Rufus Porter’s “Aeroport” Airship – 1853

Rufus Porter’s “Aeroport” Airship – 1853

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Rufus Porter's "Power Balloon" From a September 20, 1908 newspaper illustration of The Evening Star, of Washington, D.C.

Rufus Porter’s “Power Balloon”
From a September 20, 1908 newspaper illustration of The Evening Star, of Washington, D.C.

     Rufus Porter was a 19th century New England inventor, publisher, and artist, who some might say was a man well ahead of his time when it came to aeronautical thinking.   

     Born May 1, 1792, in West Boxford, Massachusetts, Porter received little in the way of formal education, but he possessed a brilliant and creative mind.    

     As an artist he painted mural scenes on the walls of many New England homes, and some of these murals survive today. 

     One of his publications included the New York Mechanic, which was described in the Vermont Telegraph in 1841 as being, “The Advocate of Industry and Enterprise, and Journal of Mechanical and other Scientific Improvements.”  It was published weekly at 7 Ann St., New York City.  Others included the American Mechanic, and Scientific American, two magazines aimed at those interested in the latest technology of the day.     

     Mr. Porter was very interested in all things mechanical, and is credited with many inventions, but perhaps his most intriguing was his “Aeroport”, a steam-powered airship that he began to develop in the early 1830s.   The “Aeroport” has also been referred to by other names such as “Aerial Steamer”, “Aero-locomotive”, and “Power Balloon”, but the press commonly referred to it as an “Aeroport”.     

An Early Balloon

An Early Balloon

     The field of aviation was relatively new in Porter’s day.  The first manned balloon ascension had taken place in France in 1783, and the first balloon flight in America had followed ten years later in 1793, about eight months after Porter was born.  Forty years later balloon technology  hadn’t changed much, and once aloft, aeronauts were still at the mercy of the prevailing winds with no means to control the craft’s direction other than up or down.  Porter wanted to change that by designing a flying machine that could land and take off with ease, and be under the control of a pilot who could direct the ship in any desired direction despite wind currents. 

     Another drawback of balloons of the day was that they could only carry one or two persons, but Porter envisioned an air ship that could transport many people at once, much like a modern-day airliner.  His futuristic thinking was ridiculed by those who thought such aerial navigation impossible, yet others found it intriguing, for there had once been a time when sailing across the world’s oceans was thought to be impossible.         

     Porter’s proposed airship was to be 160 feet long, and designed to carry passengers in an enclosed compartment called the “saloon” slung beneath the gas-envelope.  It was to be powered by steam engines which would spin huge propellers that would push it through the air at speeds faster than any known ships or trains.  And for safety sake, the engines and boiler were to be installed in such a way that they could be immediately dropped away should an emergency arise.  

     Over the years Porter built several working models of his proposed airship, which he used to demonstrate the fesability of his project.  The first of these models was completed in 1833, when Porter was in his early 40s.

     In 1849 Rufus Porter authored a publication titled Aerial Navigation: The Practicability Of Traveling Plesantly And Safely From New York To California In Three Days, Fully Demonstrated.   In it, he explained how such a feat could be accomplished with his proposed air ship that he envisioned capable of carrying between fifty to one-hundred passengers at speeds up to 100 miles per hour, making a round trip from New York to California’s “Gold Region” in only seven days.  This was a remarkable claim in an era when the fastest ships took weeks to make the journey.

     In 1850 Porter went to New York and Boston to exhibit a working model of his invention. One newspaper reported, “Mr. Porter’s ‘flying machine did all that 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 three cheers for the successful experiment.”  

     The model was then demonstrated at the Merchant’s Exchange in New York where it circled the rotunda eleven times.

       In 1851 Porter established the Aerial Navigation Company which offered investors the chance to purchase shares in his “Aeroport” which he was convinced would be extremely profitable once completed and put into operation.       

Rufus Porter's Dirigible Airship of 1850 Note the word "Aeroport" on the side of the ship. Illustration from The New York Sun November 23, 1913

Rufus Porter’s Dirigible Airship of 1850
Note the word “Aeroport” on the side of the ship.
Illustration from The New York Sun
November 23, 1913

     In March of 1852 he wrote an open letter to the public looking for investors which was published in the Daily American Telegraph in Washington, D.C., where he had established his residence.  Porter offered potential investors the chance to turn a five-dollar investment into a cash income $20 per week for twenty years.  That translates into a potential return of $20, 800 – a huge sum of money even today.

     The letter stated as follows:

     “The Flying Ship – A chance to secure a cash income of $10 to $20 per week for twenty years, by the investment of five dollars in advance.

