Air Ship Proved to be a Wondrous Hoax


From The Valley Advance, Vincennes, Ind., April 8, 1980
By Richard Day, Byron R. Lewis Library staff member

THE GREATEST WONDER OF THE AGE! an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune of Feb. 8, 1891, called the Mt. Carmel airship. The Greatest Hoax would have been more accurate.

The airship was first reported in the Vincennes Weekly Commercial of Oct. 31, 1890. The Mt. Carmel Aeronautic Navigation Company had been formed at Chicago on Oct. 22 for the construction "at the earliest possible moment" of a large airship designed by Edward J. Pennington and Richard H. Butler of Mt. Carmel, Ill.

Capitalists from Chicago, Grand Rapids, Columbus, New York, and Birmingham, England, were going to invest an alleged 20 million dollars in the scheme. Work would begin at once on a plant at Mt. Carmel.

The company letterhead pictured monster machine-shops and factories, "beside which the McCormick reaper-works or the rolling-mills of South Chicago would look like coal-sheds."

The Mt. Carmel airship, according to Pennington’s description in the Nov. 10 Weekly Western Sun, was to be 200 feet long, but made entirely of that new wonder-metal, aluminum, so that its total weight would be only 4,200 pounds.

A cigar-shaped cylinder of aluminum, one-hundredth of an inch thick, and containing 100 buoyancy chambers filled with hydrogen gas would enable the ship to carry a ton of cargo. Along the sides of the buoyancy chamber wings would extend, forming parachutes to assist in descending. Four electric-powered propellers in the corners of the wings would raise or lower the ship.

Steering was to be by a rudder running along the top of the lifting chamber, with another rudder at the tail for up-and-down direction. A passenger coach suspended below would hold 40 passengers and a pilot, who could control the ship by electric appliances.

In front, a large four-bladed propeller powered by a gas engine would drive the airship up to 250 miles an hour.

"Within three weeks we will sail into Chicago in the first of our airships," Pennington told a stockholder’s meeting at Chicago, according to the Dec. 19 Weekly Commercial.

Pennington, a "neatly-dressed, intelligent and studious-looking man," said the ship would make its trial flight from its place of manufacture at Mt. Carmel to St. Louis, from there to Chicago, and thence to New York, carrying a half-dozen reporters and any of the stockholders who wished to accompany him.

Soon, however, disenchantment began to set in. The Dec. 26 Western Sun said that only a 24-foot model would be displayed at Chicago, to be replaced in three weeks by the 200-foot ship, which would fly from Mt. Carmel to Chicago in one hour. The Jan. 16, 1891 Western Sun printed the text of an agreement by which Pennington sold the right to exhibit the 24-foot model at Chicago for $100,000.

"But we expected to see the original flying by this time in the open air," complained the Western Sun.

The following week Pennington tried to reassure the press and his stockholders that the full-size airship would soon be ready.

"All the parts of the large machine, which will carry 40 persons, are on the ground at Mt. Carmel," the Western Sun quotes him as saying, "and we shall put them together at once." He also claimed he had been sick for the last two months, and had received bad publicity in some newspapers, whom he was considering suing for "liable" (sic).

"Have you ever sailed through the air with your ship, Mr. Pennington?" asked a reporter from the Chicago Post.

The inventor looked surprised.

"Why, no," he replied, "But then, you know, I am not an aeronaut."

The same issue of the Western Sun reprinted a satiric letter from Mt. Carmel to the Chicago Post, purporting to explain that the cause of the delay was modifications in the airship--which the writer renamed The Vibrator--to increase its speed from 200 miles per hour to 200 miles per minute, thus enabling it to fly to the moon in eight to 10 hours.

"A little fishy" was the headline story in the Jan. 30, 1891 Western Sun, reporting that the model airship had arrived at Chicago, but shipped by railroad express in a box, not flown from Mt. Carmel.

"This airship," said Pennington, "is only thirty feet long, and is a duplicate of the larger ones. It will carry about 120 pounds, and hence is not large enough for passengers."

The large box contained 965 pounds of silk and rubber bags made in New York.

"The gas chambers of the large ships are of aluminum," explained Pennington, in a dead-level monotone, "but those of the model are of silk, because we could not get the chamber finished." This would not make any difference in the test, however, because the airships would be guided automatically, by an electric compass connected to the rudders.

Pennington was unable to answer Chicago reporters’ questions about the size of the large ships or amount of cubic feet of gas necessary for them--he had forgotten the figures. "The company has nothing to do with this working miniature which I have in Chicago," he said . "It is a side issue of my own."

"But he did not say," noted the Chicago Times, "why a man who was at the head of a company with $20,000,000 capital, and who was engaged in building airships which will mark the greatest epoch in human achievement, should embark in a side-show and exhibit an incomplete and useless mode as a freak is shown at a circus."

"The railroads are agin me," said Pennington in his low monotone, "and don’t overlook no chance to run me down."

The Mt. Carmel Airship went on exhibit at the Chicago Exposition Building on Feb. 2. Admission to see the demonstration flights was 25 cents.

True, the airship only rose 25 feet in the air and flew in a 100-foot circle at the end of a line. And true, the three-quarter-horse-power engine could only turn the two-blade propeller at 42 r.p.m., and drive the ship at a top speed of six miles per hour.

But thousands went to view the flights, and "at the close of each demonstration the enthusiasm is spontaneous and earnest, and loud applause resounds throughout the vast hall."

The Times grudgingly commented, "One who can work up a scheme whereby 500 to 1,000 people per day are induced to separate themselves from 25 cents each to see an airship which resembles an exaggerated link of bologna sausage, travelling a limited circuit of 100 feet is entitled to be called a bird. He may lack feathers, but he is entitled to them all the same."

The final blow for Pennington’s airship came in the March 7, 1891 issue of Scientific American quoted in the March 13 Commercial with the headline, "Airship Exposed." A full-page article, accompanied by a large picture of the "machine," declared Pennington’s airship a failure.

It said that the art of flying in the air by mankind had not yet been learned, nor the means thereto invented. The article spoke of the airship as a "deceptive and visionary scheme, lacking the essential elements of a flying machine. . .As a thing promising in the way of aerial navigation, it is without value."

The last ad for the Mt. Carmel airship appeared in the March 17, 1891 Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO NEWSPAPERS ran the ad at left to announce demonstrations of the Mt. Carmel Air Ship. Those who paid their quarter were enthusiastic, despite the small size of the model which Edward J. Pennington actually brought to the exposition Building. The full-scale version, he said, would hold 40 passengers and go as fast as 250 miles an hour. The engraving shows the cigar-shaped body, the rudder along the top of the cylinder, two of the propellers which would lift, and the larger propeller to drive the craft. The lettering along the passenger gondola reads Mt. Carmel Aeronautic Navigation Company.