from Flying Saucers, June 1970
Did Pennington Build the 1897 U.S.A. Airship?
Reprinted from BUFORA Journal, British U.F.O. Resaerch Association
Speculation as to the origin of the 'Airship' reported over the central States of the U.S.A. in 1897 has resulted in many theories and at least one of these attributes the sightings to the activities of a peculiar antique U.F.O. I understand that the reason that the craft looked very much like the current airship design already flying in Europe is that the U.F.O. denizens wished to present their ship to the natives in a manner that would be acceptable and understandable. However the airship in question did not seem to be at all anxious to present itself, operating as it did almost exclusivly by night and skulking during daylight hours in out of the way places.
Before accepting such 'way out' theories it would seem necessary to exclude any possibility of the machine being the production of some far-sighted inventor with the ability, wealth and resources to build and fly such a machine and also keep the whole project secret.
Witnesses of the airship were often men of excellent reputation for veracity and often crowds of onlookers werte able to compare experiences.
The descriptions tallied to a remarkable degree. It seems clear also that some of the sightings of night flying objects were of quite a different catagory and to present day ufologists may be recognized as being the result of 'normal' U.F.O. activity.
From the reports still in existence it is possible to build up a very good idea of the type of dirigible involved and there is no doubt that in many respects it is similar to airships already built and flying in Europe particularly in France. In 1884 Renard and Krebs devised and built an electrically propelled airship called 'La France' which made a circular flight of five miles at its first appearance.
It would indeed have been strange if there had been no parallel activities in the U.S.A. at that time. Resources of material and money were there in abundance and amoung the fertile brains of a rapidly growing scientifically orientated community was there no person of sufficient genius engineering ability and wealth to take up the aerial challenge?
I believe there was and I believe that his name was Edward J. Pennington.
Pennington was born in Franklin, Indiana in 1858 and as a boy showed remarkable engineering aptitude and as he developed into manhood he displayed remarkable initiative, charm and persuasiveness. With these attributes it was not long before he was running his own factory and at the age of twenty-three had patented a reciprocating head for planing machines, the first of a continuous stream of patents which flowed from his active brain until his death in 1911.
He was ruthless too and could exhibit considerable showmanship in order to further his own ideas. A characteristic of Pennington which in this context is significant was the secrecy he achieved to protect his projects and his habit of quietly dropping one idea in favor of another with little regard to the financial outcome.
By 1885 Pennington had acquired sufficient capital to set up the Standard Machine Works in Defiance, Ohio and two years later he created two further firms to make pulleys and wood-working machinery. A flood of Pennington patents were registered at this time at Fort Wayne.
There are rumors of a company capitalized at one million dollars in Oswego, Kansas and another at Cincinnati with factories to produce 'Freight Elevators'. (Could this phrase possibly have been a euphemism fo load-carrying Airships?)
After a brief appearance at Edinburg, Illinois, where he collected some 50,000 dollars from the inhabitants for yet another 'pulley works' he came to rest at Mount Carmel, Illinois, in 1890.
Now things begin to develop...this new Company was actually a four cylinder radial engine...quot;for the propulsion of an aerial vessel".
He also let it be known, that he was "readying a vessel to fly from Mount Carmel to New York".
In 1891 he exhibited a captive airship some thirty feet long and six feet in diameter. It flew in a circle propelled by an airscrew turned electrically. The current was conveyed by wires in the tethering cable.
In 1893 he turned his attention to motor driven vehicles and again a spate of patents flooded from the Pennington brain. Soon he was making motor-cycles in Cleveland, Ohio and here he invented the first balloon tyre.
Such giddy progress was bound to meet with reverses and due to his dogmatic attitude and ruthless decisions he began to make enemies: yet his uncanny instinct for avoiding trouble kept him from falling foul of the law.
During 1894 he joined Thomas Kane who made kerosene engines widely used in dairies for milk seperation. This event is most important in this thesis which will be evident later. Here, in Racine on the shores of lake Michigan they financed a really large concern for the development of petrol engines.
They patented among other things an 'electric igniter' for petrol driven engines which was really the first sparking plug, in 1895. In this year Pennington visited England and took some of his vehicles with him.
Exercising his well-known assurance and charm he persuaded Henry J. Lawson, a successful manufacturer of bicycles to purchase patents to the tune of a half a million dollars. He was still here in 1896 and entered the Brighton Run. After an altercation with Mons. Leon Bollee his claim to have won the event was not disputed. After this he participated in the aerial demonstrations in the U.S.A. late in 1896 and during 1897.
