The annual Wall Street Collectors Bourse, which will be held at the Museum of American Finance this week, will feature a print by Nathaniel Currier that recalls a pivotal moment at which the histories of American technology and finance intersected, thanks to the vision of an eccentric genius, who is now largely forgotten.
Rufus Porter was by turns a shoemaker, a painter, and a metal worker. But his real passion was invention. He patented the first concept for a revolving rifle that helped build the Colt Firearms Company. Not long after that, he founded Scientific American magazine. And shortly after gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill, California, sparking a westward migration of prospectors, Porter launched his boldest scheme: to build an 800-foot long, steam-powered dirigible that would fly between 50 and 100 passengers to the west coast in 72 hours, traveling at more than 100 miles per hour, thousands of feet above the Great Plains. His pamphlet, Aerial Navigation: The Practicality of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New York to California in Three Days, asked for deposits of $50 against a fare of $200 (about $6,000 in 2014 money.)
This was decades before air ships became practical, at a time when even hot air balloons were in their infancy. In retrospect, the remarkable thing about Porter’s design was that it worked. He created a series of flying prototypes, scaling up from 22 feet in length to 240 feet. But as their size increased geometrically, the cost of these models inflated exponentially. He asked the United States Senate for $5,000 in developmental funding (they said no), and one prototype after another fell victim to storms, vandals, and technical difficulties.
Porter’s biggest problem however was that he was guilty of the worst sin an inventor can commit: He was right, but too early. (Just ask the folks who thought up Beta Max video tapes.) At a time when the technology that captivated America’s collective imagination was ferroequine, rather than aeronautical, railroads were the darlings of both Wall Street and Washington, lavished with capital from the former and land grants from the latter.
Until his death in 1884, Porter never stopped trying to get his airship service off the ground. He never succeeded, but the dirigibles that began ferrying passengers between Europe and America six decades later mimicked his designs almost exactly.
Currier’s 1849 print, The Way They Go to California (which also depicts a passenger on a rocket) is part of a series of six that offer a humorous, mid-19th century perspective on the giddy transformation the Gold Rush was then unleashing upon America. (Others include, The Way They Get Married in California, and The Way They Come from California.) The print illustrating Porter’s idea will be auctioned at the 2014 Wall Street Collectors Bourse, which will be held at the Museum of American Finance (48 Wall Street), from Thursday (October 23) through Saturday (October 25).
Admission is free.
For more information, browse wallstreetbourse.com, or call 203-292-6819.