     It is extensively known that the undersigned has by the theory and practical experiments so fully demonstrated the practicability of aerial navigation that all who have duly examined the subject are convinced; and no person, even of those whose interests are adverse to its success, can offer a word of rational argument against it.  Several model machines have been constructed, and each of them has operated successfully; and one of them , sixteen feet long, carried a small steam engine, by the power of which the machine was propelled, and, being guided by its own helm, traveled rapidly through the air, even against a breeze of wind, in direct lines or circles, according to the adjustment of its helm.  This machine was witnessed and applauded by hundreds in New York and Boston, and notices thereof were published in several newspapers of those cities at the time.  Since those experiments were made, the inventor has made additional improvements, whereby the invention is now perfected.  And it appears certain that a safe and durable aerial ship, (or aeroport,) capable of carrying one hundred and fifty passengers at a speed of ninety miles an hour, with more perfect safety than either steamboats or railroad cars, may be constructed for $15,000, and that the expense of running it will not exceed $25 per day.  This Aeroport will make the trip to California or to Europe in two days, and will be patronized with abundance of business (more that 50,000 persons are now ready to engage passages) at $200 per passage, which will amount to $30,000 per trip, each way; or $60,000 per week, besides $4,000 for carrying mails.  If this aeroport is owned in shares of $5 each, a single share will produce an income of $20 per week. 

     It is ascertained, by a minute and careful estimate, that an aeroport 150 feet long and capable of carrying five persons at a speed of sixty miles per hour, may be constructed for $1,500.  Now, having been disappointed of the funds requisite to put this invention in operation on a scale of practical utility, I propose that if three hundred persons will subscribe five dollars each, payable when the whole amount of $1,500 shall have been subscribed, I will forthwith construct this pioneer aeroport, (which may be done in six weeks;) and when this is put in operation, I can readily command the requisite funds for constructing a large aeroport, as above mentioned.  And I will so arrange that each subscriber, on the payment of the said sum of five dollars, shall be furnished with a regular title-deed, which shall entitle th eholder thereof to one three-hundredth part of this first aeroport, and also to one three-hundredth part of the first large aeroprt that shall be constructed, and of all benefits and emoluments that may be derived therefrom for twenty years; the said aeroport to be kept in repair without expense to the shareholders.  Subscribers will not be restricted to single shares, but each may hold as many as he is disposed to subscribe for at first; and will receive dividends accordingly, which, according to the forgoing estimate, will be $20 per week on each share, payable weekly or monthly.  Subscribers may send their names to my address by mail (prepaid) and the same will be duly entered on the subscription book, (which already contains about fifty names of subscribers in this city,) and notice will be sent (prepaid) to each when the three hundred shares shall have been taken; and the money may be sent either to me or to the firm of Selden, Withers & Co., (well known bankers of this city,) who will, on the receiptthereof, forward to each subscriber a title-deed, as above stipulated, and will act as treasurers for the shareholders, and transfer the money to me as the progress of the work requires.  Each subscriber will be furnished semi-monthly with a printed news-letter, reporting the progress of the work.

     Editors or publishers of newspapers who will give the forgoing prospectus an insertion within three weeks, and send a copy thereof to the undersigned, shall be entitled to one share in the large aeroport, and be furnished with a title-deed or five dollars in cash forthwith.”

     Rufus Porter, Washington, March 16, 1852

     “P.S. – It is confidently believed that by this invention unexplored regions may be examined, and the light of civilization and Christianity may be disseminated through benighted lands with faculty; and that the world will honor the names of those who now subscribe to aid the introduction of an invention calculated to confer immense benefits upon the entire human race.”       

     Not long afterwards Mr. Porter began building his “Aeroport” .  Unfortunately, throughout the entire construction process, Porter was plagued by bad luck, skeptcisim, ridicule, obstruction, and even vandalism.             

     On August 12, 1852, the Jeffersonian Republican of Stroudsburg, Penn. reported the following: “Rufus Porter, who is building a flying ship at Washington, in his semi monthly report to the stockholders, says: – “The fibrous material for the float and the saloon has all been varnished, and the sewing and making up the float are now in progress, and we may have it ready for inflation in two weeks.  The frame work of the saloon, and the longitudinal rods for the float, are ready to be set up.  The engine and boilers are only waiting for the furnace”

        By the beginning of 1853 Mr. Porter’s airship was still under construction.  On January 1st, of that year, another Washington, D.C. newspaper, the Weekly National Intelligencier, had this to say;

