. The anonymous writer casually drops the news of the century into the third sentence, an almost offhand reference to the result of a trial in which “Mr. Maxim and two of his men traveled through the air a distance of about 500 feet at the rate of something like forty-five miles an hour…” Apparently the world’s first flight of a powered heavier-than-craft wasn’t sufficient for the lead, which was given over to a sublimely futuristic prediction of “London to Paris in one hour – no stoppages,” a magical journey that would in fact require a plane capable of travel at five times the speed of Maxim’s craft.
As with many of the flying car articles that would be fodder for the endless need to fill column space since, this one was simultaneously too good to be true and too good not to see print. Maxim did test a “Flying machine” at Dartford, a mere 16 miles (26 km) from central London, on July 31st, 1894, a behemoth of a contraption 145 ft (44 m) long, with a wingspan of 104 ft (34 m), weighing an incredible 7500-8000 lb (3400-3625 kg). (For comparison, the Wright Brothers first flyer weighed 605 lb (274 kg) and its first flight covered a distance of only 120 ft (36 m)). Technically a biplane sporting four additional pairs of wings as lifting and control surfaces, the craft’s power came from two twin-bladed propellers set on top of a four wheeled platform containing the naphtha-fueled steam engine. Yet it truly did leave the ground under its own power. Maxim doesn’t get the popular acclaim for this feat because the rules later developed to sort out contestants for first flight honors nixed the add-ons that made his flight possible, such as the wheels being set upon an 1800 foot (550 m) track and the “machine” tethered to a guard rail because no good means of steering was available. Yet on the fateful third attempt, the wings caught the air halfway down the track, lifting all the weight two feet (0.6 m) off the tracks for 100 ft (30 m) before it set back down so awkwardly that the apparatus and the guard rail were destroyed. Maxim never tried flying it again, and didn’t return to the air in an improved craft until 1910.
Nothing in the article hints at a “flying car” in the modern sense. Why the headline? Wheels on tracks had a long-standing connotation: a railroad car. So did the word “flying” in conjunction with trains, a term that conjured an image of “swiftly moving.” A swiftly moving apparatus on railroad-like tracks could easily be compressed into the term “Flying Car” for a headline that offered contemporary readers the maximal visualization of Maxim’s machine. By contrast, “horseless carriage” was at the time the strange and unfamiliar phrase requiring Times reporters to provide a definition of the term in an article as late as 1895. Those new vehicles morphed into automobiles while “motor car” pivoted from referring to streetcars and became just car. By any and all names, horseless carriages would soon become commonplace marvels; yet the term flying car in reference to automobiles would not return for a half century except in the old railroad sense, a swiftly moving vehicle, sometimes one unlucky enough to hit a bump and go “flying” into a tree or storefront. In between, both inventors and neologists were kept busy by the problem, producing any number of variations including autoplane, car-plane, aerocar, airphibian, aircar, skycar, and the seemingly parodic Jeep-O-Plane. Later historians, trying to make sense of the inexhaustible flow of hairbrained and badly-thought-out designs, have tried to separate out flying autos – cars tricked out to enable them to fly – from roadable aircraft – true planes modifiable to drive on roads. Contemporary editors seldom made such distinctions: they sought marvels and made the most of them regardless of such dull, mundane considerations as workability, price, practicality, or safety. Clickbait is far older than the internet and so is the attitude that today’s marvels would be the commonplace tools of tomorrow. The era’s prognosticators had good reason to think that way, as evidenced by the astounding advances from the horse-and-buggy age to the Jazz Age, a shockingly brief time span well within the memories of most adults.
The world of flight soared – there is no better word for it – and before two decades passed the future seemed unlimited and the flying car inevitable. Witness the testimony of C. H. Claudy in “’Aero Auto Craft’ – The Car of the Future,” appearing in the April 1917 Illustrated World. “The flying boat – or the hydroaeroplane, as it is called – which can soar or swim is an everyday fact in 1917. What more logical than the addition of the automobile, that the three modes of travel known to man may be combined?” Inventors had solved seemingly impossible problems; the next steps appeared trivial in comparison and technologically foreordained. In addition, these new marvels would have every advantage over the present, imbuing their creators with huge incentives. “There will be no such thing as traffic congestion in cities, because streets will only be used for landing and starting – travel will be overhead! There will be no speed laws – instead there will be speed levels – the slower near the ground, the faster ones higher up. And lastly, there will be no accidents, save such as due to faulty construction of the Aero Auto Craft itself, for no matter how many may flit through the air, there will be room, always, up above!” Only one tiny bit of future technology needed discovering. The lightweight craft would be run by lightweight electric motors buoyed by beams of wireless electric power, a certain extension of wireless telephony and telegraphy.
Claudy had reason to believe; that year’s Pan-American aeronautical show, held in New York City at the Grand Central Palace exhibition hall, had displayed an “automobile-airplane combination,” an “autoplane,” presented by the premier name in pre-war aircraft, one more potent than the Wrights themselves, Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was a legendary blend of American can-do and derring-do, with an endless list of accomplishments by age 30: fastest man in the world after breaking the land speed record on a motorcycle he developed; first licensed pilot in America; first to sell aircraft to the general public; first to manufacture an flying life-boat; builder of the fastest hydroplane. He’s also probably who Howard Garis had in mind as a model when he started churning out the Tom Swift books. The first title was Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle, followed quickly in 1910 by His Motor Boat, His Airship, and His Submarine Boat, and in Airship Tom wins the same international air meet in France that Curtiss had won the year before.
