Wills’s Aviation Card #59 – “Vanniman” Triplane.

Card #59.jpgHistory Behind The Card: “Vanniman” Triplane.

Card #59 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Capstan Navy Cut issue

  • Chester Melvin Vaniman aka Vanniman, December 30, 1866 in Virden, Illinois, United States of America – July 2, 1912 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States of America.
  • Walter E. Wellman, November 3, 1858 in Mentor, Ohio, United States of America – January 31, 1934 in New York City, New York, United States of America.

Never heard of Melvin Vaniman… apparently Wills’s didn’t either, as they spelled his name as “Vanniman”.

Actually, that’s not true… Vaniman was one of the best-known aviators of the pioneer era, and while he was successful in many of his endeavors, he is nowadays forgotten simply because many of his endeavors revolved around dirigibles… something people of today know very little about unless it involves the Hindenburg and WKRP In Cincinnati or Led Zeppelin, the best pure rock and roll group ever. The Beatles were pop and rock.

Vaniman… despite the glaring misspelling by Wills’s is an interesting character, though he himself may have been overshadowed by a cat.


Kiddo the cat and Melvin Vaniman – one a stray, the other a now forgotten aviation pioneer. Forever memorialized here in this blog until an EMP comes along.

Vaniman was a pioneer of aviation, but he got into the trade thanks to his skills as a photographer… perhaps because he’s the guy who created panoramic photography… or at the very least was the man who made it famous.

Vaniman was a photographer who like to get as high as possible to get the best photograph, which earned him the nickname the “Acrobatic Photographer”.

Not very catchy… … but this is also the guy who named a cat “Kiddo”. At least I think he named him. Whatever… a stupid point by my self.

Born in Virden, Illinois to parents George and Luisa, Vaniman was the oldest of four sons.The short fiery red-head and his siblings were raised within a Christian sect called the Dunkards (via the German Baptist church)… a sect that disagreed with the concepts of modernization and even sad no to instrumental music in the agricultural community they lived in…

Having said that, they lived on a farm… and things needed to be repaired when they broke… and Vaniman was the kid who learned how to fix all kinds of machinery – even engines on the farm.

Like many kids, Melvin Vaniman wanted to escape the small town and seek his fortune elsewhere… turning his back on farming to study music, initially at Mt. Morris College run by the German Baptist Bretheren, before gaining further study at Valparaiso University in Indiana and later at Dexter College in Iowa, where he stayed on to become a music teacher – guitar and singing – before joining a touring opera company in Louisiana in 1887,  which traveled through the U.S.

While not a new invention, photography captured Vaniman’s eye, and he began to take photographs of the towns his musical troupe visited.

In 1900, while in Honolulu, the musical company was affected by a plague scare, that scared them into breaking up.

Broke and stranded in Honolulu (which all things considered doesn’t sounds like a horrible place to be stranded), Vaniman cabled his hometown sweetheart Ida Loud to come to Hawaii, and when she did, they got married.

Needing money, Vaniman attempted to make a career as a photographer in Honolulu… and he must have done something right because his work attracted the attention of the Oceanic Steamship Company who hired him to take photos of rich passengers at various ports.

It was at this time, that he developed panorama photo process by using film greater than six feet long, that required an exposure of anywhere between two to four hours.

The Oceanic Steamship Company traveled through New Zealand and Australia, with Vaniman and his wife first arriving in  Auckland, New Zealand in 1902, where Vaniman took photos of New Zealand cities.

They then traveled in February of 1903 to Australia, where he took panoramic photos of Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth, and the New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australian countrysides… an estimated 100 in total, though only 83 are thought to have survived.


A Vaniman panorama taken in 1904 – a platinum photograph looking East from Darling Harbour to Pyrmont Bridge and Sydney, Australia.

Along with the longer film, Vaniman believed that he needed to be high up to get the proper panorama effect, often climbing buildings, ship’s masts and even going aboard a hot-air balloon.

Vaniman’s 1904 panoramic shots of Sydney are considered to be famous, and for which he made a lot of money… enough for him to turn his hand towards aviation development… something that may have been inspired by his balloon ride.

So he traveled through Europe, settling in Paris in 1905… which was considered to be the center of aviation… mostly because the Wright Brothers were still in secret mode after their initial 1903 flight.