In December 1895 he had deposed with the American Patents Office the design for a full sized Airship. Many of the features of this design are so close to those described by witnesses of the aerial ship seen in 1896 and 1897 that on this evidence alone one would suspect that Pennington could have been responsible.
Basing the scale of the design on the size of the passenger seats the overall length of the ship would be about 140 ft. The keel beneath which provided accommodation for the crew and passengers, also housed large batteries and extended for 70 ft. with an equal amount of overhang of the envelope at each end. At the front end of the envelope a large airscrew about 50 ft. from tip to tip provided traction. At the rear an ample rudder and a horizontal fin allowed control of direction.
At the sides two horizontally disposed propellers furnished lateral 'trimming'. Along the top of the ship a high dorsal fin would help to prevent sideways drift and yawing at slow speeds. Altogether a very impressive aeronautical design for that period of time.
It is probable that the finished airship based on this plan would
deviate in minor details. Perhaps laterally placed airscrews were found to give a better lift and control if suitably shaped.
Wings or large ailerons above the envelope would also help to provide lift if suitably angled. In 1895 during his motorcycle phase Pennington was heard to remark: "Suppose I have a cycle, screw driven, making a mile a minute...just suppose that...then suppose that I put aeroplanes on that machine...and they are under good control, what then?"
What then indeed, the Wright Brothers would have been forstalled by several years.
The sighting of the Airship on the ground in 1897 by Captain Hooten at 6:00 p.m. on about 20th April is usually regarded as a true account of his experience which he recounted in the Little Rock, Arkansas, Gazette. He was, he said, out hunting near Homan when he heard the sound of 'pumping' like the noise of a Westinghouse locomotive brake.
Going in the direction of the sound he was amazed to behold "the famous airship" in an open space. A man wearing dark glasses was doing something at the rear of the ship. As he approached four other men appeared.
During the ensuing conversation there was no doubt in his mind that the crew were American. When the ship was ready, three large 'wheels' started to rotate on either side of the airship and with a hissing sound she took off. The 'aeroplanes' on top of the envelope sprang forward and the ship rapidly gained height and speed.
((For a more detailed account of this sighting please refer to the JULY / AUGUST 1966 issue of The Flying Saucer Review.))
The 'pumping noise' is of great significance. This noise is noted in at least three of the sightings. Twice it was referred to as being similar to that made by a milk separator. This is almost conclusive, it was Thomas Kane whom Pennington joined in 1894, who made the motors for these separators.
All witnesses agree that there were lights aboard in abundance with one very bright searchlight which was seen to dim as the airship accelerated.
One witness encountering the aeronaut grounded claims to have asked why he turned the light on and off so much. He replied, no doubt truthfully that it consumed a great deal of motive power. We are led to the conclusion that Pennington's ship was propelled by a petro- electric, or diesel-electric system. A bank of large batteries would be charged by a motor driven dynamo and would then operate electric motors geared to the airscrew(s). This system was widely used for the propulsion of road vehicles in the early years of this century.
After a trip of some miles it might be necessary to land to recharge batteries. Such a propulsion system would be well within Pennington's capabilities at this time.
The crew referred to by some witnesses included a woman, and it was customary for Pennington to take his wife on most of his exploits. (He married three times but I cannot find record of any children.) Also a bearded man.
I have a photograph of Pennington with one of his vehicles and here he is accompanied by a man with a beard. Pennington himself was tall and of good physique. He usually sported a rather long dark moustache.
The next evidence required toward proving that the ship was not only terrestrial but Pennington's, is to plot the course of the airship from recorded sightings during the 'voyages' of 1897 and to show that its speed was within the capabilities of such an early craft and that it operated in the vicinity of Pennington workshops.
Here I suggest the reader obtain a good large scale map of the central States of America. Those included in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 are most useful being nearly contemporary.
Two series of sightings occured in 1897.
Starting from Pennington's base at Oswego, Kansas, to Belleville, Kansas, to arrive March 25th, thence to Sioux City some 200 miles northward travelling at night. Making around 40 mph and in fair weather the six or so hours of darkness would make for an easy arrival by 28th March. Here the ship landed and charged batteries?
Turning southward an easy night run of 100 miles allowed late worshippers leaving church at Omaha, Nebraska to view the aerial visitor. Continuing via Lincoln and Beatrice on the southerly run arrival at Everest, Kansas on April 1st., another 100 miles apart. In fact Kansas City was reached quite early at 8:15.