Curtiss’s “Autoplane” stood out on the crowded floor not just because of its size – with a 39 foot (12 m) wingspan it dwarfed those around it – but for its audacity. Three large wings sat on the rear of a wheeled vehicle that looked a bit like a Model T truck. The wings and the tail, which held the pusher-type propeller, supposedly detached with ease. Somewhere in its brief life it picked up the nickname of “aerial limousine” because two passengers sat in the rear of the cockpit behind the controller acting as pilot or driver. The epithet is a glowing red arrow pointing to the underappreciated fact that the automobile had come a long way since its quite recent days as a toy for garage enthusiasts and rich sports. “Limousine” signified ease and comfort befitting the wealthy, who could now abandon their carriages and private train cars for motorized transport that gave them similar luxury. Aircraft started a decade later than the horseless carriage and were hurrying to replace their image as aerial deathtraps with one that killed wasted time instead, and did so hands-free in a piece of fine furniture. Curtiss understood the national mood and designed his craft accordingly. The New York Times described it as “beautifully upholstered in tapestry.” The America Trans-Oceanic Company virtually deified Curtiss with an advertisement in the Times that made his ambition perfectly clear, nothing less than to fulfill the ancient dream. “Epoch making in its conception and design, this wonderful aeroplane is a veritable drawing room on wings, a modern magic coach that can whisk you away with the speed of the wind.” Nothing put a finer point on American optimism than a pre-war airline business called the America Trans-Oceanic Company (ATOC). Founded by department store magnate Rodman Wannamaker in 1916 with the intention of building the world’s largest aircraft to make a trans-Atlantic journey, the ATOC of course turned to Curtiss, who built a “flying yacht” called the “Super-America.” The plane flew but was wrecked in a storm. Nevertheless, the ATOC used Curtiss seaplanes to inaugurate an air service between New York and winter resorts in Florida. The Autoplane was both a harbinger of the future and a commercial ploy with a readily identifiable customer base.
Although most articles about the Autoplane claim that it made “short hops” in testing, the Curtiss Museum has no documentation that it ever lifted off the ground or that it even taxied. The onset of the First World War two months later put an end to any new air technology outside of military applications, and the Autoplane’s wings were used on a flying boat for the Navy. Airplanes quickly advanced by the end of the war, though, and flying exhibitions by war-trained pilots thrilled large and small-town Americans into the 1920s.
The coming of the flying car again appeared utterly logical, its devotees placing their vision into the public consciousness nearly complete as we know it today, replete with every detail, a canvas of certainty merely waiting for the invisible hand of the inventor to drop the reality into place. Hugo Gernsback, the future’s greatest cheerleader, described “The Automobile of 1973” – 50 years in his future – as a “helicar.” The pilot of an all-electric vehicle shaped like a streamlined camper with a glass bubble top used a push-button control panel to convert the craft from two gyroscopically controlled wheels on the ground to the propelling helicopter blade mid cabin. A flying car would be a necessity, he forecast. “Even today our roads, whether they be suburban or country, are so clogged with traffic that it impossible to get anywhere on time.”
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the most famous pilot in post-WWI America, the “Ace of Aces in the World War,” wrote the dream out in full in 1924 with a much swifter timeline.
Within the next two decades autos will be made with folding wings, so that when on a straight stretch of road they can be spread and the machine will take to the air….
This combination automobile-airplane will have a body similar to the present hydroplane hull, making it both a water and land machine. The wheels will protrude sufficiently to permit the machine to be driven on the highway after the wings have been collapsed, propeller disengaged and the automobile control mechanical applied, which in reality will give a three-in-one conveyance.
Imagine the convenience of being able to drive around in the city, as is done nowadays, and then when you start for some other town and get on a straight of way or enter a near-by pasture, to unfold the wings on the machine and take to the air! It will mean quicker transportation for the suburbanite … and for the traveling salesman…
It would not take a great stretch of imagination to foresee municipalities regulating the height of buildings to uniformity, the streets to be bridged, in order to form one vast landing-field in the center of each city for flying machines. The landing-field on tops of the buildings could be connected with the street level by elevators so that a machine alighting could descend to the street and driven about as an automobile. At the end of the business day it would be driven back to the elevator and lifted to the roof to take out for the homeward flight.
Rickenbacker’s vision embeds the flying car inside the super-city of the future that already had emerged as the consensus view. No longer would cities be built piecemeal as various developers took over individual properties but would be rationally planned for the best collective use. Skyscrapers would literally reach to the skies, their tops as integral to flight paths as bridges were to connecting Manhattan to other cities. Left unspoken is what the noise of aircraft and the shade of covered streets might do to residential life, though the talk of suburbanites indicates that the well-to-do clientele for flying cars never needed to concern themselves with negative externalities. More generously, Rickenbacker might simply have been overwhelmed with the optimism of the Roaring Twenties. A flying car should not be thought of as a futuristic dream but as a small variation on the inevitable progress already made by the automobile and aircraft industries, one that promised every household both a car and a plane, two modes of affordable transportation that were complementary technologies. The familiar “flivver” – a cheap but sturdy small car exemplified by the Model T – may have broken through first but its success was a harbinger of similarly placing a small plane within the means of the average American. Talk of “flying flivvers” spread across newspaper pages, even before Henry Ford himself introduced the 15-foot (4.6 m) long single seat Ford Flivver on July 30, 1926, his 63rd birthday. Designed to sell at $500, such a plane would be a bargain in a world in which a Model T coupe cost $520 and the average annual wage was moving over $1,000. The Flivver failed badly, killing its pilot who also happened to be its chief enthusiast, but the concept of individualized flight that made distance virtually meaningless and gave the masses the potential luxury of open spaces and clean air away from the city would never be eradicated. A flying car, an autoplane, an autogiro or helicopter, or some combination or convertible version of each seemed tantalizingly within reach. The Depression and World War Two put a temporary crimp in achieving this ideal, although any determined inventor could get an article in the mechanical marvel press. The Pitcairn Autogiro, the Moodie Roadplane, the first Stout Aircar, and the bizarre Flying Tank all made the news during the 1930s.
J. Walter Christie, born in 1865 just as the Civil War was ending, is an oddity in the procession of brash young men determined to upend stodgy industry thinkers in the between-world-wars era. Gaining fame in his early 40s as a race-car driver using his own patented front-wheel-drive design, he dabbled in a variety of industries, always disdaining incremental improvements for huge leaps forward. Take his proposal to manufacture taxicabs in which the entire front end, engine and all, could be swapped out in an hour to minimize the down time for repairs. Some of his visions worked in practice, though, like the fire engines that sold across the country, and when he started working on weaponry in the 1920s the military took him seriously enough to fund research into an amphibious tank and a new tank suspension system. Christie’s ideas always diverged from mainstream thinking; his breakthrough was to envision tanks as light, fast, and maneuverable, not the lumbering thirty-ton behemoths of the previous war. Readers of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science saw Christie driving his miniature prototype, with the caption making the astounding claim that Army officials had clocked him at 104 mph, still possibly the fastest speed ever achieved in a tank.
