Science Art: Plate 2527 Guarda (a mechanism for protecting airships), by Charles A.A. Dellschau, 1912.

Charles A.A. Dellschau's Plate 2627 Guarda
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This may be an important historical record of the early days of aeronautics, or it may be a vivid fantasy by a lonely, old man.

Either way, it’s beautiful.

The notebooks of Charles A.A. Dellschau were, The Atlantic tells us, rescued from a Texas landfill. They’d been dumped there after a house fire in the 1960s. Inside the pages were descriptions – and brilliant illustrations – chronicling the mid-1800s meetings of the Sonora Aero Club. This is the only record of the club’s existence, so it’s hard to tell if this is all real records of real concepts (exchanged by hard-drinking, often broke working-class tinkerers) or if it’s a fantastic imaginary world dreamed up by a German expat who never quite struck it big in the Gold Rush.

On one night in 1858, a man by the name of Gustav Freyer stood to present his invention: the Aero Guarda, a sort of hamster-wheel cage that would surround an airship, protecting its passengers upon landfall. Freyer was a highly educated mechanic, and he waltzed up to the blackboard, took the chalk in hand, and began.

“Brothers,” he said. “You all know I am not quite a professor.” He looked at his fellow airship enthusiasts and continued: “I give you a nut to crack. My idea is to put a guard fence all around the machine to fall — land — easy and always safe, to keep some of you smarties from falling out.” His contraption, he argued, would somersault upon hitting water, so that you would always “stay perpendicular, I mean head up on the floor of the hold.”

He drew a sketch on the board and declared his work done.

“Well,” he concluded, “now some of you have to pay the treat for me. Tell ya the truth, I am busted and dry as a fish!” And they bought him a beer, lifted up their glasses, and toasted his good health.

Or perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps Gustav Freyer never stood up among his comrades and proposed this ridiculous design. Perhaps there was no Gustav Freyer, no Friday nights at the saloon talking about flight, no clink of the glasses to celebrate a new-fangled airship design.

Perhaps the Sonora Aero Club never existed at all.

Peter Navarro, a graphic designer who purchased Delsschau’s work after its landfill rescue (and later devoted decades of his life to studying and decodings the texts), wrote, “Many of the newsworthy events that Dellschau claimed to have happened while he was there have been verified. But those events dealing with the activities of the Aero Club have not.” He concluded, “A personal search of records and cemeteries . . . have turned up nothing that would prove the members of the Aero Club ever existed.” And though Baker-White can find some names in later California records, others crop up in turn-of-the-century Houston, where Dellschau lived out his later years and created his books.

So maybe these are unsung heroes – or fanboys – of the emerging technology of flight. Or maybe they were brilliant fictions. Either way, they are marvelous today.

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