The Worcester Aeroplane Hoax

In early December, 1909, American newspapers excitedly reported that Wallace Tillinghast, an inventor from Worcester, Massachusetts, had built the world's most advanced airplane. His craft could carry three passengers, cover a distance of over 300 miles, and maintain a speed of 120 miles-per-hour.

This was far beyond the capability of any airplane built to that point in time. It was only in 1903 that the Wright brothers had succeeded in flying the first heavier-than-air craft. In July 1909 Louis Blériot had achieved international fame by flying across the English Channel, a distance of only 22 miles.

Tillinghast's airplane was of a curious design. It was described as "a monoplane, weighing 1,550 pounds, with a spread of 72 feet, and equipped with a 120 horse power gasoline engine of special construction." In addition, it had "two giant 'feelers' like an insect's antennae. These are of rigid frames of steel, 35 feet long, and at the end of each is a box kite. No matter how the wind blows, these kites right themselves and the machine to which they are attached."

Newspapers reported that Tillinghast had flown this craft on a 300-mile test flight back in September, successfully circling the Statue of Liberty. During this flight one of the cylinders in the engine had apparently malfunctioned. Tillinghast said he managed to repair it while gliding 4000 feet in the air for forty-six minutes.

Most remarkable of all, Tillinghast carried out all his test flights at night.

However, Tillinghast refused to offer proof of his claims. He explained that he wanted to keep his airplane a secret so that others would not steal his ideas, and so that he could "enter into Boston contests next year as a sure winner." But he assured the media that he would give a public demonstration of his craft by February of 1910.

People Claim To Have Seen It

Aviation experts were skeptical of Tillinghast's claims. Wilbur Wright dismissed them out of hand, calling them "too palpably absurd from the first to take seriously."

However, Tillinghast didn't seem like the kind of person who would perpetrate a hoax. He was a respectable, upstanding citizen, Vice President of a Worcester manufacturing company. As the Washington Post wrote, "He certainly does not bear any of the appearance of the crank."

For his part, Tillinghast insisted he was telling the truth, emphasizing that he had not sought out any publicity. (This was not actually true. Tillinghast had been the one who told the Boston Herald about his invention in the first place.)

But then people throughout New England began to report sightings of his airplane, offering apparent confirmation of his claims.

On the night of December 22, thousands of people reported seeing the craft flying above the town of Worcester. It supposedly hung "hawk-like over the city" sweeping the ground below with a powerful searchlight. One man claimed he could see the frame of the airship "quite plainly." Another man spotted two men sitting in the airship.

On the night of Christmas Eve there were thirty-three separate sightings of the airship throughout New England. Thousands of people in Boston stood outside, straining to see it. Many insisted they had seen something.

Growing Skepticism

From Popular Mechanics, March 1910.
Reporters had been criss-crossing the New England countryside, searching for Tillinghast's airplane workshop. They also staked out his home, following his every move.

But after Christmas, with Tillinghast still offering no tangible proof of his claims, the media grew skeptical. Some reporters began to attribute the sightings to mass delusion. One journalist from the Providence Journal suggested there was an "epidemic of infected vision." Another reporter noted that it was "the hard cider season" in New England.

Others suggested that what people were seeing was actually the planet Venus, which was then quite bright in the evening sky.

In late December, a Mr. C.D. Rawson of Worcester stepped forward and admitted he was responsible for the sightings, claiming he had attached small lanterns and reflectors to the legs of some owls as a prank. Whether or not Rawson was telling the truth, or merely trying to get his name in the paper, is undetermined. It seems difficult to believe people would mistake lantern-bearing owls for an airplane.

Tillinghast never publicly admitted that his remarkable airplane was a hoax. But by February 1910 -- with still no sign of the plane anywhere -- this is what the media concluded.

J. Walter Flagg, director of the New England Aero Club, issued a statement that summarized public opinion: "I believe this man is a faker, that the claims he has made are unfounded, and I do not believe he has made a single flight... After a searching investigation I do not find one fact to warrant the statement that he has ever made an ascension or completed a machine in which to fly."
Links and References
  • Whalen, Stephen and Bartholomew, Robert E. (Sep. 2002). The Great New England Airship Hoax of 1909. The New England Quarterly. 75(3): 466-476.
  • "Mysterious Aeroplane a Hoax." Popular Mechanics. March 1910. p. 321.
  • "Airship flies high above Worcester." (Dec 23, 1909). The New York Times.
  • "The Tillinghast Airship." (Jan 9, 1910). The Washington Post.
  • "He's a fraud, says expert." (Feb 13, 1910). Los Angeles Times.

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