That wasn’t enough to get the hidebound depression-era shell of an Army to part with cash, so Christie went for broke. His next plan stunned everyone, and earned him simultaneous multi-page spreads in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, as well as the cover of Modern Mechanics and Inventions, hitting newsstands simultaneously with their July 1932 issues. A full-page paean to Christie also appeared in newspapers thanks to the King Features Syndicate, with even more extravagant language.
It flies at a speed of one hundred and forty miles per hour, zips over level ground at an even hundred and travels up and down hills, over trenches and shell holes at seventy. And flying, climbing or speeding over the ground it fights unceasingly with heavy machine guns and bombs. … [W]here the new device appears to enjoy the greatest advantage over all other destructive motor machines is in the rapidity and ease with which it can be a transformed from an air-fighter to a land-fighter and back again.
Each magazine piece is illustrated with a series of identical photographs including one of Christie working inside the cramped interior, mostly filled with a huge machine gun and the 750-1000 horsepower engine that would lift the whole thing (in various configurations of 7,000-10,000 lb (3000-4500 kg)) into the air in a mere 100 yards (30 m). That such an achievement was obvious fantasy is given away by the lack of any photographs of the airplane half of the chimera. In the place of actual documentation was a conceptual illustration of a biplane sitting on top of a tank undercarriage, which could be uncoupled with the flip of a lever to storm through a battalion of unprepared troops. Almost as startling is the realization that everyone involved knew that the drawing was phony: in several articles Christie as quoted as saying that the light weight allowed his design to be a monoplane instead of a biplane. Breathless newspaper readers were treated to a follow-up series of four articles the next January from the International News Service syndicate announcing not only improvements to the design but that other nations had made offers for this wonder weapon. We were saved from the spectacle of flying tanks in the war by their sheer impossibility, though ironically a bevy of Christie’s saner tank innovations were taken up by countries, none of whom were America. His true legacy in this country came not from his brilliance but that of his unnamed press agent. The lesson to promise big and always supply graphics dug deeper into would-be inventors’ bones than the mere laws of physics.
Like Christie, Waldo Waterman was a 40-ish engineer with a long background in aviation and a penchant for the unusual design. His obsession would be the flying wing, a tail-less airplane that looked like a boomerang with a cockpit sitting underneath the center. Early attempts known as the Whatsit and the Arrowplane yielded the realization that unsnapping the wing would allow the pilot’s compartment to roll off on its own wheels, the essence of a flying car. A new incarnation, the Arrowbile, did it all: on February 21, 1937 the craft flew and flew well, reaching speeds of 125 mph in the air and 55 mph on the ground powered by a Studebaker auto engine. One newspaper account put the conversion at a ridiculously short 165 seconds.
The Arrowbile is the last of the candidates for first flying car; the dozens of future “first” announcements in newspapers and magazines are proof of short memories and the power that the word “first” has over normally cynical editorial minds. Life magazine did a spread on the Arrowbile, showing it on the road and in the air and including a picture incredibly rare in the history of flying cars: one showing a woman – Jane Waterman, Waldo’s daughter – in the cockpit, albeit in a staged static photo. What really sold the Arrowbile to the public was another staged photo just after that first successful flight, a moment of transcendent brilliance on the part of someone who understood newspapers better than William Randolph Hearst. A picture went out on the Associated Press wirephoto service of Waterman being stopped on a California road by motorcycle traffic officer Bobby Clark, calmly writing him a ticket. Nothing in the history of flying cars ever again encapsulated the “car” half so perfectly in a single image.
Waterman may have proved the concept, but every flight he took emphasized the real problem of flying cars: those damn wings. The backyard tinkerers and the precision plant designers alike kept stumbling over the issue. Wings provided the needed loft for flight, the more the better in many ways, as greater loft allowed for heavier loads, more passenger capacity, and increased room and comfort per passenger, exactly what the competing products of the incredibly successful and ever-more-affordable automobile industry promised. Yet wings were an impossible nuisance on a roadway. Even birds tucked their wings away while on the ground. Tinkering genius works something like a quantum computer; it attacks the problem in every possible way at once in the hopes that the right solution will pop out.
Birds provided the inspiration for some from the beginning. Back in France René Tampier created a slick biplane, the Avion-automobile, whose wings folded back along the fuselage for road travel. As Patrick J. Gyger wrote in his authoritative compilation Flying Cars, “All that was necessary then was to lock the propeller and unfold a second axle and set of steering controls,” engage the second motor, and kick in the clutch to set the spindly four-wheel undercarriage into motion down the highway, easy peasy, although the driver now sat at the rear with the rudder and the folded wings obscuring his vision. Photographs show the Avion-automobile in both functions, in the air and on the road, making it the hit of the 7th international aeronautical exhibition in 1921. Does this make it the true first flying car? Possibly, although the conversion was clumsy and involved adding two extra wheels for ground transport, providing a technicality better left for enthusiasts to argue over.
