Postcard showing Zeppelin LVI bombing Leige, 6 August 1914

I'm featured in the latest episode of the podcast Tales from Rat City, which is focused on unusual and sometimes bizarre aspects of the history of Ballarat, Victoria's third largest city (if you've heard of the Eureka Stockade, well, that's where that was). It's run by David Waldron (a historian at Federation University who co-authored the excellent Snarls from the Tea-tree, about Australian bigcat folklore), Tom Hodgson and Katrina Hill. As you can probably guess, 'Anzacs and airships: Australian UFO panics in the First World War' is about Australian mystery aircraft sightings in the Great War period. As well as the interview with me, it's based partly on my article 'Dreaming war' as well as the team's own original research. It's a really interesting scamper through early Australian airminded hopes and fears (ranging well beyond Ballarat and 1914-18). I particularly enjoyed the use of actors to read out the primary source quotations, including many mystery aircraft sighting reports. It's a great way to give back to these accounts of strange apparitions something of their original uncanniness.

Bonus: if you happen to be in the Ballarat area on 28 May 2023, why not go along to the Ballarat Observatory and see David's magic lantern show 'Mystery Airships: A Night of Strange Things Seen in the Skies!'? Details and tickets here.

Image source: Tales from Rat City.


One thing we were curious to try with hota-time is to see whether the idea and the code could be applied beyond looking at London-Sydney travel times. And it can! Here is the output for Melbourne-Sydney travel times, in hours rather than days:

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950), Y axis = Hours (travel time) between Sydney and Melbourne. The data points are few before about 1910, there are some between 1910 and 1915 and then many more between 1920 and 1940. There is a trend towards lower values (faster travel) but it is not strong

Lots of data points, roughly the same as for the London-Sydney plot. It does look like there is some sort of trend over time, but it's pretty messy. So let's break it down a bit so we can see what's going on.

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Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about a software project Tim Sherratt and I were working on for Heritage of the Air called hota-time. Briefly, the idea was that hota-time would extract and then plot travel times between London and Sydney mentioned in Trove Newspaper headlines, as a quantitative way to gauge the qualitative impact that aviation had on Australian perceptions of distance -- or, to be more precise, travel time. We (Tim) wrote the code, proved the concept to our satisfaction, uploaded the project, and then didn't get around to writing it up for publication. Which we are now remedying… nearly four years later! (The writing, that is, not yet the publication.)

As part of this process, we've been cleaning up the data and trying some different visualisations. Here's one of the more interesting plots.

X-Y scatter plot, with X axis = Year (from 1880 to 1950s), Y axis = Days (travel time) between Sydney and London. Indigo data (sea travel, predicted travel times) dominates from about 1880s to 1915, between 20 and 30 days without much trend. Dark red data (sea travel, actual travel times) is not common, mostly sits around 30 days. Yellow (air travel, actual travel times) shows up in the 1930s, declining from around 15-22 to 5 or less by the late 1940s. By far the most common data is teal (air travel, predicted), which thickly clusters from 1917 onwards, starting at around 5-12 days and declining to well under 5 by the early 1950s

This is an updated version of the first plot in the old post, but instead of just lumping all the data together, it is separated out by colour:

  • dark red: sea, present
  • indigo: sea, future
  • yellow: air, present
  • teal: air, future

That is, present travel times are those reported as actually having been achieved, whereas future travel times have not yet been achieved (usually because they are medium or long-term forecasts, but shorter-term schedule changes fall into this category too). So dark red + yellow tracks actual travel times between London and Sydney, while indigo + teal tracks predicted travel times. Or dark red + indigo tracks sea travel, while yellow + teal tracks air travel.

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William Le Queux, The Zeppelin Destroyer (1916)

A few years back, my article 'William Le Queux, the Zeppelin menace and the Invisible Hand' was published in Critical Survey, with the following abstract:

In contrast to William Le Queux's pre-1914 novels about German spies and invasion, his wartime writing is much less well known. Analysis of a number of his works, predominantly non-fictional, written between 1914 and 1918 shows that he modified his perception of the threat posed by Germany in two ways. Firstly, because of the lack of a German naval invasion, he began to emphasise the more plausible danger of aerial attack. Secondly, because of the incompetent handling of the British war effort, he began to believe that an 'Invisible Hand' was responsible, consisting primarily of naturalised Germans. Switching form from fiction to non-fiction made his writing more persuasive, but he was not able to sustain this and he ended the war with less influence than he began it.

Now you can read the green open access version, which can be downloaded for free from here. Or you can simply enjoy the above cover of Le Queux's 1916 novel The Zeppelin Destroyer.

Pearson's Weekly (London), 28 January 1909, 615

In September 1909, rather late in Invasion's run, an article appeared in Pearson's Weekly explaining not only some of the pyrotechnical mechanics behind the spectacle, but also the underlying airpower theory. Because it was not merely an popular entertainment and a commercial one at that, but a response to the question 'Invasion by aeroplane, is it possible?'

