Fire ‘Chute

Although it often promoted dubious devices, Popular Mechanics was capable of mocking the absurdity of some impractical gadgets such as Oppenheimer’s fire escape parachute (Sept. 1909, p. 345). The 1879 patent describes the parachute as being “about four or five feet in diameter” and made of “soft or waxed cloth.” While the parachute was to be connected “in suitable manner, to the upper part of the body,” the main attachment point appears to be the head.


“Second to None” and “Baby”

This is likely “Baby,” British Army Airship No. 3, launched in May 1909. Like its predecessor, “Nulli Secundus,” it was later re-built (the former as “Beta,” the latter as “Nulli Secundus II”). “Beta” made some longer trips and attempted experiments in radio communication, but was itself soon rebuilt. “Beta II” went on to score a number of firsts, including mast mooring (PM, Sept. 1909):


Sex, Death, and Airships

The tangled story of Charles Tolliver’s attempt to build a radical airship is more complex and violent than most. He began by convincing Hearst to invest $20,000 in his design, which housed crew and engines WITHIN the airbag. Tolliver borrowed a ravine on a farmer’s property, lined it with boards, and here a huge design took shape: 250 by 44 by 40 feet. In 1907, his first flight was announced. Popular Mechanics took an interest and ran a story on the new dirigible (Sept. 1909).

PM, Sept. 1909

However, the farmer and Tolliver’s patron were fed up with him. By 1910, Tolliver had decamped to San Diego. Here his agent, one Bert Lewis, bought iron filings and sulfuric acid to generate the huge volume of hydrogen needed. Meanwhile, the city gas inspector became anxious about the presence of such a large volume of gas, and took a sample back to his lab–and blew it up! Tolliver again failed to get his dirigible off the ground, and as the city pondered how to get rid of it, a wind came up and shredded it. Meanwhile, Bert had been kept busy making gas–while Tolliver was making time with his wife, Ellen Lewis. Lewis shot Tolliver dead; he was acquitted of murder on the grounds of temporary insanity, but Ellen left him. So he did the only thing left: he joined the circus!

The airship never left the ground.


Popular Mechanics (July 1907, pp. 739-742) announced Louis Brennan’s proposed monorail system with great excitement; later, it was a triumphant success at the Japan–British Exhibition (1910), dazzling (among others) Winston Churchill and winning the Grand Prize! Predictions of speeds in excess of 150mph were advanced, but Brennan’s patented system was never adopted by any major customer.

In fact, monorails only ever featured as futuristic novelties, save in Japan. One of the biggest obstacles they faced was the increasingly popular private automobile.

It is one of life’s great ironies that Loius Brennan died after being knocked down by a car in Montreux in 1932.

Motor Swimming

The footwear and bathing costume make this one seem even stranger than it is:

According to Popular Mechanics (Nov. 1906, p. 1104), this is an invention of M. Constantini:

Similar devices have appeared at intervals, but the modern ones are electric and altogether friendlier-looking.

Flight Bike

Lawyer and aviation pioneer Ernest Archdeacon made many lasting contributions to airplane technology as president of the Aero Club of France; this prop-driven motorcycle was not among them! (Popular Mechanics, Dec. 1906, p. 1207)

This view shows the steering arrangements; the propeller was set on a long shaft that carried it clear of the front wheel.