Impractical as it was, the concept inspired many, like Else H. Tubbs who produced designs later in the 1920s that rotated the wing 90º so that it no longer stuck out into traffic. Bruce Hallock’s Road Wing, which flew in 1957, had folding wings that needed fifteen minutes of work to be folded up into drivable position. Daniel Zuck patented his Plane-Mobile in several variations just before and after WWII that showed the wings folding origami-style on top of the auto body. It made the cover of the October 1946 Mechanix Illustrated, backed up in full-flight mode touching the door of a suburban garage much narrower than the wingspan. No rear-view mirrors are visible, making it doubtful that the Plane-Mobile was backed into the driveway, yet the wife, in très moderne Katharine Hepburn-style slacks, is clearly closing the door while hubby is entering the cockpit to take off for his morning commute. The artist depicted the wings as unfolded, blithely ignored the “Mobile” part of Plane-Mobile. Everything about the image reeked of fantasy, yet so perfectly captured the aspirations of the magazine’s audience that it became the archetype for the post-war flying car, inspiring many driveways full of flying cars, helicopters, and other improbable suburban devices. Undeterred by the fact that the Plane-Mobile never went into production, Zuck wrote An Airplane in Every Garage, arguing that the crowded roadways the just-born Interstate system had yet in 1958 to alleviate necessitated creating a highway system in the sky. “Since the modern car has slavishly imitated the plane in everything except the wings, let's put wings on it and make it fully functional,” he wrote, encapsulating the thoughts of 100 years of flying car designers.
While all the inventors had the same goal, they approached the practicality of the conversion in markedly different ways. Some systems required the wings to be separated from the body so that the plane could be driven on a road, like Waterman’s various designs. Robert Edison Fulton Jr.’s Airphibian had this design in 1946, with the wings and tail detachable as a unit from which the car merely drove merrily away. The Airphibian’s frame sat on wheels so that the car could be driven back underneath to bolt the frame back on, enabling quick conversion, the bugaboo of all “roadable aircraft.” A Saturday Evening Post article made it clear how difficult the task had been. “The Airphibian is put together without a chain hoist, without tools, and with no help, please, from mechanics. It’s a one-man, barehanded job, I watched Fulton make the car flyable in seven minutes. … the test pilot had the top ready to drive away in six minutes.” Hundreds of newspapers and magazines covered Fulton’s progress for an amazingly simple reason: the Airphibian worked. Fulton regularly commuted the fifteen miles from his home to his Danbury, CT, factory and he not only flew to New York City for meetings, he dared convert the Airphibian to a car and drive on Grand Central Parkway. So grand indeed was his achievement that the Airphibian became the first – and for several years the only – flying car to earn certification from the Civil Air Administration.
Fulton had as much savvy for publicity as for innovation, making the Airphibian possibly the widest known of any flying car, with articles unusually appearing outside the tinkerer press and in the giants of the day, both Look and Life in addition to the Saturday Evening Post. A series of trials caught by newsreel cameras proved that this flying car had a life off the page, a pretty girl being brought in at one point so that she could be shown pulling back the wings and tail all by herself. Similar impact could be found in a posed publicity shot that showed an Airphibian parked outside a village market, with the grocer taking the housewife’s box of produce to the car. With women taking over many of the daily driving chores in suburbia, the craft needed an appeal larger than the base of ex-pilots from the war, who may have desired to keep flying but soon found the burden of private plane ownership overwhelming. The images also worked subliminally on those men who made the automatic assumption that any physical feat manageable by a woman was well within their capacity.
Yet the Airphibian never had a second act. Production costs meant that owners would have to invest $10,000 for one at a time when that would buy five or six nice new cars. They didn’t get much for that price. The car half technically could seat two if they got along very well with one another, giving it all the practical limitations of a sports car but without any of the fun of driving, although later versions managed to break the 50 mph (80 kph) barrier on a road. None of them would pass a modern crash test and the tiny cockpit on wheels appeared dangerously out of place in city traffic. Nor could its flying ability compare to far cheaper planes being pumped out by hundreds of competitors. Fulton was forced to sell his company and the new owners quickly buried the Airphibian.
His primary competitor had only slightly more success with a similar take-off-the-wings-and-drive concept. For more than a decade after its introduction in 1948, promotional brochures for Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar made the ease of conversion a prime feature of his invention. “The change-over requires no more effort than changing a tire and can be done by one person.” Since various sales sheets list the time needed at five, three, and even two minutes, potential buyers – of which there were few – must have found these claims a trifle overstated. The 34 ft (10.4 m) wings along with the tail section and propeller are proto-Transformers, creating their own trailer that gets towed behind the car body. The tiny vehicle claimed a road speed of 67 mph (108 kph) and had the great advantage of allowing the car to fly from anywhere rather than just the airport in which the wings had been left. Parking the beast probably demanded skills equivalent to flying it, but Taylor sought to overcome that impediment with a Fulton-like publicity photo of his wife posed with the Aerocar outside a hotel with a uniformed bellhop holding her luggage as if this were an everyday occasion. The Aerocar was certified road-worthy in 1956, the second design ever to receive that designation, but only a handful were sold.
As a generation brought up with infomercials was to find, the sublime ease of the demonstrator on camera did not always translate to purchasers and the total lack of word of mouth – none of the flying cars ever achieved regular commercial sales to suburban commuters – ensured that doubts about real world convenience and efficiency lingered without refutation. Worse, no matter whether the claims were for 20 minutes or two, the inability to instantly swap out the wings made the consumer acceptance of a flying car a mirage. Even in the do-it-yourself paradise of the 1950s, few could be convinced that airplane wings and propellers could be bolted on in less time than it took to boil an egg. The intended audience of ex-military pilots presumably remembered the mechanic corps needed to keep the planes in the air and there is no indication that a large contingent of suburban housewives felt comfortable with their own ability to wrestle a trailer into instant existence.
For once this was a problem that admitted an easy and immediate solution. If wings were a deal-breaking impediment, then ditch the wings completely. Technological solutionism flourished in the 1950’s, a decade as optimistic as the 1920s, giving inventors the freedom to think big – once again encouraged by a public primed during a war with almost daily reminders of technological inventiveness that were meant to encourage forgetfulness of the shortages at home. While one set of practical tinkerers worked on small improvements and adaptations to basic aircraft design, a more visionary cadre enlisted graphic designers, conceptual artists, and magazine illustrators to let their imaginations soar without the boundaries of real-world performance. Visual futurists grabbed the two mechanical ideals of speed and flight, the fighter jet and the rocket, and grafted them onto the body of an idealized automobile to yield a composite that had near universal recognizability as a symbol of the future. That these images of a flying car that at last looked like a car, flying, were forthrightly billed as something you could not in fact buy today or any time soon merely added to their desirability. Having a Future intended to be a day-after-tomorrow vision of breathtaking technological wonderment gave a golden glow to the considerable progress actually noticeable in the present.
