Mr. Knox and his ‘Gelatine’ airship

On May 10, 1905, the Syracuse Post-Standard ran an article about Charles B. Knox of Johnstown’s Knox Gelatin Company, announcing he’d hired Syracuse native George T. Tomlinson, ‘to design and run an airship at the Portland Exhibition.”

Although references to the Knox Gelatine Company more frequently detail the life of Mrs. Rose Knox, Charles’ widow, Charles built the original business and at this point in time, he appears to have been willing to spend money on things he considered just plain fun.

He already owned well-respected race horses, plus the first automobile in Johnstown, was allegedly the first man to drive an automobile across the entire state, and now, in the spring of 1905, looked upward for a new challenge, financing his own ‘airship’, generally called a blimp.

If he needed, he could also justify this extravagance to Mrs. Knox by naming the airship ‘Gelatine’ and exhibiting it to advertise their product, foreshadowing Goodyear’s later blimps.

Most sources state Knox employed ‘aeronaut’ Tomlinson to design the craft because of his flying record on Aug. 27, 1904, Tomlinson established a world airship endurance record of 22 hours, 37 minutes airborne at the St. Louis Fair.

While many photos of this first ‘Gelatine’ exist, an exact reproduction hangs in the Pearson Air Museum, Vancouver, Washington, and can be viewed on the internet at columbiariverimages.com.

The June 20 Fulton County Republican informed readers, “Mr. Knox’s machine is being built by inventor Tomlinson and will be completed about July 1st. It will be taken directly to Oregon for the airship races.”

A later account states, “The Knox machine made twenty-one ascensions at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Portland Exposition. What was special about the ‘Gelatine’ was the Tomlinson-designed steering system.

Of its success at Portland, the September 21 1905 Fulton County Republican glowed, “Gelatine Is a Great Success — Knox Airship Sails Like a Bird.” It related, “Lincoln Beechey, the eighteen-year-old boy aeronaut, was at the helm. The machine could be navigated easily at the will of the aeronaut.”

It continued flying high during 1906, attested to by various photographs showing the ship performing at various exhibitions with people milling around it.

The July 8, 1906 Syracuse Herald stated, “Knox’s Gelatine airship made a flight of 200 feet and landed one quarter mile from where it started, being in the air eleven minutes. The ship is of the conical type of balloon, having a capacity of 11,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas. The gas bag surmounts a framework fifty-four feet long, holding a gasoline two-cylinder engine of six horse power. The machine is twenty-nine feet in height. Operator Tomlinson may sail it to Johnstown Monday.”

Apparently, Mr. Knox thought that if one airship was good, two were better. The July 24, Canajoharie Courier informed readers, “Mr. Willis Bullock Jr. of Canajoharie is constructing an improved airship and engine for Mr. Knox of Johnstown. When the new ship is finished and the old one overhauled, Mr. Knox will have two complete outfits to insure future flights that might otherwise be marred by temporary failure of only one.”

There were really only two practical uses for gas-filled airships, exhibit them at public venues as an advertising tool or race them against other airships for prize money, although this seems rather like racing pairs of inflated snails.

Nevertheless for a few short years, airship racing was a popular endeavor, but Mr. Knox wasn’t trying to make money from his ‘ballooning’ endeavors: whatever his airships earned, he donated to good causes.

The July 24, 1906 Canajoharie Courier, for example, remarked, “Mr. Knox is a square, generous man — $500 — which was the money received for the exhibitions at Canajoharie, has been returned to that village with the suggestion it should be expended for a fire alarm system.”

Knox’s “Gelatine” was operated by different people at different times. Young dare devil Beechey operated it at Portland as well as Tomlinson, and amateur aeronaut Elmer Van Vranken of Gloversville, who we’ll chronicle next time, also piloted it locally before building his own in 1906.

Nevertheless, the Jan. 11, 1906 Fulton County Republican only mentioned Tomlinson as “the man who operated Mr. Knox’s airship Gelatine at the Portland Oregon Exposition last summer.”

In April 1906, Mr. Knox also hired Earl D. Persse, another Syracusian, stating, “Inventor Tomlinson will continue operating the ships and Mr. Persse will have complete charge of their management, transportation, publicity, security, and scheduling.”

The paper observed, “Mr. Knox is fortunate to have him, as Persse’s management abilities cannot be surpassed.”

Lucky Mr. Persse kept both feet on the ground.

Mr. Knox’s second, larger ship was to be completely revolutionary, but also enters the realm of “What Was He Thinking?” It was to be “a new battle ship of the future sky navy. In construction of this sky battleship, Mr. Knox has the latest thing in airships, which promises to revolutionize modern warfare.”

One wonders whether Knox intended mounting cannon on it to shoot down enemy airships or hoped to convince the government of its potential for bombing battlefields from on high, and if so, did he consider what a swell target such a large gas bag would make hovering above battlefields?

The world, however, was robbed of this great military advance when ‘Gelatine King’ Knox died suddenly on June 18, 1908, aged only 53. Thus, his high-flying ‘sky battleship’ idea was grounded.