Marriott’s “Hermes”

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2019 by hillermuseum

By Jen Roger

“The ready genius of inventors…,” reached the height of its sentimentality in the 19th century with a commonly accepted understanding, that if one could think it, dream it, or invent it, one could do it, and perhaps none more than Frederick Marriott. As Mark Twain was noted for writing, it was, “in some genius’ brain [that] sleep[t] the solution of the grand problem of aerial navigation.”

The newspaperman turned eccentric inventor had, by his own admission, discovered and accomplished the triumph of aerial navigation, or did he? Marriott, an English-born immigrant to the California gold fields arrived in the state like so many others, seeking their fortune, but failing to find it in the rough and ready mining camps of the Sierra’s. Marriott’s gold was in his experience as a publisher and printer, and by 1856 he had established himself in just such a profession in San Francisco, with his first of several publications, The San Francisco Newsletter, and later The San Francisco Newsletter and California Advertiser, a satirical paper published between 1856 and 1926. He had experience in both publishing and advertising from his previous endeavors in England and, in particular, with his work with William H. Henson and John Stringfellow, both of whom had sought Marriott’s expertise in publishing and later his financial backing with their own attempts at aerial navigation.

What started as an agreement between a publisher and his clients readily turned into another business venture that Marriott could not resist. He and fellow investor D. E. Columbine, who had acted the part of Hanson and Stringfellow’s attorney and promoter, became backers of Hanson’s Aerial Steam Carriage Company in 1843. Their affiliations did not last long however and with capital for their aerial steam carriage model faltering, Hanson and Stringfellow urged Marriott and Columbine to sell them their shares in order to expedite construction.

Marriott’s business venture with Hanson and Stringfellow may have derailed his plans to involve himself in aerial navigation, but his interest remained and was only rekindled upon his relocating to San Francisco. Marriott had seen what he had supposed was a decided deficiency in the transportation options afforded mid-19th century Americans and between publications sought the construction of his own aerial steam carriage.

Marriott utilized the basement of his Montgomery street printing office to begin his own airship model and in 1866 Marriott filed for a certificate of incorporation in San Francisco as the Aerial Steam Navigation Company with fellow trustees Algernon Smith and James H. Gardner. They had found their investors who, like Marriott, stood at the ready for any new business venture that came their way. Marriott succeeded in finding funding with the notable local citizenry, including financier William C. Ralston. With the influx of capital Marriott and his investors re-branded themselves as the California Aerial Steam Navigation Company and set out to best the railroad at its own game.

Marriott was a firm believer that his Aerial Steam Carriage would be more practical and efficient than a transcontinental rail line, which had suffered at the hands of politicians, labor shortages and geographic obstacles, and a seemingly apropos position for Marriott, who had gained Ralston’s backing, the man who had financed the Comstock Lode rail lines and would be known for racing the train from the Valencia Street Station to his home in Belmont.

With the backing of his investors Marriott successfully relocated The California Aerial Steam Navigation Company to a barn built in San Jose near the San Jose and San Francisco Rail Yards, and Marriott hired a construction crew. The race for transportation dominance had begun and Marriott surely saw himself the winner. Travel to and from the East Coast, along with transportation across the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific was within reach and as the Newsletter reported, “Within four weeks the first aerial steam carriage, capable of conveying six persons, and propelled at a rate exceeding the minimum speed of thirty miles an hour [would be winging its flight over the Sierra Nevada.”

Newspapers across the country printed articles proclaiming Marriott’s lighter-than-air steam carriage the transportation advancement for the future, but Marriott and his investors had lost their gamble. The Northern and Southern Pacific rail lines joined at Promontory Point Utah on May 10, 1869, and edged Marriott out.

Hindered, but not stymied, Marriott continued with the construction of his model, dubbed Hermes and readied it for its first flights at Shell Mound Park along the Burlingame Bayfront. Marriott’s lighter-than-air aerial steam carriage constructed of “Bamboo, iron, steel and shirting muslin, coated with a peculiar varnish… [and appeared as a] hybrid between a fish and a long necked bird,” to those watching the spectacle. Marriott’s Avitor, Hermes, was a success in that the airship, which stood 37 feet long and eight feet wide and which was commonly referred to as being cigar shaped. The airship achieved lift through the aid of an eight-pound steam engine from which a spirit lamp was used to generate the heat in the boiler.

While Marriott’s design was certainly successful, it was far from the revolutionary advancement in transportation he had hoped for. His advancements in stabilization certainly added to the credibility of this steam carriage, but his Avitor faded quickly from public memory thanks in part to the untimely and accidental destruction of Hermes, but more to the point, the exponential growth of the railroads. Marriott tried again in the late 1870s with his plans for a heavier-than-air version of Hermes. However his patent application was denied due to the belief, on the part of the U.S. Patent office, that a heavier-than-air vehicle was impractical and would never fly.

Photo by Sagar Pathak

1. Mark Twain, “How Is Your Avitor,” Alta California, August 1, 1869, 4.
2. Hernandez, Richard A. “A Forty-Niner Banker and Editor Who Took a “Flier’ in Pioneering American Aviation.” Journal of the West No. 1 (July 1962): 403
3. “The San Francisco Aerial Steam Carriage,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, Sunday, July 11, 1869, 3
4. “Aerial Navigation,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Wednesday, July 24, 1867, 4
5. “The New Aerial Steam Carriage,” Sentinel of Freedom, Tuesday, July 20, 1896, 4


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