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Charles Dellschau

Portrait of Charles Dellschau

Anti-gravity fuel and the adventures of the Sonora Aero Club

It’s tempting to summarize Charles Dellschau’s life in bullet points. Born in Berlin in 1830, Dellschau immigrated to the United States at age 19, and worked as a butcher near Houston Texas. He married a widow, and raised three children, and later served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. After his wife and son died in 1877, Dellschau moved to Houston, where he worked as a clerk for his son-in-law’s saddlery, and lived until his death in 1923.

But more than 40 years laters, a junk dealer uncovers 12 ragged notebooks, bound with shoelaces, from a trash heap outside of the Dellschau family home. The notebooks change hands, sold to a furniture dealer, then finally the art history student Mary Jane Victor.

The 12 notebooks were created by Charles Dellschau between 1908 and 1921, and document the invention of an anti-gravity fuel called NB Gas by a secret society of aviators known as the Sonora Aero Club. Containing more than 2,500 drawings of flying machines, the diaries piece together newspaper clippings, diagrams and coded language.

Dellschau’s notebooks recount his time living in a boardingding house from 1854 to 1859, when his neighbors included members of the Sonora Aero Club. The club appointed Dellschau as their scribe, and he narrates the group’s activities in extraordinary detail — describing many members by name. Peter Mennis, who’s “Aero Goosey” was among the group’s most successful crafts, Tosh Wilson, Louis Caro, and Jacob Mischer — who’s plan to sell the plans for his airship ended in the sabotage and fiery crash of his own craft.

The Dellschau notebooks are commonly seen as a work of fiction, an invented world similar to the fever dreams of Adolf Wölfli. But in 1897, nearly 30 years after Dellschau’s time with the Aero Club, an airship is sighted near five cities across Texas and Louisiana. On April 28, the Galveston Daily News ran the headline “Airship Inventor Wilson.” — a second hand interview with Hiram Wilson, the nephew of the Aero Club’s Tosh Wilson.


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Reed Enger, "Charles Dellschau, Anti-gravity fuel and the adventures of the Sonora Aero Club," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 26, 2016; last modified May 21, 2018, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/charles-dellschau/.

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