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Illustrated London News, 12 June 1909, 7

This photo, according to the Illustrated London News, shows 'THE FIRST SHELL DISCHARGED FROM AN AEROPLANE OVER ENGLAND'. But it doesn't really, because the 'aeroplane' almost certaintly wasn't real but a non-flying mock-up strung on a wire or something, and while the 'shell' no doubt contained gunpowder it probably wouldn't have done much damage unless it happened to blow up directly in your face. This was June 1909, and the 'aeroplane' was part of a nightly (except Saturdays) live action pyrotechnic entertainment at the Crystal Palace's football ground called Invasion, described in an advertisement in the Globe as a:


Of which last the Westminster Gazette wrote sardonically, 'We admire that final touch. England is destroyed to make a foreign holiday'.

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So how can we find out the identity of the mysterious Señor Alvares? The press is no help; I've checked British Newspaper Archive, Gale NewsVault, Chronicling America, Gallica, and Trove. The aeronautical press is no better, since 1904 is before Flight or Aeroplane. All I can find is that he was a Brazilian called Alvares, that he had been successfully experimenting with gliders in his native country for 18 years (which, of course, might not have been very true), and that presumably -- since he funded the construction of an experimental aeroplane - that either he was a person of some means, or he had wealthy backers.

But there is another source which is particularly useful for early aviation pioneers, particularly those involved in aircraft development (which, at this stage, they pretty much had to be). That is to look at patents. Historical patents are a suprisingly big deal: many national patent registries have been digitised, and there's even a Google patent search engine. But for our purposes a good place to start is Inventing Aviation, a wiki built by Peter B. Meyer, Leo Zimmermann and John Russell Herbert which is based around early (from 1793 to 1916, mostly) aviation patents and associated metadata.

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Scientific American, June 1905, 480

Here is what I've been able to reconstruct about the Alvares flying machine. Firstly, nothing about Alvares himself, except that he was a Brazilian, who was said to have successfully carried out experiments with smaller gliders in his home country for some 18 years. Frustratingly, no other names are given -- he is always Senor (or Señor) Alvares.

Above is the one (1) photograph of the aeroplane I've been able to find (thanks, Scientific American!) It was built by C. G. Spencer and Sons, a well-known manufacturer of balloons and even small airships, between about May and September 1904, in their 'Balloon Hall' at Highbury Grove, where it was exhibited on 16 September, 'a pretty bird-like structure, weighing about 150 pounds [...] capable of holding only one man'. Indeed it was said to have been inspired by the flight of gulls and their ability to soar in the air for long periods. Alvares was present for the initial demonstration along with 'several members of aeronautical societies'. The intention always seems to have been to fly it initially without any pilot (though ballasted at 150 pounds), but to release it from a balloon so as 'to test its actual power of flight', with 'a perfect balance' being the goal. However, the first reports say this was to be done at the Crystal Palace in the following week; it's not clear why it took place at Hendon a month later instead.

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A few weeks back, @TroveAirBot found a short article from the Port Lincoln, Tumby and West Coast Recorder entitled 'Dropped From the Clouds':

A balloon which ascended from the Welsh Harp, Hendon, on October 14 [1904], carried with it into the clouds a large flying machine.
As no one was in the car of the balloon or in the flying machine, the experiment was conducted with a minimum of danger.
No such untoward incident occurred, however, and the experiment, which is the first of a series being carried ont by Messrs Spencer Bros, in order to test the powers of Senor Alvares's aeroplane, was conducted with marked success.
The balloon, inflated with 25,000 cubic feet of coal gas, carried the aeroplane to a height of 3,000 feet. At that altitude the machine was automatically liberated. Three thousand feet below a little group of experts watched its movements.
Carrying the weight representing that of an average man, the airship made its way earthwards. At first it plunged rather excitedly towards the watching scientists, bat then, recovering itself, it proceeded steadily in a horizontal direction for a considerable distance. The propellers revolved rapidly, and the machine kept its balance in a manner which augured well for the success of the experiments which are to be made later with a man on board instead of a dead weight.
After travelling at a high speed over the country for a mile or so, the airship came to earth in an open meadow, where it was at once recovered quite uninjured.

This caught my eye. It's not unusual (especially on this blog) to find aviation activity at Hendon, the most famous aerodrome in Britain before 1914 and home of the RAF's aerial theatre for most of the 1920s and 1930s. But it is unusual to find any this early: this was in 1904, which is five years before there was actually an aerodrome at Hendon, and for that matter less than a year after the Wrights' first powered flight.

There was, in fact, aviation at Hendon before the aerodrome: in particular, in 1908 H. P. Martin and G. H. Handasyde (as in Martinsyde) built an unsuccessful monoplane 'in the unused ballroom of the Old Welsh Harp public house at Hendon', while Everett, Edgecumbe & Co., a Hendon instrument firm, built another, even less successful, one on the site of the future aerodrome. (Local lad C. R. Fairey -- as in Fairey -- got his start in aviation on that one.) But according to David Oliver, author of the best history of the Hendon aerodrome, Martin-Handasyde and Everett, Edgecumbe represent the beginning of heavier-than-air flight there. He doesn't mention this 1904 unpiloted flight by Señor Alvares's flying machine; nor does Charles Gibbs-Smith, the authority on early aviation.

Of course, neither Oliver nor Gibbs-Smith had access to digitised newspaper archives, so they can hardly be blamed for missing one particular obscure flight. But nobody else seems to know about it either, or at least some desultory googling throw up nothing about it. This made me curious to see if I could find anything more about this mysterious aeroplane or its mysterious inventor. I managed to find one, but not the other -- as I will discuss in the next post.