And, despite an education in music, skilled in photography, Vaniman built his own aeroplane in 1906… a triplane, in fact… the first ever triplane…


Now… there seems to be some discrepancy over whether or not his triplane actually flew.

There are images of it in the air… but some people feel that it has been doctored.

1908 Triplane.jpg

Here’s what the above postcard says in English:

Made of three arched planes, supported by a frame of steel tubes, each measuring 11 meters (36-feet) in length and 2 meters 20 cm (7.2-feet) in breadth. Total surface area: 72 (square) meters (775-square-feet). 70/80 HP Antoinette engine with 8 cylinders driving a propeller with two arms placed to the rear. In front, two elevators (or rudders): one horizontal and placed in the lower part, serves to control the altitude; the second, vertical, placed about 2/3 of the height of the machine, controls the direction and the turning, whether one tilts to the right or the left. The function of warping the wings is made by means of an arrangement placed on the shoulders of the aviator, and the direction to the right or the left by means of two pedals. Total weight: 500 kilograms (1,102.3-pounds).

You’ll notice that at no time does the postcard note when the triplane first achieved flight.

Check out the image below… no plane in those days was going to be able to safely take-off with a runway like that…


The only addition to this photo, is that we now know the Vaniman triplane is six meters (19.7 feet) long…

But did it fly?

In 1907… Vaniman appears to have given up on aeroplanes saying: “I once had great faith in aeroplanes… I am firmly set in my belief that the aeroplane will never be a cargo carrier.”

Well… he certainly wasn’t a prognosticator.

But why give up on a triplane that apparently flew… unless it didn’t.

Despite what I read in another on-line blog, Vaniman did not participate in the 1909 Reims air show… because he was already heavily at work on his dirigible, and therefore, there is no way anyone anywhere saw him fly at Reims some 150 meters (492 feet).

The 1911-series of 75 Aviation cards from Wills’s shows the Vaniman triplane in flight… and despite the date, it actually shows the earlier machine… perhaps more for what they hoped it actually represented… a triplane…

Here’s the back of the card… but a quick read will note that they believe it to have made multiple successful triplane flights.

Card #59R.jpg

I love the “side tips”, aka ailerons, proving it had not yet made it into the common aviation vernacular.

So… that’s pretty much it for the Wills’s card, but you know me…. I have to give you the full story.

We’re going to look farther into Vaniman’s life story… and attempts by others, and him to reach the North Pole first… with Vanimann eventually being part of a team that tried to do so by dirigible.

Everyone should know that US Navy engineer Robert Peary, Matthew Henson and four Inuit men, Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ooqueah reached the North Pole first on April 6, 1909… except maybe they didn’t, as no one except Peary knew how to navigate and no one else could verify the navigational work by Peary… and, then there’s the fact that after his last support party turned back, Peary and company apparently achieved distances and speeds that were three times what had been achieved to that point.

So… let’s just say that some things are still kind of shady…

The first verified and scientifically-convincing trek to the North Pole was on May 12, 1926 by Roald Amundsen (Norwegian), and his U.S. sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth from the airship Norge – Norwegian-owned, but designed and piloted by Umberto Nobile of Italy.

Nobile, with several scientists and crew from the Norge flight flew over the North Pole again on May 24, 1928 in the dirigible Italia… an aircraft that crashed during its return flight killing half the crew.

North Pole Or Burst
To be fair, you can always just read my old blog for all the information you’ll need to know about Wellman’s attempt to reach the North Pole by dirigible, including later attempts with Vaniman – all courtesy of Wills’s Aviation Card #11.

1906 America dirigible.jpg

The dirigible America  – 1906, Spitzbergen.

The America dirigible was built by Mutin Godard in France in 1906 for the journalist Walter Wellman who wanted to use it reach the North Pole by air.

Wellman… this guy back in 1892, thought he had figured out the initial landing spot of Christopher Columbus, and placed a monument on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Two years later Wellman led a polar expedition to latitude 81° N., and another in 1989-99 gaining latitude 82° N.

In 1905, he decided he would try and reach the North Pole by air, having the America dirigible built for him by Mutin Godard.

