The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
TO CALIFORNIA - BY ROCKET!
In 1848, after the war with Mexico that brought Texas into the United States, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo ceded a half million additional square miles. One small section of this territory, yet still a vast area about as large as all New England, New York, and Pennsylvania combined, was named California, the only state named from a novel. (Las Sergas de Esplandián [The Adventures of Esplandián] by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, describes an island of Amazon women ruled by a Queen Calafia. Rumors of such an island off the west coast of North America inspired Mexicans to name the land California. A place of fantasy inhabited by beautiful women is a serendipitously apt namesake for today's La La Land.) No more than 250,000 bodies shared the bountiful land, the majority being Native Americans who weren't integrated into the economy and the majority of the remainder Mexicans who had just had their government ripped out from underneath them. San Francisco was a wild sailor's port, a coastal Deadwood. Getting to California from the eastern United States was a long and either tedious or laborious journey. Three routes presented themselves, each with more cons than pros. The overland route chewed up six months crossing the prairies and the Rocky Mountains plus a stretch across waterless desert. The ocean route took half the time but meant 15,000 miles at sea and necessitated a trip around the "sailor's graveyard" known as Cape Hope. Some optimists chanced cutting ocean time by leaving their boat to make the trek across the swampy isthmus of Panama, risking death by yellow fever before taking another boat north: itself a lottery as the small number of boats available often meant waiting so long that the time savings was lost.
Few cared about yet another barren chunk of real estate 2,500 miles from the center of population (then found in what is now West Virginia, 250 miles from the Atlantic) until the news that huge veins of gold had been found trickled into eastern papers. Within a year, about 90,000 people - equal to the entire non-Native American population of California - set off for the land where gold nuggets could be plucked out of streams just by bending over. And they all wanted to be there soonest.
Gold fever was widely mocked by everyone who didn't catch it. No one image catches the hallucinatory lure of gold than a print called The Way They Go to California.
Although it resembles a Currier and Ives print and is sometimes ascribed to them, it's by Nathaniel Currier alone, etched in 1849, five years before he made James Merritt Ives his partner. The artist is unknown, but his sense of humor - and history - is admirable. The text was designed to be read by a person standing close to the print and minutely examining it, so let me transcribe it for you, starting at the top left and working counter-clockwise.
Airship Label: AIR LINE, through by daytime Passage $50.
Each passenger must employ a boy to hold his hair on.
Passenger 1: Augustus, don't you wish we were down and not up?
Passenger 2: Yes - for I begin to feel air sick - Oh dear! Oh dear!
Parachute Label: Passengers landed by Parachutes
Passenger: Stand from under.
Ship label: Passage $125 and found (if lost)
Crowd on Pier:
Man 1: Hold on there. I've paid my passage and I want aboard.
Man 2: Bill, I'm afraid we can't get on board.
Man 3: [diving into water] I'm bound to go anyhow.
Rocket Label: ROCKET LINE
though in advance of the Telegraph
Passengers not found (if lost)
Passenger: My hair!! How the wind blows.
"Found" in those days as now indicated the act of discovery, but also could be defined as the meals and amenities that were included in the cost of a ticket. Passage and found indicates that no extra charges were laid for food. Found (if lost) and not found (if lost) were puns that read a lot better then. Note that the telegraph didn't connect the coasts then and wouldn't until 1861 (when doing so killed the Pony Express). California was a trip to another world, more isolated from New York than Europe was.
In the manner of political cartoons, viewers were expected to recognize the caricatures, so, amazingly, both the airship and the rocket were simply lifted from older designs that had had wide circulation through books, newspapers, prints, and cartoons.
Volume 1, Number 1, page 1 of Scientific American, dated August 25, 1845, laid out the scope and splendor of the Industrial Revolution that had finally engulfed at least the Northeastern section of the United States.
We have been frequently solicited by enterprising merchants, and others, to engage in the publication of a new scientific paper, for the advancement of more extensive intelligence in Arts and Trades in general, but more particularly in the several new, curious, and useful arts, which have but recently been discovered and introduced. ... With this encouragement, we have made arrangements to furnish the intelligent and liberal working man and those who delight in the developments of the beauties of Nature, which consist of the laws of Mechanics, Chemistry, and other branches of Natural Philosophy -- with a paper that will instruct while it diverts and amuses them, and will retain its excellence and value, when political and ordinary newspapers are thrown aside and forgotten.
