Word of the strange device traveled first to New York, then spread to Missouri and Kansas and along the Eastern Seaboard in 1892. The Volucere, the papers called it — an “aerial electric mail car” that could “transport one hundred pounds of mail between two cities with a hitherto unattained velocity.”
Back when flight was still half dream, Byron E. Osborn’s design lunged for the future.
The Volucere — Latin for winged — had no pilot, as diagrams pictured it, but it had fins and wings. And a paddle wheel.
It would have flapped its way across cables over miles of farmland, a “U.S. Mail” flag fluttering from its bow.
If anyone had wanted it, that is.
In the hindsight of history, we might say Osborn’s invention — featured in the New York World, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and at least half a dozen papers that year — looked a bit silly, like the Yellow Submarine with umbrellas bolted to the sides.
But we might also say the Volucere looked like an automated mail drone — conceived a full 124 years before Amazon.com made history with its first pilotless delivery, sending an Amazon Fire TV streaming device and a bag of popcorn to a shopper in the United Kingdom. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)
Osborn was no grifter, but an established inventor, if not a renowned one.
A former Civil War surgeon who settled in New York, according to historical records, he patented a “combined seed-drill, cultivator, harrow” in 1877, and various electric rail devices in later years.
Despite detailed sketches of the Volucere in newspapers, it’s unclear if the device was patented. (The Patent Office is checking.)
Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, is sure it wasn’t.
“I’d know about it,” said the Smithsonian curator, who had not previously heard of “that oddball thing,” as he called the Volucere, in all his studies of early flying machines.
Nor, when shown its designs, did Crouch think they merited much note in the history of aviation.
“This thing would have looked Rube Goldbergish to people at the time,” he said. “It’s like an airship running on a line.”
Indeed, the Volucere looked part blimp, part bird, part trolley.
With a hull full of hydrogen gas to counter the weight of its parcels, the machine’s paddles, propeller and flapping wings would have pushed across miles-long cables to its destination.
“It is then reloaded, turned on a turn-table, the connections made and it is sent on its mission,” the New York World explained.
But Crouch saw flaws in the design — not least a hull of aluminum, a rare and expensive metal at the time.
“The notion of sending automatic mail through the air that way was way ahead of its time,” he said. “You’d have to string wires, you know, from Washington to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York to Boston.”
But that’s exactly what Osborn envisioned for his machine. “It may have many stations,” the newspaper write-up concluded.
It had no stations, in fact — and no mention of the device can be found after 1892.
“We are not aware of ‘Volucere’ or any similar contraption ever having been used to transport mail,” a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service told The Post.
Nancy Pope, historian at the National Postal Museum, hadn’t heard of the thing either, though she suspected she knew what its inventor was up to.
“This is somebody who’s trying to get the Post Office interested through the newspaper, maybe,” she said.
Long before Amazon and Google, the federal mail service was a go-to bankroller for ambitious inventors, Pope said.
“That’s who you wanted to sell to, because they’d buy lots of whatever you had. But you had to have something they wanted.”
Most didn’t. Pope recalled a pitch in the 1940s for a five-story whirl-a-gig that was supposed to wind up, spin around and launch a mail plane off the end of a gigantic arm.
The Volucere looked like similar “fluff,” Pope said, though she admired its marketing pitch.
“I love that it’s called an ‘aerial mail car,’ ” she said. “ I love the little designs of ‘U.S. Mail.’ He really goes to town getting the U.S. Postal Service to look at this.”
Unfortunately for Osborn, the Postal Service of his era was looking in a different direction for the future of mail.
In 1893, a year after the Volucere disappeared from the papers, a pneumatic mail tube was tested in Philadelphia.
Like the Volucere and, now, the Amazon drone, the device needed no pilot and promised to revolutionize delivery.
But it traveled underground, where flapping wings could never follow.