The French scooped the world again with the first drawings of a wingless flying car after the war, featuring it on the cover of the December 1947 issue of Sciences et Techniques Pour Tous/Terre, Air, Mer. A masterpiece of retro-futurism long before the term, or even the concept, was coined, the vehicle seems torn from the primary colors of a 1930s science fiction pulp magazine. Called the Rocatomic because it was to be powered by atomic energy, the car zipped down a highway replete with cartoon “speed lines.” A transparent bubble for the passengers sat on a square, flat base with the motors on each side hidden inside nacelles (long tubes like the rockets on the Starship Enterprise). A uniformed pilot sits in front of three tightly-packed passengers, one of whom has the squished facial features of someone standing in an overcrowded elevator. Though attributed to General Motors, the Rocatomic was a complete fantasy on someone’s part, not even a true flying car, with anyone flipping excitedly to the text inside learning that it was instead a hovercraft, riding a mere inch or two above the ground.
The Rocatomic represented something seminal even so, the first expression of a decade-long infatuation with a style of air design that would uncannily reuse and reassemble the same standard set of components so that readers registered “Future!” at the merest glance. One prime example was the cover of the February 1951 Science and Mechanics magazine, featuring flat-bodied primary-colored harbingers of the future zipping along a road and in the air, craft with nacelles at either side and not a wing to be seen. For once, the three passengers sit comfortably side-by-side, with room for three more, under a long transparent bubble running the width of the vehicle.
Although the cover would be better suited for a how-many-things-can-you-find-wrong-with-this-picture contest, the plane itself was real and actually flew, albeit in a reconfigured winged version seen on the cover of the October 1954 issue of Flying. William Horton was working for Howard Hughes at the time, moving to him from a stint at General Motors where he drew concept drawings of his wingless plane back in the 1930s, leading to unanswerable speculation about a connection to a purported GM Rocatomic. At base another variation of the flying wing concept, the plane extended six-foot flaps for lift in takeoff that would look to the non-expert eye exactly like wings, the reason they had to be eliminated from the more futuristic pictures. By the next year, Horton had developed a new prototype with two engines and a tiny mid-body pyramidal cockpit, forever shattering the notion of the “Swoopy” being a flying car, as Horton never intended for it to drive on a road. After much publicity, the plane finally made a successful flight in 1954 but got tangled up in lawsuits and Horton couldn’t take the concept further.
Designers nevertheless absolutely loved the twin nacelle look. Nacelles, especially when the fins were added at the rear, produced the illusion of speed and movement even in still photographs without any cartoon additions. They were adapted, usually along with a glass housing that became known as a bubbletop, in a series of concept cars from every major American automaker, including the oddly-named Dodge Firebomb, the finned and nacelled Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, the audacious Cadillac Cylcone, GM’s fighter jet on wheels, the Firebird, and the aptly-named Lincoln Futura of 1955, far better known in its later incarnation as the Batmobile from the 1966 TV series. Some concept car was surely the inspiration for Tom Swift Jr.’s Triphibian Atomicar from 1962, a finned sedan that could “get around on land, through the air, or over water.”
When Ford debuted the Glideair in 1958, Mechanix Illustrated ran the article under the headline “Cars That Fly.” Despite the headline, the Glideair was another hovercar, depicted in the two-page illustration with standard futuristic design, alongside a single-person hovering scooter that resembles a Jetsons-style police vehicle. Hovercars are tacit admissions of the impossibility of realizing a true marriage of automobiles and planes. They get left out of most accounts of flying cars because they are not part of the primal dream of flight, of rising above the trees and buildings and clouds, of dodging all earthly obstacles, of blazing new trails, of being literally free as a bird. The flying car was not technology but sheer futuristic magic, and no halfway measure could ever quite satisfy.
For all their sleek designs, these later dream cars had a slight whiff of desperation as if they were thrown together hurriedly in futile pursuit of something greater and more memorable. That something had in fact already appeared as the most direct descendant of the Rocatomic, the fantastic Ford FX-Atmos (Future Experimental Atomic) Concept Car, introduced at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show. Glass dome for the passenger compartment? Check. Twin rocket nacelles alongside the body? Check. Atomic motor? Check. Tail fins? Check. Really huge tail fins that sprouted several feet into the air? Not on the real-world mockup, but fiercely protruding from the rear of the nacelles in the original sketch drawing of the most advanced car-like-object ever to sport wheels, a jaggly collection of rocket parts that seemed to be swooping down on you in a pack ready to take over your planet and deliver its smoking ruins to the new masters. As plane, as flying car, as hovercraft, and as automobile, the application of rocket design to terrestrial vehicles served to diminish previously held boundaries between modes of transport, as the Future would undoubtedly offer.
Another branch on the tree of airborne personal transportation was the helicopter. They were infamous for being as unwieldy as a Rube Goldberg contrivance, requiring the instincts and limb control of a caffeinated octopus. Yet they held out a promise none of the flying cars offered, the possibility of zooming straight into the air, flying to a destination, and landing on a pin point.
Igor Sikorski produced a successful prototype of modern helicopter design in 1939 just two weeks after World War II started in Europe. The war would spur frenzied innovation to cut the many problems inherent in helicopters as well as the lengthy training needed. The spinning of a rotor produced torque, a sidewards motion, the reason why most helicopters have two rotors that follow Sikorski’s model, a large one overhead and a small compensating tail rotor. Another possible design is to put two blades one under the other, spinning in opposite directions, called a co-axial rotor. Just months after Sikorksi’s flight, George de Bothezat did exactly that. De Bothezat was one of the early pioneers of flight, a Russian aeronautical engineer who fled to America after the Communist takeover in 1918. He was immediately hired by NACA – the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the antecessor to NASA – and made in 1922 what is credited as one of the first successful helicopter liftoffs. Still at it in 1939, he sketched out what looks like the inspiration for Inspector Gadget: two rotors and an engine over a belt-and-harness structure that attached to the flyer’s torso. The dangerous-looking monstrosity was captured for posterity in the March 1940 issue of Popular Science, but by that time de Bothezat had already died of a sudden illness.
