On Dec. 14, 1909, Wallace Elmer Tillinghast announced that he’d invented and built an airship unlike anything seen before. For months, people wondered if Wallace was one of the greatest …
On Dec. 14, 1909, Wallace Elmer Tillinghast announced that he’d invented and built an airship unlike anything seen before. For months, people wondered if Wallace was one of the greatest inventors of all time – or the world’s best hoaxer.
The son of Joseph Roswell Tillinghast and Eliza Jane Wood, Wallace was born in Cranston on Sept. 5, 1872. On March 6, 1895, he wed Hattie Warner Saunders and, on Aug. 27, 1907, he married Minna Sophia Rose.
A graduate of Chicago Tech School, Wallace was considered a mechanical and electrical engineering expert. Employed by Allen & Redd of Providence, he invented a heat regulator for steam and hot water systems. He patented the regulator, began manufacturing it and earned a fortune.
The father of two sons, Wallace Jr. and Alexander, he later served as vice president of the Sure Seal Heating & Manufacturing Company in Worcester. He’d never been secretive about his inventions so the veil that he’d now hung had people waiting breathlessly to see what was behind it.
Wallace announced that on the night of Sept. 8, 1909, he had flown his airship 600 miles, at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, to the Statue of Liberty, through Boston and back to Worcester without stopping. While near Fire Island, he stated, a cylinder broke and he stopped the engine so that the two onboard mechanics could fix it. He alleged that the plane stayed in the air for over 40 minutes without power, slowly dropping from 4,000 feet to 2,000. He stated he then manually lowered it to 1,500 feet and realized he was being watched by members of the Coast Guard.
It was only because the plane had been seen that he had decided to talk about it, he said. He explained that his mechanics, Mr. Bierot and Mr. Latham, sat above the rigid spread of the wings while he sat in a cubbyhole below the plane, protected by an automobile windshield. Describing the monoplane, which could carry three passengers with a weight limit of 200 pounds each, as lighter than that of the Wright brothers and more powerful, he stated that he had already applied to patent the 120 horsepower gasoline engine, which generated enough electricity to operate a front searchlight and a red taillight.
Wallace alleged that the plane was able to keep itself right-side up in any type of wind. He described it having two giant ‘feelers’, like an insect's antennae, made of rigid 35-feet long steel frames. At the end of each frame was a box kite, he said, and no matter how the wind blew, the kites would right themselves and the machine. According to Wallace, the kites could be raised or lowered and, when there was no wind, they were lifted to a 45-degree angle.
At 72 feet long and weighing 5,150 pounds, the plane was supposedly capable of breaking all speed and altitude records and fly for 300 miles without having to stop and replenish the petrol supply. Wallace said he studied airships for 11 years before building his gem, which contained wings constructed so that they would flutter the machine to the ground in the event it was going to capsize. The steel, he said, was of unusual strength and the bars pressed to a special thinness and fastened together with a small space between them to provide stability. He confessed he had taken over 150 flights in the plane. “Where some of those flights took me will surprise a lot of people when I get ready to talk,” he said.
The plane didn’t require a long running start at take-off, Wallace explained. "I can fly as no one has ever flown before. When I get good and ready, I will show it to the world." Confronted by those who didn’t want to wait until he was good and ready as well as those who didn’t believe there was any such plane, he responded, "If I am taking night flights over New England and Boston, that is my business. I will not say that I am or that I am not."
If Wallace’s plane wasn’t real, what had a member of the Coast Guard Lifesaving Crew patrolling the beach in Long Island seen on the night of Dec. 12 that was so out of the ordinary that he’d reported it? What had the people of Mass. been looking at when moving lights in the sky grabbed their attention nine days after Wallace’s announcement?
On Dec. 23, an object moving through the night at a speed of 30 to 40 miles an hour appeared over Worcester shortly before 6:00. It hovered for a few minutes, disappeared, then returned to circle the city four times as a powerful searchlight flashed from side to side. Thousands stood outside watching the rays of light reflecting off the newly fallen snow.
It would soon be learned that the lights were seen about forty minutes earlier by people in Marlboro. Coming in from the southeast, the object veered to the west, remained in sight for a few moments then disappeared to the northwest. About five minutes later, the 75 diners who had rushed out into the street after a restaurant employee called attention to the object, spotted the searchlight again. It hovered for a short time than left in a southeasterly direction.
After staring at dark sky for a while, the residents of Worcester let out a unified cry at about 8:40 that night as the object returned. It slowly circled a few times at about 2,000 feet then disappeared to the east at about 30 miles an hour.
At around 1:00 the next morning, Arthur Hoe, of the US Immigration Service, reported seeing strange lights in the sky. He stated that an object was moving at a remarkable speed and made no sound. When Wallace heard of Hoes’ report, he explained that the lights were from his plane and that he had flown to Maine and was headed back home through Boston.
Wallace announced that he planned to bring the airship to the Harvard Aviation Meet to be held in Boston from Sept. 3 to the 13th. But the plane never showed up. Wallace then announced he would bring it to Worcester for a public demonstration in Feb. instead.
The believers waited. The non-believers scoffed. The airship was never to be seen. On Aug. 15, 1932, Wallace died of blood poisoning from an infection at RI Hospital. He was buried in the Peleg Wood cemetery in East Greenwich.
A question remains – if the naysayers were correct and Wallace’s plane had been a hoax , what was the strange object in the night skies over New England in 1909?
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.