After the dirigible was built in France, it was dismantled and shipped to Spitsburgen, Norway in 1906. There, Wellman and crew attempted to rebuild it, but the engines fell apart… effectively scuttling the planned expedition. The America was dismantled and shipped back to France.

Take Two (Definitely #1 with Vaniman)

Redesigned and rebuilt, the new America dirigible lifted off from Spitsburgen on September 2, 1907 with Wellman, new mechanic Melvin Vaniman, and navigator Felix Riesenberg in an attempt to reach the North Pole. We can rest assured that during the build, the engines did not fall down and break…

But… bad weather arose, forcing the dirigible to be deflated to avoid a crash landing… and was dismantled and shipped back to France.


Walter Wellman  – December 31, 1909.

America Three – Vaniman Two
Wellman lured Vaniman to make a go of a second North Pole attempt aboard a repaired America dirigible. Lifting from Spitzbergen on August 15, 1909, and the North Pole about 700 miles away, the dirigible crew consisted of Wellman, Vaniman, Russian balloonist Nicolas Popov and Vaniman’s brother-in-law Albert Louis Loud.

The America flew for two hours and 40 miles (64 kilometers) without an issue until it lost ballast after a device that Wellman called an “equilibrator” failed – a long, leather tube filled with ballast that was intended to help gauge and maintain a fixed altitude over the ice.

Without this, the America flew up high to 5,000 feet, but finally after a lot of struggling and Vaniman fiddling with the gas valves to vent the hydrogen gas, the dirigible was able to get low enough so the crew could be rescued by the Norweigian steamship Fram.

It is reported that the sailors on the ship were amazed at Vaniman, watching him coolly light a cigar, and just as coolly launch the America’s lifeboat while under 250,000 cubic feet of explosive hydrogen.

But Wellman and Vaniman would not give-up… except the weren’t going to go north anymore.

Why? Because it seems as though reports abounded of others reaching the North Pole – as such, Vaniman and Wellman thought they should try and cross the Atlantic Ocean… to be the first to do that.. as no aerocraft had yet to even make an uninterrupted flight of more than 500 miles.

America 4 – Vaniman 3


The America dirigible, seen from the Trent prior to rescue.

For this flight – the one across the Atlantic, the America left  Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 15, 1910, which a crew of six men and one Kiddo the cat.


America dirigible drawing from Scientific American magazine, October 1, 1910.

Kiddo was a good-looking stray cat a crewman found in the dirigible’s hangar, and for whatever reason, thought it a good idea to bring the cat onboard. For good luck he thought… trying to start a new tradition of gaining good by bringing cats onto aircraft.

Do we still do that now? Didn’t think so.

Anyhow… Kiddo was pretty freaked out on the dirigible… which made the crew nervous.

Twenty minutes into the flight, navigator F. Murray Simon wrote in his log: “I am chiefly worried by our cat, which is rushing around the airship like a squirrel in a cage.”

Ha! Wait’ll Kiddo freaks out and tries to claw the dirigible balloon.

While others wanted to get rid of the cat, Simon said “We must keep the cat at all costs; we can never have luck without a cat aboard.”

I’m pretty sure that Simon was referring to the nautical tactic of  having a cat on board a sailing vessel because cats would catch mice and rats…

But a tiny dirigible with no flying mice or rats aboard was a dumb place to have a cat – even a cute one like Kiddo.


I am unsure who the gentleman is – obviously one of the crew  – I don’t think it’s Vaniman… perhaps navigator F. Murray Simon –  but you can see that that is a real nice-looking kitty cat.

After a while, the crew voted to get rid of the cat… and somehow got Kiddo into a sack (someone was probably really badly cut-up!)  and lowered him down to a motorboat used by journalists following the dirigible.

I’m assuming it was a larger boat than a simple motor boat, and was instead a motorized boat… seeing as it was carrying a number of journalists and was crossing the bloody Atlantic Ocean.

Anyhow… because the weather was bouncing the boat too much, the America was unable to safely place the cat down into the boat… so they hauled Kiddo up again into the dirigible.

Simon notes in his log that Kiddo behaved himself after that… perhaps realizing that if he didn’t behave on the dirigible, the alternative was being thrown into a canvas bag and lowered down into the ocean.

