THE FIRST "FLYING CAR"

Thomas Walker, 1810, Treatise Upon the Art of Flying

The flying car preceded the automobile for the simple reason that the word “car” preceded the automobile. Car goes back in English to around 1300, a diminutive of carriage with the general meaning of “wheeled vehicle." No matter, a flying vehicle of any kind, wheeled or wheelless, might be termed a car. As a term of art, "flying car" goes back for centuries, always in a magical, metaphorical, poetical, or mystical sense. Take Polymetis, by the Rev. Mr. Spence, from 1755:

 

In the middle of [the temple] was a circle, in which appeared Juno under her character of presiding over the air, in a light, flying car, drawn by two peacocks.

 

A few years later, it's used similarly by the Archbishop of Cambray in 1779's The Adventures of Telemachus:

 

Venus, satisfied with his promise, smiled maliciously, and returned in her flying car to the blooming meadows of Idalia, where the Graces, the Sports and the Smiles express their joy to see her again, dancing around her on the flowers which perfume this enchanting abode.

 

Flight is not merely a gift of the gods and goddess, it is literal enchantment, the giddiest of all toys on earth, as in this wholly beautiful and delightful passage from Volume 2 of 1794's A ramble through Holland, France, and Italy, by Wilson Moore:

 

The holy week is at hand, after which I shall proceed to Naples; and as soon as this fashionable part of my education is completed, I fly to you and Heloise swifter than light - and tell you wondrous tales about Elysian Fields, and cities underground, and burning mountains - and so beguile the winter evenings;  - and then at night stalk gently up the stairs, and flip through a piece of bride-cake from Montauban, beneath the envied pillow that hugs the alabaster neck of Heloise - and in the morning swing with her in Merlin's flying car. - Oh! how the French women love swinging!

 

These gorgeously romantic idylls were interrupted by technological reality, the craze for ballooning starting in the late 18th century, which made a few visionaries determined to steal, Prometheus-like, the pleasures of flight from the gods. Balloons drifted at the whim of Aeolus so controlled flight became the goal of earthly inventors. Perhaps the earliest is found in A Treatise Upon the Art of Flying, by Thomas Walker (Portrait Painter, Hull), a magnificent example of the art of title construction, from 1810.

 

Sadly, the copy scanned onto Google Books fails to include the plates illustrating the plans for the car, although they are minutely detailed in the text. Even with those, perhaps because of those, Walker received that generation's version of snark in The Eclectic Review in 1811:

The Eclectic Review, Volume 13, Part 1 1811 p276

No record exists of Walker attempting to build the contraption, and the anonymous reviewer was surely correct that it would never leave the ground. As a flying car it was never more real than those of Venus or Merlin. Yet the distance from the metaphors of the 18th century is gigantic and this device is unquestionably an ancestor to the flying cars of the 20th century. Calling it the first flying car is technically a misnomer, but it deserves mention because what we today refer to a flying car took multiple decades to evolve from the general into the specific.

 

When railroads came along, featuring engines that pulled literal wheeled vehicles behind them, making the association with cars seemed immediate and inevitable, with the first usage of car in reference to a railroad car popping up in 1826. A flyer, meaning something that goes fast, appears not much earlier, in the late 18th century. Putting them together was obvious: a flying car was a swiftly moving vehicle on wheels, likely one pulled by an engine. The New York Times, they of the wonderfully searchable archives, started using the phrase almost as soon as they started to print, decades before any thought could be given to applying it outside of railroads.

New York Times search for oldest mentions of flying cars

1894 would be the year in which the term first appears applied to a wheeled vehicle on rails that would proceed to lift into the air. On August 19 some dogged readers might have stumbled over a tiny article with the headline "Maxim's Flying Car." A second article a week later, on August 26, still not bothering to expound on Maxim’s name, repeated the Flying Car claim and added more detail to the report.

 

The car in question was the work of Hiram Stevens Maxim, apparently 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 of 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…” Presumably the mere announcement of the world’s first flight of a powered heavier-than-craft wasn’t sufficient for the lead, which soared with a sublimely futuristic prediction– “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.

New York Times, August 19, 1894
New York Times, August 26, 1894

As with many of the articles that would be dropped into the endless maw of needed column space throughout the next 120 years, this one was both 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 (175 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 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. An account from the London paper Pall Mall Budget issued from a gobsmacked reporter.

 

The platform on which we stood rocked and quivered with the vibration. A hurricane seemed to spring up, laying the hay flat far and wide, and scattering like a whirlwind the shavings in the workshop 20 yards away. Every one grabbed his hat with one hand, and clung for dear life with the other to the rail.

 

Suddenly, when the tornado had reached its height, and the whole machine was shaking and straining at its anchor like a greyhound in the leash, a shrill whistle gave to order to "let go", and the huge structure bounded forward across the meadows with a smooth sailing motion, at a rate increasing up to 40 miles per hour.

Maxim Flying Machine - Before

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 need to tether the “machine” 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.

Maxim Flying Machine - After

Why call a flying machine a flying car? The rules for headline writing haven’t changed in more than a century. After giving the article a quick, and sometimes cursory read – hundreds of headlines had to be written to deadline every day – editors condensed the meat of the article to a few eye-catching words. "Hiram Maxim Tests a Swiftly Moving Flying Contraption" is ponderous even for the good gray Times. "Maxim’s Flying Car" conveyed that image in a term familiar to readers.

 

The use of car for automobile was still a few years away. For that matter so was the word automobile. That same August marked the first usage by the Times of yet another term; “horseless carriage." A flying horseless carriage? An absurdity. For all the hundreds of references of flight that foretold a Future sure to appear momentarily, flying cars thereupon vanished as a term from the Times… except for swiftly moving railroad trains and swiftly moving trolley cars and finally, as the twentieth century crept along, as swiftly moving automobiles. The first flying car wasn't called one at all. For that story check out Dawn of the Flying Car.

EK

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    New York Times, August 26, 1894