Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hoboken: home of Frank Sinatra, baseball... and helicopters?

While doing additional research on another Hidden New Jersey entry, I came upon this interesting statement in the Encyclopedia of New Jersey:

"New Jersey can be credited with most attempts to produce a hovering flying machine before the first successful helicopter flight in 1936 (in Germany)."

Okay... I knew that the first successful machine-powered submarine was invented by John Holland in Paterson in 1878, and that any number of aviation firsts were made in New Jersey, but helicopters? That was a new one on me. And while the concept of a flying, rotor-driven craft has been around since the days of daVinci, our local effort had its roots in the Civil War.

The story goes something like this: at the start of the war, Union Army officers were approached with the concept of developing a hovering aircraft. I've got to believe it was for reconnaissance purposes more than anything else, but the idea didn't get off the ground (sorry, couldn't resist) until the conclusion of the war. Rather than the army taking charge, private citizen Lemuel Serrell took the reins in 1865, using a design created by an inventor named Mortimer Nelson. According to the Encyclopedia's sources, the craft was essentially a rotor powered by a 500-pound, 40-horsepower engine. Testing took place in Hoboken, where the Serrell/Nelson helicopter supposedly lifted a payload weighing over half a ton. There seems to be some question whether the size of the load was quite as grand as claimed, but there doesn't seem to be any doubt that their rotor craft worked.

Helicopter technology continued to evolve from the time of the Hoboken project until 1917, when Francis B. Crocker and Peter Cooper made their contributions to the canon. By that time, experimenters were using electric engines and much broader, counter-rotating rotors, and the Crocker/Cooper project in East Orange had potential to become the first practical helicopter.

Hundreds if not thousands of innovators contributed to the development of the helicopter over the course of decades, so I'm not really sure how accurate it is to say that the bulk of the research was done here. It's clear, though that the efforts of Serrell, Nelson, Crocker and Cooper added to New Jersey's storied aviation history.

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