Improbably, the co-axial helicopter would be brought to fruition by a teenager, Stanley Hiller, Jr., even closer to a real-life Tom Swift than Glenn Curtiss. Born with a wealth of tinkerer genes from his father, a man who had built his own airplane in 1910 at the age of 20 and would go on to hold 40 patents, young Stanley whizzed around the neighborhood in his own motorized buggy at the age of 8, learned to fly at 10, grossed $100,000 a year at 17 from a business selling model cars that could hit 60 mph (100 kph), and sold his aluminum die-casting process to the military while still at the University of California at Berkeley, which he had entered at 16. The Army gave him a draft deferment to run Hiller Industries when they saw his model for a co-axial copter, the first helicopter ever built on the west coast. That earned him his first of many articles in the popular science press: the December 1944 Mechanix Illustrated started its gosh-wow tribute with “Stanley Hiller, teen-age tycoon, casually sat down in his workshop and built the co-axial flying machine DaVinci dreamed about.” And yes, he did indeed call it the “Hiller-Copter.” What else?
Hiller won a series of impressive prizes for his helicopter controls during and after the war, leading to his building popular models whose claim to fame was that a student could learn to pilot one in a matter of minutes. A helicopter that anyone could fly and afford sent out futuristic vibrations that hit the same synapses as those for the flying car, perhaps with a stronger signal as helicopters didn’t require airfields. Not surprisingly, therefore, the years after World War II saw a steady stream of articles touting the convenience of a helicopter to get you where you want to go and predicting that city dwellers would see all buildings equipped with landing pads on the roof while suburbanites sported built-in skyports on their wide driveways and lawns. The New York Times offered a commuting Helicab, a drawing titled “Post-War Travel: The Autoist Will Also Take to the Air;” the Miami News wondered in 1957 if there would soon be a “Helicopter in Every Garage?” In between Mechanix Illustrated gleefully announced “Helicopters for Everybody” with a new and improved Hoppicopter and repeated in 1956 the image of commuters lifting off from high-rises in “Coming: Rooftop Airports,” yet another article about Hiller helicopters. The image that most people kept in their heads appeared on the cover of the February 1951 issue of Popular Mechanics. A near-duplicate of 1946’s Plane-Mobile cover, this also featured a suburban commuter backing his helicopter up his driveway to his cozy ranch-style home with breezeway, going the earlier artist one better by showing how the copter will fit into the one-car garage, rotors and all. By now no reader should be surprised that the tiny two-person ramjet-powered helicopter “coupe” was also the brainchild of one Stanley Hiller, Jr.
The Korean War ate up all Hiller’s production facilities with military orders for his workhorse copters, but in peacetime his imagination continued to churn out variations on personal vertical take-off vehicles. “Someday soon you may be able to ride a column of air to work,” proclaimed an anonymous scribe for the June 1955 issue of Popular Science. “You would step out of the house after a leisurely breakfast, jump into the family ‘flying saucer’ parked on the lawn and be whisked away to your plant or office in a few minutes.” Fortunately, the article came with pictures that brought the concept down to earth. The Hiller Aerial Platform was simply that: a circular platform centered over two huge double-deck rotors which created lift so smoothly that “a trained bear” could operate one merely by leaning in the proper direction and letting the direction of the air stream move it forward, backward, or sideways as one pleased, known as kinesthetic control. Intended for military use, the platform might have been ingenious but not workable in practice. Worse, it filled no niche in readers’ imaginations. Nevertheless, the basic concept was so sound that modern co-axial variations continue to be introduced as the flying car of tomorrow.
The flying car and the jetpack may seem like completely separate answers to the same problem, but examples like the Hiller Aerial Platform reveal how closely they’re related. Once vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) became mechanically feasible and not a wish-fulfillment fantasy, inventors and conceptual artists could and would ignore boundaries to appropriate all forms of propulsive technology. By 1941 the personal lifting device in a number of guises was a popular culture commonplace, simultaneously a project that a backyard tinkerer would tackle as well as a science fictional gadget rivaling the rocket ship and the ray gun as something new and shiny and wondrous. Why distinguish them when one was obviously the first trembling step toward the inevitable other? The jetpack already existed as a promise for the future, though hardly anybody called it by that name and its history would rarely involve jet power.
Collectors of science fiction are a fanatical lot, rivaling comic book fans in their devotion to compiling complete runs and scoring rare issues. With Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories almost universally acknowledged as the first true science fiction magazine a buyer might logically think that its April 1926 issue, volume 1, number 1, hard to find and usually torn, damaged, and incomplete if one does come to light, would be the most coveted treasure of all. Not even close. A canny collector with several thousand dollars to spare will pounce instead on a copy of the August 1928 issue. After two years of plundering old magazines for famous names to reprint at bargain basement rates, Gernsback found brand new, naïve, perhaps desperate, never before published authors to buy from at bargain basement rates. Not just one of them, but two, both of whom would spawn empires of futuristic superscience, with personal flight prime among their legacies. It is this issue in which “all that science fiction stuff” truly begins, with evidence glowing off the cover.
As an artist, Frank R. Paul had and still has many fans but his work tended to be stiff and ungainly, memorable far more for the power of his images than for their grace. Paradoxically, his greatest achievement is also perhaps his simplest: A man in red longjohns, undoubtedly intended to be the day’s standard leather flight coverall, waves and smiles as he hovers in a startlingly yellow sky above his friends on an earthlike lawn. For art by Paul, the master of primary colors who did every single cover for Amazing until 1929, the friendliness of the image is as unexpected as the man conquering gravity; even in a collection of his art it still draws the eye and hints at the awesome power it must once have held. Two of the three names on the cover below the picture were entirely unknown but potential buyers surely expected that one of their stories provided the words to go along with that image. As it turned out, both of their stories independently conceived flying belts. A quarter would be well spent.