Rufus Porter is a forgotten name today. In the mid-nineteenth century he was a dervish of activity, an inventor who dabbled in every field with patents on the small and everyday - a pocket lamp, a trunk lock, a vise and wire cutter, to notions decades ahead of what could actually be built - a steam car, a floating dock, an elevated railroad. In January 1841 he started the first scientific publication in the U.S., The New York Mechanic, "The Advocate of Industry and Enterprise, and Journal of Mechanical and Other Scientific Improvements." In 1845 he used $100 saved from his electroplating business to start Scientific American, not yet a magazine but a four-page weekly newspaper. He sold it a year later for $800, a very nice profit, but continued editing it until 1847, when he founded The Scientific Mechanic. Again he stuck with that for only two years. Another enthusiasm seized him in 1849, when the news from the California Gold Rush arrived. Taking months to trek to the other side of the continent was a losing proposition. He proposed to get people there in three days. By air. He rushed out a pamphlet, more of a solicitation, titled: Aerial Navigation: The Practicability of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New-York to California in Thee Days, Fully Demonstrated: with a Full Description of a Perfect Aerial Locomotive, with Estimates of Capacity, Speed, and Cost of Construction.
The artist in Currier's print reproduced the ship faithfully, down to the flag over the rudder and the long tailpipe, but cut open the gondola so that he could display the passengers. Despite the line about holding their hair on, they're each wearing hats. And swinging pickaxes in the 100 mph wind. Humor. It doesn't have to make sense.
Jean Lipman, in Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer, the only biography and now almost 50 years old, provides information about the book and its aftermath.
In the conclusion the imaginative itinerant visualizes a delightful jaunt from New York to the scenic Connecticut River Valley and then back to New York to dine, or a low-flying sightseeing cruise above the Rocky Mountains. “We have discovered no apparent difficulty,” he says, “in passing over the Atlantic to London or Paris.” He concludes the practical specifications and visionary plans for his “aerial locomotive” with a dramatic prophecy: “These things are indeed but fancies at the present, but in a few months these fancies may be pleasant realities in America, while the proud nations of Europe are staring and wondering at the soaring enterprise of the independent citizens of the United States." ...
Porter had constructed his first model in 1833. By 1841 he had built a machine-driven model which he described in his New York Mechanic as a measure "to secure the right of priority in this invention." In 1847 and 1849 he exhibited a small working model in Boston and New York, and in 1853 he demonstrated a twenty-two foot model in Washington, D.C. ...
In the issue for March 3, 1849 [the current editors of Scientific American] state: Just think of it -- to see a vessel 800 ft. long flying thro' the firmament to California, or to England.... We wish [Porter] all success. We intend to put down our name for the second trip." ... [In the Scientific American] issue for May 28, 1853, an editor speaks of Professor Porter's lectures on the aeroport being "as clear as mud" and the project of the Aerial Navigation Company "so grand and vast, it is enough to make Mount Vesuvius burst out in fiery laughter." [Yet there was some praise.] The Boston Bee: "Mr. Porter's 'flying machine' did all it promised on Wednesday evening. It rose above the audience and went around the hall, exactly as he said it would, and the spectators gave him three cheers for the successful experiment." The New York Sun: "The aerial steamer model was again tried at the Merchant's Exchange yesterday afternoon, and with brilliant success. It described the circle of the rotunda eleven times in succession, following its rudder like a thing instinct with life." The Washington Evening Star comments on the performance at Carusi's saloon in 1853: "Never before the introduction of Mr. Porter's model has anything appeared upon which creeping humanity could base a rational anticipation of the long desired art of flying."
Porter raised money for the project by issuing stock in an "Aerial Navigation Company" in 1852. He managed to sell 600 shares at $5 each, a significant amount of money for the day, but not nearly enough as he estimated that the finished ship would cost five times that. By 1853 he had something to show for the money, but his luck ranged from awful to horrendous. Lipman notes that "A severe storm damaged the framework when it was almost finished, vandals slashed the balloon, the varnish used caused disintegration of the canvas, and the funds available proved inadequate to the needs."
Born in 1792, when Washington was still in the first term of his Presidency, Porter lived till 1884, twenty presidents later, without seeing anyone come close to the model he had in his head for a half century. He died just two months short of the eight-mile trip made by an early dirigible named La France, the first controlled such flight that returned to its starting point. Porter clearly was ahead of his time, so far that his visions were entirely unachievable. Better that he be remembered for the down-home practicality of starting Scientific American, a hub for information about invention for the rest of the century.