While Simon thought Kiddo was the cat’s meow, the rest of the crew still wasn’t that enthralled with Kiddo…

Along with a good-luck cat, the America also carried along one of the earliest radio sets ever carried on an aircraft.

The flight across the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Europe was anticipated to be a five-hour trip.

However, water condensing on the airship’s skin added excess weight, and it was difficult to gain height. A passing storm also made forward navigation difficult, and after 38 hours, the motors failed (beach sand might have been the culprit)  and the airship drifted south.

The crew jettisoned all excess weight, including one of the defunct engines. But apparently not the cat… though I bet most of the crew really wanted to.

After another 33 hours, and having now traveled a total distance of 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) from its starting point, the America spotted the British Royal Mail steamship Trent west of Bermuda.

The used Morse code via signal lamp to attract the Trent, the America made what is considered to be the first ever aerial distress call made by radio (I assume some folks stuck in a hot air balloon may have shouted for help at some point in time previously).

After opening the gas valves, and with the Trent nearby, the crew of the America—and Kiddo—got into the dirigible’s lifeboat and abandoned ship.

After dropping the lifeboat down into the waters, they watched the America float away… never to be seen again. We can assume that with the gas vents open, it either filled the dirigible’s balloon until it burst, or it lifted high into the sky until it froze – either way, it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Trent rescued the cat and crew and took them all to New York city.

For Wellman, the trip was a total disaster and he never took to the air again.

Still that flight set a record for distance traveled by air at 1,008 miles (1,622.22 kilometers), and time aloft 71-1/2 hours.

It Wasn’t A Very Good Year – The Akron

Akron blimp - 1912.jpg

The Akron dirigible was designed by Vaniman, and was Goodyear’s first so-called “blimp”, seen here in 1912.

With Wellman out  of the aviation business, Vaniman wanted another shot at crossing the Atlantic, and in order to raise funds, he exhibited Kiddo the cat  – now renamed Trent in honor of the steamship that rescued him and the humans – in a gilded cage at various New York department stores.

He also found a financial backer in Frank A. Seiberling, who happened to be the co-founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

It’s 19111… and over at the Goodyear factory in Akron, Ohio. USA, and Vaniman was helping over see the construction of the new dirigible.

Legend has it that Vaniman—during the tests—thought that using a rubberized “cloth of web-like steel piano wire as the woof and cotton as the warp” would help stop gas from escaping in the dirigible.

Does that sound familiar?

Vaniman asked Goodyear to experiment with rubber and silk weaved through vanadium steel… like a steel-belted tire, perhaps?

Regardless… Goodyear didn’t bring out a steel-belted radial tire for five more decades…

The dirigible—named the Akron—was a 258-foot (78.64 meter) long dirigible with a balloon capacity of 11 300 cubic meters of hydrogen gas.

Looking more like a dirigible made by Europeans, the Akron had two decks, cabins above, a dining room, saloon, kitchen and a below deck promenade.

On July 2, 1912, after a few trials, the Akron lifted off from Atlantic City, New Jersey to try and cross the Atlantic (again) to Europe.

The event was called the Vaniman-Seiberling Transatlantic Expedition.

Lifting off from its hangar, the Akron reached 750 in altitude after 15 minutes, traveling two kilometers (eight kilometers and hour).

But that’s also when the dirigible exploded, killing Vaniman and his crew of four.

So what the heck happened?

Either the balloon had ruptured thanks to a rapid expansion of gas… or maybe the nacelle’s suspension ropes had snapped… or maybe one really shouldn’t be smoking cigars in a hydrogen-filled blimp that leaks gas… or maybe it was something else.

To this day, Vaniman’s body remains lost… somewhere in the waters off Atlantic City… a watery grave for a man who wanted to soar.

What happened to his cat Kiddo? Was he on the Akron?

No… Kiddo, aka Trent, had retired after the exploits aboard America… and had gone to live with Walter Wellman’s daughter Edith – avoiding Vaniman’s unlucky fate.

Here’s what the New-York Tribune newspaper had to say about Vaniman in its July 3, 1912 edition, front page, no less:

Five Killed When Dirigible Bursts

Melvin Vaniman and Brother Victims of Explosion Which Wrecks Akron 500 Feet Above the Sea.