       “When Mr. Porter issued his prospectus or proposition to construct machinery for aerial navigation, and offered shares therein for cash in advance, it was supposed or suspected by most people – probably nine-tenths of those who read the prospectus – to be a mere trick to raise money, but without any serious intention to proceed in the construction of said machine or aeroport.  But the proposition having received the confidence of a sufficient number to obtain the sum required in said prospectus, Mr. Porter did proceed in good faith in the work of constructing the said aeroport, and notwithstanding that he encountered a series of adversities which much retarded the work, and nearly doubled the estimated expense thereof, he had brought the aeroport nearly to completion when interrupted by the inclemency of winter weather.  An unlucky oversight, which required a laborious portion of the work to be wrought over again, only prevented the completion of the aeroport in November.  He now believes that his aeroport may be put to full operation in two or three weeks of mild, calm, pleasant weather.  But, in consequence of delay and the expense of the safe-keeping of the machinery, (some part which being 160 feet long, is rather difficult of storage,) he finds it expiedient to sell a larger number of shares than he had heretofore intended to do; and in consideration of the forward state of the work, and having thus far discovered nothing to shake his confidence in the ultimate success thereof, he reasonably expects the public to entertain more confidence, and attach more value to the said shares than at or prior to the commencement.”

     The rest of the article went on to reiterate what Mr. Porter had said in his letter dated March 16, 1852.         

Advertisement From The Daily Evening Star March 25, 1853 Note the cost of admission was 50 cents

Advertisement From
The Daily Evening Star
March 25, 1853
Note the cost of admission was 50 cents

     To help raise more funding, Mr. Porter exhibited a 22-foot-long and 8-foot-wide working model of his “aeroport” airship at venues where people willing to pay a small admission price could see it.  The total weight of the model was said to be only 15 pounds.

     One place in particular where the model was exhibited on more than one occasion was Carusi’s Saloon in Washington, D.C.  

     On April 13, 1853, the Daily Evening Star reported, “The performance at Carusi’s saloon last evening was highly satisfactory, and elicited frequent applause from the excited audience.”    

     Evidently the demonstrations of his working model failed to achieve the desired effect to entice more investors, for the following month Mr. Porter penned another letter which appeared in the Daily Evening Star on May 12, 1853, which he titled:   “Outrageous Apathy And Inconsistency”.

     The letter read:    

From The Republic newspaper Washington, D. C. April 1, 1853 Note the price of admission was now 25 cents.

From The Republic newspaper Washington, D. C.
April 1, 1853
Note the price of admission was now 25 cents.



     “What a world of fools; or rather, what a nation of skeptics and moral cowards.  Look at the facts.  More than ten years ago I published , described, illustrated, and demonstrated the practicability of a convenient mode of traveling safely and rapidly through the air, in any required direction; and subsequently have not only refuted all arguments against it, but demonstrated its practicability by the frequently repeated exhibition of an operating aerial steamer (aeroport or flying ship) on a small scale, and proved beyond all cavil, that this mode of traveling would be incomparatively more safe, as well as more pleasant and expeditious, than nay mode in present use; and that the cost of an aeroport of such size and proportions as to be capable of carrying two hundred passengers safely, at a good speed of one hundred miles per hour, would be less than that of an ordinary steam ferry boat; and that the earnings of this aeroport would pay more than two hundred percent per week on its cost; and that no accident or emergency could possibly occur to subject the passengers to more danger than that of a hotel residence.  Yet with these facts before them, and while people are being burned, drowned, smashed and ground up by hundreds, by collisions, overturning and plunging railroad trains, and the burning of steamboats; and while thousands are exposing their lives by land journies across the thousand miles of desert and wilderness, or submitting to the hardship and dangers of a six months voyage around Cape Horn, such a total apathy, or mental disease of skepticism, and the fear of vulgar sneers pervades the community that not one man of wealth can be found in these United States, willing to furnish the requisite funds for introducing this incomparable and greatly needed improvement.

     When application has been made to Congress, the subject meets with ridicule; or, if referred to appropriate committees, the members refuse to examine its merits. 

     When the most interesting appeals have been made public through the press, and a liberal interest (worth $500,) in the invention , has been offered to every editor who would give the proposition an insertion, only one in fifty of those whom the offer was made , deigned to notice it; and of these, three subsequently demanded cash payment for the insertion.

     So goes the world, or rather, the nation; and so it will go, perhaps, till the more reasonable English or French capitalists shall have put this same aeroport in operation in Europe; when all Yankeedom will eagerly adopt the invention, and wonder that it had not been introduced before.”

     R. Porter       

     One can understand Mr. Porter’s frustration.  As a man of foresight, he knew that air travel was the way of the future, and history has proven him correct, but he didn’t understand why people were reluctant to invest in his project, or why the United States government had denied his request for funding when other nations like France and England were actively seeking was to develop air travel.  

     So why were people reluctant to invest?  One possibility could have been the promise of a potential return of $20,800 on a mere $5 investment.  If Mr. Porter’s figures are correct, and there’s no reason to doubt them, a person would be a fool not to invest, but perhaps potential investors couldn’t believe it, thinking it was too good to be true. 

