By Caitlin Connelly
In the summer of 2011, an amazing find was uncovered in a rare book shop: detailed designs for a flying machine. The incredible part? The plans dated from 1863-64, forty years before the Wright brothers’ famous flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The story behind them sounds almost like the setup of a Jules Verne novel: in the midst of the Civil War, a Richmond dentist dreams of building a steam-powered flying machine. Of course, Dr. Robert Finley Hunt’s goals were not to go on a Verne-esque adventure, but rather to wage war.
Though Hunt’s plans were innovative, the idea of human flight was not novel. Around 1485 Leonardo da Vinci sketched designs for an ornithopter, a flying device with wings that flap, though it’s unlikely he intended to actually construct it. In 1799 Sir George Cayley, sometimes called the “father of aviation,” came up with the idea for the modern airplane, a heavier-than-air device with fixed wings and separate lift, control, and propulsion systems, and 50 years later he built the first glider to successfully carry a human. In 1852 Henri Giffard built the Giffard Dirigible, the first steam-powered and steerable airship (Giffard was able to fly it 17 miles in one direction, but the engine was too weak to fly against the wind to go back). And during the Civil War, both sides used balloons to conduct reconnaissance.
So what made Hunt’s designs different? For one thing, unlike the balloons and dirigibles of the time, Hunt’s machine did not require hot air or gas to fly. Instead, it used a propeller, driven by a rotary engine. The designs also seem to show a vessel that would be far smaller than any balloon or airship. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hunt’s plan was to use his machine in battle to bomb Union forces. There had been some thought in both the Union and Confederacy to drop bombs from balloons, but nothing ever came to fruition.
We saw during the World Wars the value – and resulting destruction – of having command of the skies. If the Confederates had been able to construct a flying machine like Hunt designed, the advantage they would have had over the Union would have been immense.
But we all know that the Confederacy never developed Hunt’s flying machine. Despite getting Jefferson Davis’s approval and support, Hunt was never able to find enough financial backing to bankroll his project or an engineer willing to build it. The general consensus at the time seemed to be that Hunt’s plans had too many design flaws to be workable. They believed Hunt had overestimated the engine’s ability to keep the machine in the air, and described another (unknown) error as “so obvious on reflection that no discussion is required.” This may refer to the engine being too heavy to get off the ground, as Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, believes it would have been.
Despite these difficulties, Hunt continued to push to make his dream a reality even after the war. In 1865 he obtained a patent for his idea in Washington D.C., and seems to have been looking for funding as late as 1872. He never got it. But in 1889 he filed for a patent for a fan operating device, the design of which may have been inspired in part by his flying device. Even after 30 years, it seems like the dentist with a fascination for flight had not lost his interest.
The designs, along with correspondence from Davis and other Confederate officials as well as newspaper clippings from the 1890s concerning flying machines, went up for auction in September 2011. They sold for over $27,000 to an anonymous buyer.
Lee Letter of the Week: This 1867 letter from Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, to Walter H. Taylor, who served as an aide to General Lee during the war, concerning her family’s move to Canada is pretty interesting. She mentions her husband’s homesickness for the South, saying that the only thing preventing him from going back after being released from prison was the belief that it would worsen Yankee treatment of Southerners.