“The Skylark of Space” was attributed to Edward Elmer Smith in collaboration with Lee Hawkins Garby. Smith, a working chemical engineer with a Ph.D., is known better to fans as E. E. “Doc” Smith, creator of not just the Skylark series but also the Lensman series, sagas of superscience bigger and bolder and more planet-juggling than anything before them and most since. While working at a boring job in 1915, Smith had big ideas about science that he talked over with a friend, Dr. Carl Garby, who suggested that he write them up as fiction. For his first stab at a novel, Smith approached Lee, Mrs. Garby, to work on the sorrowfully necessary love scenes and dialog. Many years of rejections later, readers finally encountered the chemist Richard Seaton, based on Smith himself, finding mysterious element X, which acts as a catalyst to convert a mass of copper to pure energy in basic E=MC2 terms. The result was not just endless power but the closest thing to anti-gravity since Wells’ Cavorite in The First Men in the Moon. The cover image turns out to be of Seaton; the joystick he seems to use as a controller really is the glowing element X pulling him off the ground. A little X goes a long way, to the stars in fact, at faster-than-light speed in a spaceship named the “Skylark,” allowing Seaton and his friends to battle aliens and evil earthmen who steal his formula. Smith’s books would sell into the millions.
With wonderful synchronicity Philip Francis Nowlan, the other unknown cover name, begins his tale, “Armageddon 2419,” with his hero, Anthony Rogers, emerging from a 492-year bout of suspended animation to see a girl, Wilma Deering, fighting some bad guys and apparently flying through the trees. She wears a belt made of inerton, “a synthetic element, built up, through a complicated heterodyning of ultronic pulsations, from ‘infra-balanced’ sub-ionic forms.” Nowlan did not have a doctorate in science. Technically, Wilma and the others leap, as the inerton is somehow tunable and is used to reduce body weight to a mere couple of pounds. Leaping is a poor substitute for flying, as Superman’s writers noticed and corrected a similar mistake a decade later. Anthony Rogers is of course the same hero later known as Buck Rogers, and by 1930 his phenomenally popular newspaper comic strip featured “flying belts,” which continued to be integral to Buck’s adventures well into the 1950s. In 1936, near the peak of his popularity, kids who started their day with Cream of Wheat cereal could send away for the manual of the Buck Roger Solar Scouts: Secret Club of the Radio Friends of Buck and Wilma. There Buck flew on the cover, exhaust blasting out of the twin rockets on his back, waving around his disintegrator pistol, and looking suitably menacing to any would-be trouble-makers, just as a hero should.
Later adventurers borrowed the personal flying machine as soon as movie special effects departments could rig them. King of the Rocket Men, a 1949 copycat serial of the Superman mythos, flew on screen before a flesh-and-blood Man of Steel streaked through the sky. Dr. Vulcan, an evil scientist of the Lex Luthor bloodline, is killing off the eggheads at Scientific Associates. Rocket Man, up in the sky, is the creation of the good-with-his-fists scientist Jeff King, who is constantly ducking into deserted alleys to change into his costume, seeing the endless perils of plucky girl reporter-who-needs-to-be-rescued Glenda Thomas. The rocket pack straps on like a backpack and is controllable with three straightforward knobs: on/off, fast/slow, and up/down. As was typical of science fiction in those days, atomic energy powered the rocket, the equivalent of a magic formula because it never needed recharging. Somewhat surprisingly, the flying sequences are not at all bad, if repetitious, and Rocket Man and Superman of the later better-funded television series are essentially interchangeable in the air.
The rocket suit and all that good flying footage were repurposed in no fewer than three additional Republic serials, Radar Men from the Moon, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe, and Zombies of the Stratosphere, recut into feature-length films, and shown on television as the Commando Cody series. The mortal, gadget-genius Batman to the alien Superman, Rocket Man under all his names was ubiquitous throughout the 1950s, attracting new legions of viewers every year.
Otherwise, the jet pack/rocket belt – the only technical difference is that the jet engine pushes atmospheric air out the back while the self-contained rocket fuel explodes into a gaseous exhaust – was a mere sideshow in the future vocabulary of the 1950s. Then better movie magic changed its image forever when, in 1965’s Thunderball, a nattily-dressed James Bond pulls a rocket pack out of nowhere and escapes the bad guys by flying over rooftops. The epic scene, made by combining rear projection of several real test flights, glamorized the Bell Aerosystems rocket belt beyond all reality. One of many gizmos tech companies fought to produce for the Army’s 1959 “soldier of the future” concept, the competition produced two usefully thorough reports on the fine details of producing a rocket belt, and one actual rocket belt. Bell Aerosystems won because engineer Wendell Moore had been testing one since December 1957 in a field near Niagara Falls, NY, coincidentally the capital of the United States in Buck Rogers’ future history.
Moore had started his noted career working on the X-1, the supersonic jet in which Chuck Yeagar broke the sound barrier in 1947. The X-1 used miniature rocket engines as reaction control thrusters. In a spurt of true inventor’s inspiration, Moore reportedly told a colleague “"I could stick two of those on a man's back and make him fly like Buck Rogers." He called it by the bureaucratically appropriate name of Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). Dauntingly heavy – the fuel alone weighted more than 50 lbs (23 kg), ear-splittingly loud – 150 db or worse than a jet at takeoff, almost impossible to control, and with the ability to do little more than jump over a wall and hope to come down safely assuming the operator could hear the low-fuel countdown warning over the roar of the engine, not even a gadget-besotted military could mistake Moore for Buck Rogers. Nevertheless, the spectacle of a flying man, especially with younger and handsomer test pilots, kept making headlines whenever Bell pushed the SRLD into public view. A splash of headlines accompanied a 1961 test, along with a New York Times story that poetically began “A rocket man floated through the air today.” The Army, not caring much for poetry, quietly dropped its funding after seeing the discouraging results. Bell remained undaunted, sending its crew of intrepid flyers around the country. In desperation, it entered into a tie-in with the U.S Rubber Co., maker of Keds sneakers. The result was “Kolonel Keds,” who used the rockets to soar into the sky four times a day at the musical air-earth-water extravaganza known as Wonder World during the 1964 World’s Fair.