That the artist included Porter's 1849 proposal in an 1849 satire are clues about Porter's level of fame at the time. Also that the artist, like Currier, was in New York, so that he didn't have to wait for the image to travel very far to be usurped by his pen. The parachutist seems advanced for 1849 but isn't. Daredevils had been parachuting out of hot-air balloons since shortly after the Montgolfiers first launched one, some from more than a mile in the air.
The guy straddling a rocket like Slim Pickens' Major "King" Kong riding his A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove has a shorter and weirder history, as well as a name. He is Mr. Golightly, an allegorical, satiric name very much a la mode. Ron Miller dug up most of the history in his magnificent The Dream Machines: An Illustrated History of the Spaceship in Art, Science, and Literature. Gunpowder rockets date back a thousand years in China and a few hundred in Europe. What made this version new was its method of propulsion, as Miller discusses in an io9 article:
An American inventor named Joseph Perkins who lived in London from 1818 until his death in 1849... took out many patents, one of which — No. 4952 of November 15, 1824 — was for a method of "Discharging Projectiles by the Force of Steam". His plan called for a cast-iron rocket filled with water and closed at one end by a brass plug. This is then placed on an inclined ramp that was a combination furnace and launcher. The water was heated until it boiled, the steam blew out the plug in the rear and the rocket, with any luck, shot into the air. Perkins had great hope for his invention, pointing out the 50,000 psi internal pressure it developed as opposed to the mere 500 psi in a gunpowder rocket.
Porter's vision would come to life as the dirigible; this was madness. Cartoonists lost little time exploiting the inherent impracticalities of gentlemen inventors by placing one riding in seeming ecstasy on a suitably phallic canister, flipping his lid literally with his hat flying with the birds. No one knows who did the first one or where or when, but by 1830 prints, often titled The Flight of Intellect, were generally available, differing from one another only in minor details of coloring and the mocking texts added to drive the point home. The one on the Currier print is, frankly, inferior in quality, failing to capture the look of imbecilic smugness of Mr. Golightly's face that the best originals proffer, as seen in the one at the top of this page.
American artists got the attitude expressed, certainly. Arthur Donnelly, a printer and publisher with offices at 19½ Courtland Street in New York (the Library of Congress page on which the print appears typos his name with one "l") in 1849 took Mr. Golightly, bundled him with goods and labeled him "Bound to California." The labels on the rocket - "Warranted not to burst" and "Quick & Speed's Safety Patent" are also copied from earlier Golightly prints. What comes out of his mouth is as supercilious as his expression: “I wish Jemima could see me now, goin through the Firmament like a streak of greased lightnin on a Telegraph wire; I guess she’d feel a sorter vexed that she didn’t pack up her fixins and go long — When I get to Californy I’ll let others do the diggins while I do the swappins!” On his back rests the appropriate goods for a dilettante: tobacco, pills, and a Patent Gold Washing Machine. Donnelly's artist beats Currier's for satire.
The not-yet-world-famous artist Winslow Homer saw these prints in 1849 or 1850 and like modern kids imitating comic books, drawn a variation for himself. If it looks a tad crude, remember he was all of 13 at the time.
Miller's io9 article also has an image of a man and woman on the rocket, titled Elopement Extraordinary, or Jack and His Lassie on a Matrimonial Excursion to the Moon, on the New Aerial Machine, of unknown provenance but probably from around 1830. That's such an extremely rare image of a woman engaged in these adventures that the finding the circumstances of its creation would be quite a prize. Women did go to the gold rush, albeit in small numbers and normally as a partner to their husbands (the exceptions were those who went there as prostitutes). Some of the accounts of the hardships faced in the trek across country are taken from women's diaries. They rarely dug, but sometimes made far more money acting as innkeepers or other service providers who could name their price for anything down to a properly cooked biscuit or a new pair of pants.
Though Mr. Golightly was clearly a character from fiction, a mysterious patent for "motive power" was entered in Britain in 1841 by a Charles Golightly, a name of an actual person who once lived at the address given in the application. The mystery of the patent lies mostly in how it got into the system. Its specifications section was completely blank, giving no clue to what the invention might be. It certainly wasn't gotten at by modern aliens; German rocket pioneer Hermann Noordung (the pseudonym of Herman Potočnik) mentions this in his 1929 work, The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor. (The date given in the book is 1929, although it was apparently out in late 1928.) Only those who live deeply in a world of conspiracy theories, for whom this is evidence of malfeasance and cover-ups on the highest level, can doubt the only realistic explanation: that somebody knew of a real Mr. Golightly and played a prank on the patent system. Not a molecule's worth of evidence indicates that a real inventor with real plans for a real rocket ever existed.
