The Great Balloon Hoax

By Steve Goldman
NCSA Member #9

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean by a wind-powered, lighter-than-air balloon has been the dream of mankind since the invention of lighter-than-air craft. Since the first manned balloon ascension on October 15, 1783 (tethered) and the first manned free-flight on November 21, 1783, the goal has been to break the bond with Earth and float between the New World and the Old World. This dream lay unfulfilled for almost the entire history of manned flight to the present day.

It was not until 1873 that the first attempt was made to cross the Atlantic from New York to Europe by balloon --- the three brave souls got no further than Long Island Sound before a storm forced them down. Not until August 10, 1978, when Abruzzon and Newman in Double Eagle II went non-stop from Pennsylvania to France was this elusive goal finally realized.

The New York Sun of April 13, 1844 put out a broadside extra headlined: "Astounding News by Express. VIA Norfolk! --- The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days . . .[by] Flying Machine . . ." How does this story jive with the facts at the beginning of this article?

To understand these contradictions you must realize that in this era of newspaper history, speed and more speed was the important issue, particularly among the penny newspapers.

The New York Sun and the Herald had been battling for years and now the Tribune came into the fray. Each of those (and other) competing papers desired to be the first on the street with up-to-the-minute news. This was in the era before the telegraph and the main source of "hot" news was a correspondent with an "in" or a correspondent with a rapid mode of travel. Accuracy was to be sacrificed for speed. Get the story and worry about truthfulness later.

Enter on the scene Edgar Allan Poe. This was the Poe of the Tell Tale Heart and Murders in the Rue Morgue fame. But although he was an author who is venerated today, in 1844 he was nearly destitute. Poe had returned to New York from Philadelphia with his sick wife and mother. He was a recognized genius but his worldly wealth amounted to $4.50. His fortunes were at a low ebb when he arrived back in New York on April 6, 1844. He and his family found rooms at Greenwich Street, He wrote to a friend: "The house is old and buggy but it is the best I can do with less than $5.00 in my pocket." He had to have more money. The newspapers seemed to be the most available place to get it, and the Sun was the liveliest of them all. Speed was what they wanted and speed was what they would get!

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a hoax centered on the first crossing of the Atlantic in a balloon and sold it to the New York Sun. It appeared on April 13, 1844 headlined in an extra heralding: "The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days!" The story went on to say: "The great problem is at length solved. The Air, as well as Earth and the Ocean, has been subdued by science, and will become a common and convenient highway for mankind. The Atlantic has actually been crossed in a balloon!"

The story that followed was about five thousand words in length. To summarize it, Monck Mason had applied the principle of the Archimedian screw to the propulsion of a dirigible balloon. The gas bag was an ellipsoid thirteen feet long with a car suspended from it. The screw propeller, which was attached to the car, was operated by a spring. A rudder shaped like a battledore kept the airship on its course.

The voyagers, according to the story, started from Mr. Osborne's home in North Wales, intending to sail across the English Channel. The mechanism of the propeller broke, and the balloon, caught in a strong northeast wind, was carried across the Atlantic at a speed of sixty or more miles an hour. Mr. Mason kept a journal, to which, at the end of each day, Mr. Ainsworth added a postscript. The balloon landed safely on the coast of South Carolina, near Fort Moultrie.

The names of the supposed voyagers were well chosen by Poe to give credibility to the hoax. Monck Mason and Robert Holland were of the small party which actually sailed from Vauxhall Gardens, London, on the afternoon of November 7, 1836, in the balloon Nassau and landed at Weilberg, Germany, five hundred miles away, eighteen hours later. The others named by Poe were familiar figures of the period.

Poe used a plan of having real people do the things that they would like to do. The balloon hoax, however, lasted for only a day. The Sun itself said on April 15, 1844: "Balloon -- the mails from the south ... not having brought confirmation of the balloon from England ... we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous."

Poe went on to bigger and better things, although like many talented artists, his real fame and fortune were to elude him in his own lifetime. People fondly remember Poe for Murders in the Rue Morgue and the Tell Tale Heart but newspaper aficionados will think of him fondly as the author of the balloon hoax.



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