Steampunk Before Steampunk Existed: Charles Dellschau's Fantastic Airships

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
March 18 2013 12:30 PM

Steampunk Before Steampunk Existed: Charles Dellschau's Fantastic Airships

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Charles Dellschau, a Prussian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1853, was a butcher who lived in Houston. He spent the years between the turn of the century and his death in 1923 working on these scrapbooks, which combined news clippings, text, and art in visions of fantastic flying machines.

An art history student discovered 12 of his scrapbooks languishing in a junk shop in Houston in 1969. In all, the books contained more than 2,500 drawings. (This post on Design Observer contains many more Dellschau images.)

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By deciphering the text on the books’ pages, as well as writings Dellschau left behind alongside the scrapbooks, Houston artist Pete Navarro found that the books were the records of a secret—and probably fictional—organization that Dellschau called the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau identified himself as the draftsman of the club, which he claimed had formed during the California gold rush.

Dellschau’s history of the club recorded that one of the members had discovered a secret source of energy—called, variously, “Supe,” “NB Gas,” or “Suppa.” This energy source allowed for all kinds of experimental flight. Dellschau’s pages interspersed his airship designs, which depended on Supe for power, with collaged newspaper and magazine articles about early attempts at flight and descriptions of the club’s wild adventures.

While some UFOlogists have argued that the Sonora Aero Club was real and that sightings of flying objects around Oakland in the 1890s may have been Supe-fueled craft, no other records of the club have been found. Another investigator, William Steen, pieced together the chronology of Dellschau’s life and was unable to pin down his activities during the years of the gold rush.The organization was most likely purely Dellschau’s fantasy, stoked by the many wild, futuristic depictions of flight in the media of the time.

The first monograph on Dellschau’s work comes out at the end of this month. Thanks to Stephen Romano.

dellschau

Image courtesy of Stephen Romano.

dellschau2

Image courtesy of Stephen Romano.

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Image courtesy of Stephen Romano.

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