Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Sonora Aero Club

theatlantic |  It was the time of Gold Rush, and people of every nationality were pouring into California in search of that earth that would make them rich.

The settlement of Sonora, about 130 miles east of San Francisco, was booming. It was there, in the saloon of one of the local boarding houses, that a group of men would get together every Friday night and talk of dreams. Well, just one dream, really: human flight.

They called themselves the Sonora Aero Club and, over time, they counted some 60 members, possibly many more. Their ranks included great characters, such as Peter Mennis, inventor of the Club's secret "Lifting Fluid," later described as "a rough Man, whit as kind a heart as to be found in verry few living beengs," despite being "adicted to strong drink" and "Flat brocke." The Aero Club's rules: Roughly once a quarter, each member had to stand before the gathered group and "thoroughly exercise their jaws" in telling how he would build an airship.
On one night in 1858, a man by the name of Gustav Freyer stood to present his invention: the Aero Guarda, an airship surrounded by a sort of hamster-wheel cage that would protect 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, in such a way that the passengers 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.