by Mike Cox
of the March 2, 1895 edition of the weekly Eagle Pass Guide surely
paused over this short back-page headline: “New Flying Machine.”
New flying machine? Folks along the Rio Grande still considered the
recent inauguration of through train service from San
Antonio to Mexico City, via Eagle
Pass, a modern marvel of transportation efficiency. That a man-made
device could sail through the air stood as an old fantasy even in
the so-called Gay 90s, but few in Texas
gave it much thought and even fewer believed it would ever happen
in their life time.
Saxton Temple Pope, a young Texan in California not only thought man
could fly, he did. Or so it was claimed.
The 19-year-old lived at Angel Island, CA, where his father, Maj.
Benjamin Franklin Pope served as surgeon at the Army post there. Before
his transfer to the Pacific coast, the doctor had done tours of duty
at various military garrisons in Texas, including Fort Clark at Brackettville.
His son had been born in 1875 at Fort
Stockton, when the major tended to Army and civilian medical needs
on that remote installation.
Maj. Pope had been stationed at Fort Clark prior to his transfer to
the West Coast. In fact, it was the Brackettville News that wrote
the story on the flying machine built by the major’s son. “Saxton’s
old schoolmates in Brackett
[as it was then called] are no doubt proud over his glorious triumph,”
the newspaper editorialized.
According to the newspaper article, “The machine was tested a few
days ago and carried the inventor a distance when a light brace gave
way and the whole thing came to the ground. The test was satisfactory,
however, because it showed the machine to be capable of flight.”
Having grown up on frontier Army posts, young Pope presciently envisioned
a military application for his invention – aerial observation.
Pope built his “machine,” actually an un-powered glider, in a few
weeks beginning in late December 1894.
“The machine is simply a mechanical soaring bird,” Pope told a newspaper
reporter. “There is no complicated machinery about it.”
Resembling a bat, the plane had been fashioned with a hundred square
feet of canvas stretched over bamboo. It weighed about 35 pounds and
its two wings extended 22 feet tip-to-tip.
Behind the wings, which Pope described as horizontal planes, a fan-shaped
bamboo and canvas rudder extended about 15 feet.
“This is set in a vertical position pointing upward at an angle of
about 30 degrees,” the article continued. “This prevents the whole
plane from swaying about and keeps the wings steadily against the
The “rising and falling” of the plane was “regulated by changing the
center of gravity. This is done by the movements of the body of the
operator….The same natural principal which enables the buzzard to
soar against the wind and rise and fall at will governs this machine.”
When not in use, the plane could be folded up for easy carrying, the
young inventor said.
“Of course,” Pope told the interviewer, “one cannot expect to be as
expert flyer with this machine all at once. It will require much practice
and delicate skill to bring it to practical use.”
Alas, the Fort
Stockton boy did not go down in history as the inventor of the
first airplane. But he did go on to demonstrate his skills in another
field. Like his father, Pope became a physician.
While Saxton Pope enjoyed a successful surgical practice in San Francisco,
he is remembered neither for his medical expertise or his early-day
bat plane. It is his writing that has endured.
1912, while teaching surgical technique at the University of California’s
medical school, Pope treated Ishi, a Yahi Indian who had wandered
down from the hills into Oroville, CA. the year before. The last of
his tribe, Ishi became a ward of the university’s anthropology museum.
|Pope and the
Indian became friends and hunting companions, Ishi teaching the Texas-born
doctor how to use a bow and arrow and go after wild game Indian-style.
Pope, mining Ishi for information on his culture and life, made a
huge contribution to the world’s understanding of the American Indian.
Some of his more important books are “Yahi Archery” (1918), “The Medical
History of Ishi” (1920) and “A Study of Bows and Arrows” (1923).
Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916 and Pope followed him to the happy
hunting ground in 1926.
© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
September 19, 2007 column
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