By the end of the century, flight, true powered heavier-than-air flight, seemed so on-the-brink that magazines and newspapers ran innumerable stories about the tangled history of attempts to soar into sky, several of them reviving Mr. Golightly as an epic satire. The English Illustrated Magazine ran an article by A. P. Teros on pp 3-11 of its April 1898 issue, titled "The Long-Sought Flying Machine." It doesn't appear anywhere on the Internet that I've found so it's worth sharing here. Click on the thimbnails to bring up the full-size pages.
Mr. Golightly lived on in British lore. When Gerhard Zucker planned to do a series of rocket mail lauches in 1934 he added a series of Golightly labels to add to the covers, and presented them at the London APEX (Air Post Exhibition stamp show) in a rainbow of colors. His supersilious quaintness made a perfect foil for the ultramodern thought of sending mail by rocket power.
Still, Golightly was a dead end in 1850, and so was the gold rush for many people who got there too late to skim off the easy pickens. By 1853 only well-funded proprietors could afford the huge machines needed to carve away the California hillsides to get at buried gold. The number of millionaires that sprang from the gold fields otherwise is very close to zero. Since the U.S. was still on the gold standard at the time, the price of gold was fixed at $20 per ounce. 50,000 ounces of gold, about a ton and a half, were therefore needed to gross a million. Netting a million after expenses required still more bulk. Virtually every miner wound up with pounds rather than tons, especially after they had gambled away their money on literally the turn of a card or spent lavishly on the few luxuries San Francisco could provide.
The disillusionment of those who gave up years of their lives for no net gain - assuming they survived: the number of deaths from disease, accidents, shootings, and suicides is high although uncalculable as so many bodies were pushed into unmarked graves because nothing else could be done - was quickly forgotten or pushed aside as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Sufficient irony could be found in the plight of the winners. To spend their gold, several years salary worth if not millions, they had to get back to the civilized quarters of the homes they left. Doing so meant leaving for the East Coast with as much urgency as they left it, captured by Currier in a sequel print, The Way They Come from California.
Ship Label: For a Port & New York Passage 10,000 ounces of Gold and not Found
Passenger 1: It's no use talking, can't take any more, we have gold enough aboard to sink a navy.
Passenger 2: But I'm afraid this old concern will sink and then what'll become of all our gold?
Passenger 3: It'll go to the D---l and you with it.
Miner 1: You won't catch me away from home again without my mother knows I'm out.
Miner 2: Oh for the wisdom of Solomon!
Miner 3: They say this is the "Ophir" where he sent for gold, but was too wise to go himself.
Miner 4: Captain, you know we were to go shares when we left home; you've got yours aboard ... and now are scoundrel enough to leave me here to starve.
Miner 5: Take me aboard. I'm starving. I'll give you a million.
Miner 1 is a woman, one of the few, outnumbered 30 or 50 to 1 by men. Miner 2 and 3 are making biblical references. Ophir is the region from which King Solomon's fabled wealth was derived. All can't wait to leave a wilderness as untouched by progress, civilization, or technology as the day they arrived.
Currier actually printed a series of six connected prints, all satirizing some aspect of the frenzied chase after gold. In order they were The Way They Go to California; The Way They Cross the Isthmus; The Way they Wait for 'The Steamer' at Panama; The Way They Raise a California Outfit; The Way They Get Married in California; and The Way They Come from California. The Way They Get Married in California is so thoroughly lost that not even a description survives. I don't know of any site on the Internet that even lists all six prints, let alone collects the five survivors, so here are The Way They Cross the Isthmus, The Way they Wait for 'The Steamer' at Panama, and The Way They Raise a California Outfit to make searches easier in the future.
The first fevered announcement of a gold strike came in January 1848. A few newspaper articles appeared on the East Coast by late summer but President James Knox Polk is credited with gifting the news with the imprimatur of authority by including it in his State of the Union address, then a written document sent to Congress in December. By 1850 all the easily found gold was gone. The Gold Rush in reality spread out over several years until it became mechanized; the Gold Rush of myth was the compressed rocket-speed frenzy of a single year, 1849, with the epithet "forty-niners" living on today. Currier apparently put out his whole series in 1849, managing to capture the still on-going rush to California and the desperate need to return at the very same time. Before the telegraph, before the railroads, before air travel and rockets, news traveled at the speed of gossip: there is nothing faster, and never will be, except possibly the speed at which people demand change when the time is ripe.