Back to base at Oswego without serious mishap on about the 3rd. April?
After this there are three possibilities.
a) Pennington flew to Racine on lake Michigan by April 9th keeping to out-of-the-way landing sites.
b) The ship was partly dismantled and carried by rail in Pennington's closed rail cars to Racine.
c) That Thomas Kane had another similar airship at Racine.
I would suggest (b) as being the most probable in the circumstances.
Pennington had the resources and the experience in moving large objects by rail from place to place, vide (as for example), his captive airship which was shown at exhibitions at Chicago and elsewhere.
The Airship would have taken the air on the evening of April 9th 1897 and leaving Racine some 60 miles from Chicago was seen first north of the city and then to south-east at 9:30p.m. passing over the lake.
Turning westward the ship would have reached the vicinity of Eldon in Iowa some 200 miles after five hours at around forty mph.
Spending the day of the 10th on the ground at some secluded spot the batteries would again be charged and ready for the take-off on the evening of April 10th. Then passing over Eldon westward to Ottumwa (10 miles) at 7:25 and 7:40 p.m. respectively, the ship is seen near Albia 25 miles further on at about 8:10 p.m.
This chain of sightings allows some estimation of the airship's speed-35 miles in 45 minutes which is better than 45 mph. Wind speed must be taken into account, but from the sighting reports the weather during this period seems to have been remarkably calm.
Steering now toward the north-west apparently en route for Racine, the ship would have passed near Mount Carroll but the date given for the airship over this city is April 9th. One must conclude that if this date is correct that the craft passed over this city on the westward leg of its journey before turning south-east toward Eldon. This is perfectly possible on the time schedule estimated.
However, and here one must speculate on Pennington's movements, it is not certain how the airship arrived at its next point at Yates Center, Kansas on April 19th. It could well have travelled at night over the next week or so southward which would be well within its 40 mph capabilities. Or it may have been once more despatched by rail.
At Yates Center there was the unfortunate incident of a young heifer becoming entangled in the mooring rope on takeoff. Then southeast and a fairly long haul- 400 miles - to near Texarkana, but at 40 mph only ten hours of darkness were necessary. Here the ship was obliged to land on April 21st. to recharge batteries. In the evening when all was ready for take-off the airship was spotted by one Captain J. Hooten whose detailed report is well known.
Airborne again and travelling in a leisurely manner Hot Springs, Arkansas was reached on May 6th. Once more the ship landed and was encountered by the Law Officers, Constable Sumpter and Deputy Sheriff McLemore. Both these gentlemen have sworn affidavits to their evidence in which they tell of a bearded mechanic and a young woman.
There was also a young man who was engaged in filling a water bag. They were informed that the ship was en route for Nashville, Tennessee. This may well have been so, but I feel that it was not long before it was once again safely in Oswego, Kansas with Pennington highly satisfied with his aerial exploits. There is little evidence of its re-appearance.
From the foregoing evidence it must be conceded that the itinerary
followed by the 1897 airship was not particularly miraculous even for a craft of that period, only it took place in America where hitherto no such aerial exploits had been seen. No wonder then, that the onlookers became scared and confused, suspecting the work of the Devil. The only Devil responsible was in my opinion one eccentric, brilliant inventor named Edward Joel Pennington.
Of course there are so many questions left unanswered. For instance why did Pennington decide to drop the whole project just when fame and fortune might seem to have been within his grasp? I would suggest that he was clever enough to realize that his airship, though a very remarkable invention, had very severe limitations which could not readily be overcome.
There would be little prospect of increasing the battery capacity without making the ship larger and unwieldy. It was obviously very much a fine weather craft and he had been extraordinarily lucky to have had such a long spell of fine, calm weather for his trials.
Also, he would have realized that until the internal combustion engine could be improved considerably in size and reliability the whole airship had better be shelved. The new and more financially rewarding field of the motor car must have seemed to Pennington to offer much better prospects of immediate financial rewards. He must also have known that there were aeronautical designers in Europe who had forged ahead in the airship field with whom he could hardly compete.
In the Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire there is a very rare vehicle. It is an 1896 Pennington motor-tricycle. It is worth looking at closely. The twin-cylinder, water cooled engine functions by fuel injection and the ignition system is remarkably ingenious, operating an early form of spark plug on each cylinder.
The wheels have wire spokes and furnished with wide tires of modern cross section. It is a really remarkable piece of advanced engineering for its time and marks its designer, Pennington, as a brilliant engineer of foresight and genius.