Thousands See Accident

Airship, Soon to Start for Europe, on Trial Cruise Off Atlantic City-Mrs Vaniman Foresaw Fatal Mishap.

(Editor’s Note: Although the article essentially begins with four separate headlines, the article is then interrupted to note the number of dirigible accidents, and aeroplane fatalities as of July 1, 1912 – in the case of the later, it’s 159. I’m not re-typing it all out here, at this time.)

Atlantic City, July 2 (Special).-While thousands of people, horrified beyond utterance, looked on from the boardwalk and beach, the dirigible Akron, built by Melvin Vaniman to attempt the over-Atlantic passage, burst into flame and plunged into the sea this morning, killing its crew of five men.

The dead are Vaniman himself, his younger brother Calvin Vaniman; Walter Guest, Frederick Elmer and George Bourillion.

The big airship was blown to pieces by an explosion, probably produced by a too rapid expansion of gas.

The body of Calvin Vaniman fell from the Akron as the understructure was dropping through the air, and was recovered not long after the accident, but the other men were carried down into the sandy bottom, caged in the wire framework of the craft.

It is probable that they were killed by the explosion. Bourillion’s body, when taken out by a diver, was crushed and torn and most of the clothing had been ripped away.

The Akron mounted easily and gracefully into the air early to-day for a trial cruise. The sands were black with persons who watched her as she floated upward under splendid control and sailed out over the seas until she was five hundred feet above Absecon Inlet, half a mile from the shore and a quarter of a mile south of Brigantine Beach, which is across the inlet from this city.

When she went up the soft wind that blew across the inlet had not dispelled the haze, and the sun was only a bronze ball in the misty sky. But the clouds dispelled and soon the sunshine shimmered on her great yellow envelope that stood out so dashingly against the blue of the sky.

(Editor’s Note: Holy crap…  I guess the newspaper editor demanded a certain word count, and the writer could only write about the topic for 50 words before realizing he had to describe the sky. Yeesh.)

Shoots Upward Suddenly.
It must have been that the temperature rose suddenly when this happened, for the Akron, which had been drifting lazily along in the air lanes, shot upward quickly, and then a tony flash of light appeared atop the balloon. This spread like an electric spark, and a great burst of flame and smoke followed.

The bag split at the top. A deep rumble came across to the watchers, terrifying them into stillness. Yellow-gray smoke completely hid the Akron, billowing up around her, and then rolled in turgid clouds above her in the wind. The understructure ripped from its meshing and in the forward [art of the big gas bag up-ended, described a slow ark and then jumped in the air as the car tore free and fell into the ocean, never once turning in its dive.

Half way down the body of a man flew out of the car and rocketed to the ocean, striking the water before the understructure splashed a great wave fifty feet to the west of the man, who was Calvin Vaniman.

The gas bag had wavered for a time, fluttering like a live thing, and then, crumpling into the semblance of a wrinkled, dead apple, tumbled down in a spiral, with smoke curling from it, and fell into the ocean a hundred feet from where the car had struck.

Women Faint at Sight of It.
It was almost a minute before the crowd could comprehend what had happened, even though what was left of the Akron lay floating on the waves.

But while women fainted and were carried to the Iblet pavilion to be revived, men put out in motor boats. One of these was Councilman Harry Cook, a member of the America Exhibition Company, which had helped finance the unsuccessful flight of Walter Wellman in 1910, a voyage in which Vaniman, the practical …

(Editor’s Note: Okay… it goes from there, so… I’m cutting it here.)

Anyhow… Vaniman died, his body lost at sea… his brother Calvin and crewman Bourillion were found… but no mention was made – at the time of finding anyone else.

In June of 2012… the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is donating an important piece of U.S. aeronautical heritage to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum: the historic lifeboat used on two early attempted crossings of the Atlantic by airships.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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3 Responses to Wills’s Aviation Card #59 – “Vanniman” Triplane.

  1. Pingback: Checklist For Wills’s Cigarettes Aviation 1911 – 75-Card Series | Pioneers Of Aviation

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  3. Pingback: Checklist For Wills’s Cigarettes Aviation 1911 – 85-Card Series – soon to be updated | Pioneers Of Aviation

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