Captain John Taggart’s Flying Machine – 1850
Very little is known about John Taggart other than he was a “flying machine” inventor from Charlestown, Massachusetts, in the mid 1800s. How he came to the title of Captain is also unknown. Was he a former military man, or was it an honorary title bestowed upon him the way other aeronauts were often referred to as “professor”?
One newspaper account that was reprinted in dozens of papers, described the “flying machine” as follows: “The flying machine consists of a car, to the front of which is attached a pair of wings, somewhat like the screws used by propellers, and a float or balloon fastened to the car in the ordinary way, at an elevation of six or eight feet. The wings, which may be moved in any direction so as to assist in the ascent or descent of the machine, are put in motion by turning a small axle running through the center of the car. The machine may be guided in any direction by means of a rudder, the slightest variation of which it obeys with wonderful precision.
The float or balloon, which is pear-shaped, is thirty-three feet nine inches in height, having a diameter of some twelve feet, and the whole weight of the machine, when ready for ascension, is three hundred and fifty pounds; in addition to which it will carry with ease over one thousand pounds.”
Captain Taggart’s flying machine made its inaugural flight from the town common in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1850, before a large crowd which had gathered to watch the ascension. On the first attempt to take off, the balloon only rose 15 to 20 feet before it suddenly dropped back to earth. The loss or lack of buoyancy was blamed on an improper inflation of the balloon, which had allowed steam to mix with the gas, causing water vapor to condense inside.
Once the problem was corrected, a second attempt was made, but this time Mr. Taggart elevated the wings above the car to give it better lift. The adjustment worked, and a successful take-off was accomplished at 4 p.m. From Lowell, Taggart reportedly flew over the towns of Dracut, Tewksbury, Haverhill, Reading, Andover, Danvers, Ipswich, Georgetown, Lawrence, Methuen, “and others”.
On the way back to Lowell he had mechanical difficulties with some gearing which forced him to land prematurely. The entire flight, it was said, took one-and-a-half hours and covered about 75 miles.
Mr. Taggart brought his invention to New York City where he displayed it at the Dunlap Hotel at 135 Fulton Street.
On October 30, 1859, Mr. Taggart was scheduled to give a demonstration of his flying machine, where he would ascend from a bridge that spanned a canal at the Thatched Cottage Garden in Jersey City, New Jersey. Five thousand seats had been set out for the event, at a price of 50 cents each. Those wishing to stand only had to pay 25 cents.
Taggart’s first attempt at lift-off resulted in the machine dropping into the canal. It was quickly recovered and prepared for another try however, misfortune continued. As more gas was added to the balloon to increase buoyancy, it began to tug at the ropes held by assistants charged with keeping the flying machine earth bound until the proper time. As the pull on the ropes increased, the men suddenly began to let go fearing they would be carried away. As one might expect, the balloon/flying machine shot skyward with nobody aboard to control it. It continued to rise until air currents began sending it eastward and it disappeared from view.
Fortunately, the crowds weren’t upset with the unexpected development, for they had still witnessed the machine take flight.
The unmanned balloon/flying machine traveled across Manhattan Island, and then over Long Island, where it came down later that evening in the town of Huntington, near the home of Jonathan Giddersleeve, and got hung up on a fence. Mr. Giddersleeve and others attempted to retrieve it by cutting a small hole in the bottom of the balloon to release the gas not realizing it was flammable. The fumes drifted and were suddenly ignited by a nearby lantern which set off a violent explosion that burned Giddersleeve and his son, and threw others to the ground. The resulting fire destroyed Taggert’s flying machine.
Sunbury American, (Sunbury, Pa.) “Capt. Taggart’s Patent Flying Machine”, July 13, 1850
The Daily Union, (Washington, DC) “Flying Machine”, October 12, 1850
The North Carolinian, (Fayetteville, NC) “Flying Machine”, October 19, 1850
New York Daily Tribune, Advertisement for Taggart’s ascension from Jersey City, NJ, October 29, 1850
Southern Sentinel, (Iberville, La.) November 9, 1850
Vermont Watchman, (Montpelier, Vt.) “The Flying Machine”, November 14, 1850