     Another possibility is that while we take high-speed aerial navigation for granted in the 21st century, in 1853 it was akin to science fiction, so one can understand why some may have thought Mr. Porter’s invention would be nothing more than a passing fancy.  Such was the thinking with other inventions throughout the ages, like the telephone, for example.         

1845 Train Illustration

1845 Train Illustration

     And perhaps there were those who weren’t anxious to see airships replace trains and ocean going vessels as a primary means of long distance travel, especially when Mr. Porter was claiming his invention would be able to cross continents and oceans in mere days – something trains and ships were incapable of.    

       Yet Mr. Porter persevered, and in early July of 1853 he announced that he hoped his “Aeroport” would be ready for trials by October 1st. If successful, he planned to fly it to the World’s Fair in New York City.  At the time he made the announcement he was still reportedly $300 short of his financial goal.

      On July 26, 1853, a Washington, D.C. newspaper reported, “We have heretofore stated that Mr. Rufus Porter proposes to construct an aeroport with which to visit the Crystal Palace; he and others being confident that he can accomplish his purpose.  Notwithstanding the doubts which prevail upon the subject, and the opinions expressed as to the practicability, he is now engaged in the construction of his flying ship.  The City Councils, several weeks ago, as we were yesterday informed by a member of the lower board, refused to grant him the use of a vacant lot somewhere in the slashes, on which he could erect a pavilion to protect his mechanical operations; but this has not weakened his determination to persevere in his long-considered plans.  To say the least, the municipal authorities can take no offence should the proprietor withhold from them the complementary invitation of a saloon passage!” 

     And so it went.  A year-and-a-half later on January 5, 1855, the Washington Sentinel commented, “Mr. Rufus Porter, with the industry of a beaver, is still working on his “float and saloon”, in this city.”   Unfortunately the project never came to fruition.  In the ensuing years others followed in Porter’s foot steps.  Some made progress, others failed, but it was Rufus Porter who’d laid the groundwork for future dirigible development.   This fact was recognized in The Sun, a New York newspaper, in the autumn of 1913, twenty-nine years after Rufus Porter died.  The article said in part; “Perhaps you don’t know who Rufus Porter was, and if that be the case, you, as a patriotic American will be interested in learning that he has some right to be described as the father of the dirigible airship.”  

     Rufus Porter died at the age of 92 in West Haven, Connecticut, on August 13, 1884, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in West Haven.   

     To learn more about Rufus Porter, one should visit the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine, or the museum’s website at:  


     Vermont Telegraph, “New York Mechanic” May 5, 1841.  

     Daily American Telegraph, (Washington, D. C. ) “The Flying Ship”, Rufus Porter’s appeal to investors through his letter to the editor., April 3, 1852 

     Jeffersonian Republican, (no headline) August 12, 1852 

     The Daily Comet, (Baton Rouge, La.) “The Flying Ship” October 8, 1852

     Weekly National Intelligencer, (Washington, D.C.) “The Flying Ship”, January 1, 1853

     Grand River Times, “(Grand Haven, Michigan), (no headline) February 23, 1853

     Daily Evening Star, “The Aeroport, Or Flying Ship” – Carusi’s Saloon advertisement, March 25, 1853

     The Republic, (Washington D. C. ) Carusi’s Saloon – The Flying Ship, or Aeroport”, April 1, 1853    

     Weekly National Intelligencer, (Washington, D.C.) ,”The Flying Ship”, April 2, 1853

     Daily Evening Star, “Communicated – The Flying Ship”, April 13, 1853

     Daily Evening Star, (Washington, D.C. ) “Outrageous Apathy and Inconsistency”, May 12, 1853 

     Daily Evening Star, (Washington, D.C.) (no headline – Porter announces Aeroport will be ready for test flights on October 1st.) July 11, 1853

     The Daily Republic, (Washington, D.C.) “Aerial Flights” July 12, 1853

     The Daily Republic, (Washington D.C.) “Aerial Traveling”, July 26, 1853

     Washington Sentinel, Rufus Porter’s letter to the editor, November 27, 1853

     Washington Sentinel, under “Local and Personal”, headline “The Flying Ship” October 28, 1854

     Washington Sentinel, (Washington, D.C.) “Floating Castles”, January 5, 1855 

     Tri-Weekly Asturian, “Miscellaneous Items”, September 16, 1873

     Evening Star, (Washington, D.C.) “Nest of Flyers Here – Washington Home Of Greatest Attempts To navigate Air”, September 20, 1908

     New York Sun, (Image) “Rufus Porter’s Airship Of 1850”, November 23, 1913, 3rd Section, Page 12.

     New York Sun, “Yankee’s Dirigible Airship Of Sixty Years Ago”, November 23, 1913, 3rd Section, Page 12.

     Rufus Porter Museum, Bridgton, Maine.   

     Wikipedia – Rufus Porter

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