“Every village has its idiot” they say (although Mark Twain might have quipped that was an undercount) but it’s more likely every village in early America had a bonafide eccentric. Some had crazy ideas and some were outright crazy; some did or said things that seemed bonkers to fellow villagers but might have been seen as reasonable, even inspired, by those in the know.
In Civil War-era Santa Rosa the town eccentric was a guy named John Morrow. He captured birds and then let them go after tying weights to them. He also created a wind-up toy that could fly a short distance. And then there’s this: He patented an invention which could have rewritten the history of aviation.
Before jumping on that story, a reminder that Santa Rosa has been overlooked by historians as a crossroads for many pioneer aviators. Gentle Reader presumably salutes Fred J. Wiseman for making the first airmail flight between Petaluma and here in 1911; lesser known is that one version of his flying machine was among the first handful of aircraft bought by the U.S. military. And although he never flew around Santa Rosa, Blaine G. Selvage made probably the first airplane flight on the West Coast at Eureka in 1909; in the years immediately prior to that he lived here, and is buried (in an unmarked grave) at Santa Rosa Memorial Park.
John Bland Morrow apparently arrived in Santa Rosa during early 1865, then 28 or 29 years old. A letter to his parents from Virginia City survives, where he told them he was earning a good wage although many men there couldn’t find any work at all: “I have an advantage over most of the sharps, for when I get broke, I fall back on Science. So I went to work at Gold Hill Machine Shop at five dollars a day – in Gold.” (He also described to his Pennsylvania folks an unusual plant in Nevada called a “cactus.”)
Morrow signed his letter as the “Secretary of the Nevada Territory Engineers Association,” and always listed his profession as a machinist or mechanic – except in Santa Rosa, where he was a “tinner” (tinsmith). After about three years in town he moved to San Francisco along with his friend Harry Rich.
Nothing about Morrow appeared in the local newspapers while he was in Santa Rosa, but much was printed about him afterward, particularly in Healdsburg’s weekly Russian River Flag:
|John Morrow— Formerly of Santa Rosa, but now living, we believe, in San Francisco. Some years ago, our attention was called to this person, by what was then regarded as a somewhat novel eccentricity. He was engaged in catching various kinds of fowl, carefully measuring their wings, estimating the force and velocity of their motion, and loading them with weights, to find what each could carry. Some time afterward. passing through Santa Rosa, we heard of a small machine worked by a spring, that flew through the air like a bird. But few had seen it and by many it was regarded as a doubtful rumor…|
That was part of an article that appeared in 1869 after someone from the Flag ran into him in San Francisco, where Morrow had been working for Frederick Marriott and his Aerial Steam Navigation Company. Mainly a banker and newspaper publisher, Marriott had been trying to build a steam-powered dirigible since the early 1840s, and he wasn’t alone; in the mid-19th century there were more than a few engineers and inventors – and yes, eccentrics – who were experimenting with designs for a steerable lighter-than-air airship. Very few had gotten further than building models, but that didn’t stop a man named Rufus Porter from promising in 1849 that his “Aerial Locomotive” would transport 200 passengers from New York to the gold fields of California in three days (“wines included, baggage extra”). Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen.
Marriott’s efforts were taken seriously and reported in the San Francisco papers as well as Santa Rosa’s weekly Democrat. After seeing a small non-working model of the “Avitor” in 1867, respected industrialist Peter Donahue – the man who would soon start to build the railroad to Santa Rosa – gave it his endorsement, and the Democrat swooned that we would soon have transcontinental flights: “The idea of flying from here to New York in from 24 to 36 hours, is enough to to take the breath away from one.” Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen.
More than two years flashed by and it was now mid-1869. John Morrow and Harry Rich were working for Marriott, who had built a 37 foot-long prototype he named “Avitor Hermes, Jr.” Fully inflated, it weighed under ten pounds and had a one horsepower steam engine that turned two stubby fabric propellers.
