The Worcester Aeroplane Hoax of 1909
Imagine the amazement that an announcement caused in December 1909 in the Boston Herald that there had been a remarkable advance in aeronautics. William Tillinghast, a Vice President of a manufacturing company in Worcester, Massachusetts, Claimed to have built a plane that could carry three passengers over a distance of 300 miles at a mind-boggling speed of 120 miles per hour – knocking Louis Bleriot’s achievement of flying 22 miles over the English Channel in July of that year into a cocked hat. Other American newspapers soon picked up on the story.
The reports claimed that a test flight had been conducted in September, during which the plucky aviator had circled the Statue of Liberty. To add to the sense of derring-do, Tillinghast had to carry out mid-air repairs when one of the cylinders in the craft’s engine malfunctioned, a feat of aeronautical engineering he accomplished while the plane glided at a height of 4,000 feet from the ground. And all this was accomplished at night!
Tillinghast was coy about substantiating his claims for fear, he said, of others copying his ideas. The plane was certainly unusual, described as having “a spread of 72 feet” and a couple of feelers, like the antennae of insects, each of which bore a box kite which, he claimed, “no matter how the wind blows [they] right themselves and the machine to which they are attached.” Perhaps to allay suspicions, he promised to give a public demonstration by February 1910 and would compete in the forthcoming Boston trials where he would be a nailed-on winner.
Despite being a pillar of society and “not bearing any of the appearance of a crank”, those involved in the nascent aviation industry were highly sceptical of his claims. But on 22nd December 1909 there were reports of a mysterious object which hung “hawk-like over the city”, with one man claiming to have seen the frame of the airship “quite plainly” and another to have spotted two men aboard. On Christmas Eve there were thirty-three separate sightings and thousands lined the streets in the hope of seeing something – some even claimed they had. This prompted a mad dash amongst the papers to locate this magnificent flying machine and reporters dogged Tillinghast’s every step. Despite the best endeavours of the news hounds, nothing was discovered.
The absence of any hard Evidence gave the naysayers – there are always some – the opportunity to pour cold water on Tillinghast’s claims, particularly as he was still reluctant to provide any concrete evidence. Some pointed out that the planet Venus was particularly bright in the night sky at the time of the sightings while others commented that it was New England’s hard cider season and over-indulgence could have fuelled over-active imaginations and spread what the Providence Journal called an “epidemic of infected vision.” A Mr C D Rawson from Worcester came forward and claimed that he was responsible for the sightings, having strapped lanterns to the legs of owls for a laugh. I can’t believe too many took him seriously.
February 1910 duly arrived and Tillinghast still hadn’t provided any evidence that he had created aviation history. By now his goose was well and truly cooked, and the body of opinion was thata it had all been an elaborate hoax. The director of the New England Aero Club, J Walter Flagg, issued a statement saying, “I believe this man to be a faker, that the claims he has made are unfounded and I do not believe he has made a single flight.” That seemed to put the curious affair to rest.
Tillinghast, though, never owned up to the hoax.
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