Moore followed the SRLD with a more efficient jetbelt, which was successfully tested in April 1969. The next month he died of a heart attack. Without Moore, Bell abandoned all its flying belt projects. Modern rocket packs keep reappearing as often as do flying cars but they remain a road to nowhere despite the current craze for water jet packs.
Despite the increasingly strained attempts of the tinkerer magazines to pull flying cars down to practical earth, the public’s abstinent rejection of the clumsy beasts showed that in their hearts and minds they longed for a flying car that was a true flying car. Not a convertible airplane, nothing with wings, no fiddling with landing gear or airport runways. They wanted magic, a flying carpet in the shape of a 1957 DeSoto, nacelles decidedly optional. In the least surprising outcome since the Yankees winning the World Series the previous October, Stanley Hiller, still obsessed with his rotors, lit up the tinkerer press with an astounding vision.
The Hiller Aerial Sedan, as lovingly featured in the July 1957 Popular Mechanics, came in many flavors, from a flying crane to a military all-purpose Jeep to a handy over-the-treetops vehicle for Mr. and Mrs. Commuter. Billed on the cover as “Your Flying Car for 1967,” the artist drew a standard 1957 sedan body with two horizontal ducted fans – fans mounted inside a couling, so they would provide more thrust than an unenclosed helicopter rotor, just as in the aerial platform – in front and two more in back. The four fans lifted the car straight off the ground while a push of a lever changed the angle of thrust and moved the car forward or brought it to a halt. Editors of tinkerer magazines around the world seized the concept and milked it for cover art, including a twin nacelle version on France’s Science et Vie and Meccano Magazine’s blatant steal of Popular Mechanics’s artwork, merely changing the car color to red and posing it across a background of stars. Flying cars in space! Perfection. Except that several companies used the design to compete for an Army flying jeep contract, which was canceled when the prototypes crashed. So many would-be flying jeeps appear in history that this version bears no relation to the afore-mentioned Advance Jeep-o-Plane, which never made it beyond a prototype, although it was promoted in model kits for decades.
A promise for the distant utopia of 1967 may have been too little, too late. Mechanix Illustrated had just scooped them with the untoppable future vision: “Flying Saucers for Everybody!” The March 1957 issue tempted readers with the subheading, “Within ten years you may be commuting by plastic saucer, flying from your backyard.” Compare the scenario set out with Rickenbacker’s from a quarter-century earlier.
It is a bright morning in 1965. At precisely eight a.m. Joe Lees emerges from the back door of his lakeside cottage, only 75 miles from his job in the city. In the graveled center of his backyard his jaunty new plastic saucer rests lightly on three tiny balloon tires.
Greeting his neighbor who rides with him, Joe lifts a flush flap in the saucer’s rounded nose. He turns a recessed locking handle and throws back the bubble-like windshield. Spring loaded, like the hoods of today’s cars, the enclosure lifts easily. As it does, the interlinked nose cone swings down to form a handy step.
Joe’s neighbor steps up over the low instrument pedestal and then across the folded pilot’s seat to his perch in the rear. Joe follows, slams the windshield shut and turns the starter key. The two men fasten their safety belts as the engine comes to life.
As the fan-like inductor begins whirling with a high-pitched whine, the automatic servo-flaps pop open and a torrent of air is drawn inward over the circular wings. Faster and faster it flows, building up the lift pattern of a racing, fixed-wing take-off. For a moment, the trembling saucer remains stationary. Then, slowly and smoothly, it rises vertically into the air like an elevator ascending an unseen shaft.
At 450 feet per minute, the saucer climbs to the southbound traffic lane and the engine’s pulsing torque is shifted to the pusher propeller at the machine’s tail. As the prop takes hold, the inductor fan gradually slows to a halt and the servo-flaps clamp shut. Functioning now as a fixed-wing airplane, our saucer banks around and heads south at a comfortable 165 mph cruising speed.
As it tools toward the city, other saucers join the parade and there is a thick stream of aerial traffic. Soon, the downtown towers of the metropolis loom on the horizon and a whole complex of distant traffic lanes converge from the four corners of suburbia. Over the business district, Joe turns out of the main stream and heads for the company’s building. He throttles back his prop, shifts to the air inductor again and slowly descends to the landing pad. It is now 8:30 a.m. The 75-mile flight took only 30 minutes.
A 1959 newspaper and magazine ad campaign from America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies featured a similar saucer – flown at last by the suburban mother, with her daughter and family dog in the back seat and a bag of groceries sharing the front with her. Could it get more domestically futuristic? Yes. The flying car would be a plug-in electric vehicle. “They’re working on it!” All that was left for the imagination was George Jetson’s flying car, the magical one that folds into an apparently weightless briefcase. He still had to deal with service stations, speeding tickets, rush-hour traffic, and teenagers taking driving lessons. So much had changed, and so little.
The Future embodied in this always-just-around-the-corner notion of design was bigger and grander than reality because the artists, not constrained by nagging technical impossibilities, saw no reason to be compartmentalized. Borrowing specific cues from a variety of earlier visions made them not the clichés they are thought of today, but a deliberate shorthand that signaled the reader or viewer to look at an object through a filter of time and possibility. Articles about coming innovations were buried in a sea of articles about what America’s factories were putting on the market that year or even that month; articles on flying cars were an amuse bouche for the main meals of cars the reader could find at a local dealer. The futuristic touches were an understood code acknowledging that the designs were not meant to be thought of as real or even a promise for the next decade but examples of the depth of ingenuity of the engineering culture so beloved by so many Americans. It’s only when images are pulled out of their time and context by people too young to have experienced the originals that anyone can ask “What happened to my flying car?” For all the thousands of hours of hard work by serious innovators, the bargain made with the public was that they were guaranteed to experience the benefits in everyday life of continuous innovation, of the churn of ideas through inventors’ brains and fingers, of the application of new technologies throughout whole industries, and sometimes of the blurring of traditional dividing lines to form combos from the hi-fi to the convection toaster oven. A flying car was not merely a car that flew, but an increment in the much larger notion of better transportation guaranteed to be within reach. Sooner or later. But never never.