The aircraft had been designed in the basement of the huge Montgomery Block building (today the location of the Transamerica Pyramid), where Samuel Clemens sometimes helped – or more likely, distracted – Marriott and the others. Once they thought the thing might actually fly it was taken apart and reassembled it at the Millbrae warehouse they had turned into a makeshift hangar.
A writer from the magazine, English Mechanic and Mirror of Science, described the scene after the gasbags were filled with hydrogen: “…the machinery was put in motion and the propellers commenced their revolutions. At once life was imparted to the whole body, and it rose promptly and gracefully and took its flight into the air…”
They moved it outside, and tethered to a long rope the unmanned airship made two half-mile circles both with and against the wind at a speed of about 5 MPH.
It is considered the first powered flight of an airship outside of Europe, where less successful prototypes had been demonstrated.
Photographs of the event circulated, and the Democrat spotted our local boys in the pictures:
|Among the spectators of this great experiment in aerial navigation, who appear in the picture before us, the faces of John Morrow and Harry Rich, two young men formerly of Santa Rosa, who have long been identified with this invention, are easily recognizable.|
Following that, the Avitor was moved to the enormous Mechanics’ Institute Pavilion in San Francisco where visitors paid to watch it fly in scheduled daily exhibitions. That was where someone from the Russian River Flag ran into Morrow, and afterwards wrote that “Marriott’s machine would not rise from the ground” until Morrow improved it.
“This machine was a combination of both Marriott’s and Morrow’s plans,” the Flag reported, “and that portion which made it a success, so far as navigating still air is concerned, was added by Morrow.”
The Marriott airship had several innovations that leapfrogged over previous designs, although it’s almost entirely ignored by aviation historians. The thing had fixed wings, for starters, and at the rear of them were fabric propellers – and not flat paddles but helical blades, which made for better propulsion. Outside of the propellers were planes that are recognizable as primitive ailerons. Combine all this and you had an aircraft which was not only highly steerable – at least, compared to others of its day – but could vertically lift its slightly heavier-than-air frame off the ground by itself.
The person who put all the pieces of this puzzle together must have been a brilliant engineer with a solid understanding of aerodynamics, particularly the concepts of powered lift and thrust – and possibly the only person on earth with all that knowhow was Morrow, who already had a patent of his own. And here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! core of our tale:
John Bland Morrow had invented a jet engine. In 1869. As far as I can determine, it was completely unlike anything else imagined in the 19th century.
To be clear: This was nothing like the jet engines hanging on aircraft today – it was more like a vacuum cleaner. Air was sucked into two pipes in the front of the vessel, compressed by blowers and pushed out pipes in the back.
Also, it wasn’t a dirigible – it was simply an engine to generate thrust. There was nothing in the specification about steering it or carrying people. It was just for “propelling vessels, or crafts through the air,” as he wrote. Presumably he expected the engine (or two of them) would be attached to a gondola or cabin with controls.
The Democrat had a small item about his patent, noting that he had been working on it for about a dozen years – which would have covered his time in Santa Rosa. Now locals knew why he had been fiddling around with birds.
His patent was also issued months before Marriott’s patent, which did not list Morrow as a co-inventor. The Flag commented, “…having watched this matter for several years, we can see no reason why Morrow is not entitled to at least equal credit with Marriott.” Apparently they had a falling out between the Avitor test flight in July and when the Flag editor encountered “Johnny” at the Pavilion in September. As mentioned in another article from the Democrat, “…it appears that there had been some trouble between the parties interested in the machine which was lately on exhibition at the Bay City, and they claim to have been ‘froze out.'”
Morrow and Harry Rich were now building something on their own – whether it was the jet engine or a true dirigible was not mentioned. He formed the “Aerial Steamship Company” and in the 1871 San Francisco city directory, his profession was given as “Patentee, Aerial Steamship Company 838 Mission Street.”
Also in 1871 he successfully demonstrated his “air ship,” according to the Flag. “It sailed in the air backwards and forwards under the complete control of the inventor,” and the reference to it going backwards suggests it was the blower-powered jet.
Alas, a followup trial was sabotaged when someone sliced open a gas bag. That was apparently the end of Morrow’s experiments in aviation – a great loss because the Flag had remarked, “…during all these years, with little means, and in the fact of many obstacles, Morrow has been persistently seeking the solution of the problem of aerial navigation, and has probably come nearer the solution than any other man.”
In October 1876 he patented a “water motor,” but nothing more about that is known. In 1879 he was listed in the San Francisco city directory as a machinist, but after that nothing more about him can be found. Anywhere. Genealogists have tried to claim he died in the Ukiah asylum in 1914, but that was a different John Morrow. Turns out his was an extremely common name at the time.
I loathe to leave any story hanging, much less one of historical importance. But let Gentle Reader draw small comfort in knowing I beat every bush I know how to beat. As his patent was filed under the name “William Morrow” I wondered if he had used other names as well. For a time I explored whether he could have become the similar-sounding “John A. Morrell,” who in 1908 was responsible for the worst dirigible accident in U.S. history prior to the Hindenburg (you absolutely must read this story). Nope.
There is, however, much to say about the afterlife of the Avitor. The original burned up while on exhibition at the Pavilion, but a full size replica can be seen at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. There’s a good writeup at the Travel for Aircraft blog and there’s an amateur video showing the propellers turning. Anyone interested in digging further into these doings will want to read Marriott’s hard-to-find patent (PDF).
THE “AVITOR.”— We have received from the projectors, amongst whom are some of our wealthiest citizens, a report of the prospects of the long-talked of air navigating machine, which is to astonish the world by its proposed traveling through space, against the currents and airs of all regions, as high as ten or twelve thousand feet above the ground. The “Avitor” will, it is said, beat anything in the traveling world for speed or “coin,” and if half what its projectors claim for it should come true, the modes of travel now in vogue will soon be obsolete. The machine has been in the hands of an incorporated company for some months, and will in a few days be ready to “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” The following is the opinion of a practical gentleman Mr. Peter Donahue:
I have followed with great interest, and have personally observed the construction of the “Avitor.” I am so thoroughly convinced of the practicability of the enterprise, and so entirely concur in the forgoing observations respecting the two modifications to be adopted, that I have no hesitation in saying that when these changes are made, the “Avitor” will answer all the purposes of its inventor, and fully realize the expectations of the public. As soon as the elevating power shall, in this way, have been perfected, the work will be completed because the propelling force is simple, the machinery for elevating and for depressing sufficient, the steering apparatus in fine working order, and, in short, the whole of the “Avitor” is fully under the control of the operator.
– Daily Alta California, June 16 1867
The S. F. Call, in speaking of the flying machine called the Avitor, says: “The superintendent informs us that the building at San Mateo for the Avitor, is completed, and the steam flying machine will be put together immediately, all its parts, including engines, being already constructed in this city and ready for shipment to the house. If those engaged in the undertaking have got what they believe they have, the world will be astonished in a few weeks. The public will not. however, have a chance to see the machine unless it proves to be a success. The idea of flying from here to New York in from 24 to 36 hours, is enough to to take the breath away from one, but this is a feat promised, and which those to vesting their money in the Avitor expect to perform. If they are disappointed they will lose their money and no one else will be the worse off: if they are not disappointed the world will be the gainer.”
– Sonoma Democrat, February 9 1867
[Patent number] 88,324 Aerial Car. Wm. Morrow, San Francisco, California. This invention relates to new mode of propelling aerial vessels, and it consists in providing the machine with two large fans or blowers, which are driven by a light engine. The sides of the cases which are ordinarily left open, are closed in those blowers, and are connected by pipes from the front of the vessel, so that the air is drawn in through these pipes. Similar pipes serve for the ejection of the air at the stern of the vessel, so that it is propelled both by drawing in the air and by forcing it out. The steering apparatus may be so arranged as to elevate or depress the machine, as well as to turn it either side.
– The San Francisco Examiner, April 17 1869
Patent Awarded.— We are informed that Mr. John Morrow, formerly a resident of this place, but who has been for the past year or so residing in San Francisco, has been awarded a patent for an aerial car, or flying machine. He commenced this difficult undertaking some twelve years ago, and has spent much of his time and money in order to make it a success. We learn on good authority that he is now superintending the work on one of these machines which measures some one hundred and twenty feet in length. Success to him.
– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1869
Exhibition of tbe Model Avitor. Quite a large number of citizens, including members of the Aerial Steam Navigation Company, scientific men, representatives of the press, etc., assembled at the Mechanics’ Pavilion, on Stockton street, yesterday, to witness an exhibition of the Flying Machine, or Model Avitor. The indefatigable Marriott, of the News Letter, was, of course, on hand. Some little delay was caused by derangement in the machinery, but soon, everything being ready, the “boat” commenced to navigate the air “like a thing of life,” amid the huzzas of the spectators. It was voted a success at least the model was. This steam-car, which is to revolutionize the world, has been so often described, we shall not repeat it here.
– The San Francisco Examiner, July 22 1869
Aerial.— We have received a picture of the new steam flying machine, which recently made a successful trial in San Francisco. It is shaped something like a cigar, has two flanges or wings, three feet in diameter, one on each side, and a rudder at one end, which controls its course. At the recent trial trip, says an exchange, “with the first turn of the propellers she rose slowly into the air, gradually increasing her speed until the rate of five miles an hour was attained.” Among the spectators of this great experiment in aerial navigation, who appear in the picture before us, the faces of John Morrow and Harry Rich, two young men formerly of Santa Rosa, who have long been identified with this invention, are easily recognizable. We wish all parties concerned in it the moat abundant success.
– Sonoma Democrat, July 24 1869
John Morrow and Harry Rich, formerly residents of this place, we learn are now building another flying machine at San Francisco. It appears that there had been some trouble between the parties interested in the machine which was lately on exhibition at the Bay City, and they claim to have been “froze out.” They are now determined to build one for themselves, and as they are both industrious we doubt not but that they will succeed. Good luck to them say we.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1869
John Morrow— Formerly of Santa Rosa, but now living, we believe, in San Francisco. Some years ago, our attention was called to this person, by what was then regarded as a somewhat novel eccentricity. He was engaged in catching various kinds of fowl, carefully measuring their wings, estimating the force and velocity of their motion, and loading them with weights, to find what each could carry. Some time afterward. passing through Santa Rosa, we heard of a small machine worked by a spring, that flew through the air like a bird. But few had seen it and by many it was regarded as a doubtful rumor. Going into the Pavilion in San Francisco, one day last summer, we saw “Johnny” quietly smoking his cigar. while a large porpoise-shaped machine was sailing through the air, propelled by steam, at the rate of about five miles an hour. This machine was published to the world as Marriott’s “Avitor,” but Marriott’s machine would not rise from the ground. This machine was a combination of both Marriott’s and Morrow’s plans, and that portion which made it a success, so far as navigating still air is concerned, was added by Morrow. Having watched this matter for several years, we can see no reason why Morrow is not entitled to at least equal credit with Marriott. During all these years, with little means, and in the fact of many obstacles, Morrow has been persistently seeking the solution of the problem of aerial navigation, and has probably come nearer the solution than any other man.
– Russian River Flag, October 28 1869
In Town.— John Morrow and Harry Rich, former residents of this place, were in town a few days since. Their many friends will be glad to see them.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 30 1869
Patent Candle-stick.— L. D. Latimer and John Morrow, two gentlemen well-known to our citizens, now residing at San Francisco, have lately invented a new candle-stick. Their invention prevents the waste of any portion of the candle. If John doesn’t succeed in flying operations he will in candle-sticks.
– Sonoma Democrat, March 26 1870
The Aerial Vessel. Mr. Morrow’s air ship was recently tried in San Francisco and pronounced a success. It sailed in the air backwards and forwards under the complete control of the inventor. A second trial was intended, but some malicious person cut a hole in the gas holder, which for a time prevented further experiments. The object for which Mr. Morrow has indomitably labored several years seems at last attained, and the navigation of the air may soon be a favorite mode of passenger transit.
– Russian River Flag, January 26 1871