Benton County lad became the “Nicola Tesla of Oregon”
Thomas B. Slate first invented the commercial production process for making dry ice, then took his new-made fortune and used it to re-imagine airship travel in an almost unbelievably “steampunk” way.
By Finn J.D. John — February 14, 2016
Almost everyone has seen the gripping footage of the great Zeppelin Hindenburg falling flaming out of the gray skies of New Jersey in 1937, crushing as it fell the dreams of everyone who had hoped to see airships developed as a regular means of travel.
But most people don’t realize the reason for the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction wasn’t the hydrogen with which it was filled — or, rather, not entirely so. Whether the fatal fire was sparked by burning hydrogen or not, the airship would not have exploded as it did — and, indeed, might not have been destroyed at all — if its fabric skin had not been vulnerable to fire.
In other words, if the Hindenburg had been built entirely of metal, it probably would not have gone down like it did. In fact, it might never have gone down at all.
But, of course, Led Zeppelin jokes aside, who’s ever heard of an all-metal airship?
Well — 12 years before the Hindenburg disaster put an end to the era of luxury airship travel, an Oregon inventor filed for a patent on one. And as the “Roaring Twenties” drew to a close, he was making plans to revolutionize the industry — with an all-aluminum airship called the City of Glendale.
His plans didn’t fail nearly as catastrophically as did the Hindenburg, but they did fail. A combination of a major engineering oversight and the onset of the Great Depression left his dreams of an airship empire, and his fortune, in ruins. And the Zeppelin company never got the chance — as it might otherwise have done — to license his patents when it built the ill-fated LZ-129 Hindenburg.
Here’s the story:
Thomas Benton Slate was born in the tiny hamlet of Tangent, near the Calapooia River in western Linn County, and raised in the almost-as-tiny hamlet of Alsea, tucked into the Coast Range west of Corvallis.
During the First World War, Slate’s engineering skills were pressed into service in designing aircraft technology for the Allies; it was a time he later referred to as “the highlight of my inventive career.”
That, as you’ll soon see, was saying something. Thomas B. Slate was, in many ways, Oregon’s own Nicola Tesla.
After the war, Slate built what may have actually been the world’s first motorhome: a large box perched on the spindly, sagging chassis of a Ford TT one-ton truck. He called it a “Housecar,” and in it, he and his family sallied forth for a cross-country road trip.
In the early 1920s, Slate moved out to the East Coast, where he founded a company called “DryIce.” The inveterate tinkerer had developed a cost-effective method for making frozen carbon dioxide — dry ice — and, after making the rounds of investors and gathering together the necessary backing, he’d gone into business.
That business, as you’ve no doubt gathered, was a big success, as evidenced by the fact that the name of Slate’s company is our generic term for CO2 ice today. When Slate sold out and came back to the West Coast, he was a wealthy man. And he was ready to put some of his most radical and imaginative ideas to the test: ideas that had developed out of those short, productive years as an aeronautical engineer during the Great War.
Slate settled with his family in the city of Glendale, Calif., and, with his brothers Grover and Frank, went into business as the Slate Aircraft Co. The new outfit leased a piece of land at the Glendale Airport and got busy bringing Slate’s most outré, futuristic visions into concrete reality there.
Slate had, in his mind and in the four patents that he’d filed, completely reimagined airship travel. The way he saw it, airships as they existed in the early 1920s had several severe limitations, which would, he felt, keep them from ever becoming commercially viable:
First, they were full of hydrogen, an explosive gas. This could be remedied by filling them with helium, which was inert; but helium wasn’t nearly as buoyant, and it was terrifically expensive — far too expensive to be used commercially in airships.
Secondly, they required enormous ground infrastructure — mooring masts hundreds of feet tall and built strong enough to be reefed on, refueling apparatus, veritable armies of men who had to run about catching hold of ground lines and securing them to winches and guiding their landing approach.
The third problem that Slate saw with 1920s airships was their vulnerability to heavy weather. It took only a relatively minor storm to turn an airship journey from the lap of luxury into the most terrifying experience this side of an ocean liner in a hurricane.
Slate thought he had an answer to all of these issues, and several others as well, in his engineering notebooks. Since the Great War, he’d wanted to put those ideas and theories to the test. Now, thanks to the commercial success of his dry-ice venture, he had the money to do just that.
Of course, he didn’t have enough money to just finance it all himself. Airships aren’t cheap. He’d need investors. But it was the “Roaring Twenties,” and investors were easy to come by for a charismatic and successful fellow like Thomas B. Slate.
So the money rolled in, and Slate got busy building the Airship of the Future.
It would be made of all aluminum — completely fireproof, so that even if a little gas leaked out and caught fire, it couldn’t lead to a catastrophe. For hydrogen to burn, it has to have access to oxygen; there would be no oxygen inside the fireproof aluminum hull of the airship, and the heat could not destroy that metal hull as it would that of a conventional doped-fabric airship. So even if a little gas leaked out and caught fire — as many people think happened in the Hindenburg disaster — it would simply burn itself out harmlessly and die away.
It would stay always in the air, never needing to land at airports or other special facilities inconveniently located far away from the fashionable hotels frequented by the VIPs to whom he hoped his airship service would appeal. Instead, it would hover serenely over luxury hotels and resorts, sending down an elevator car on a heavy cable dangling beneath to deposit guests directly at their doors.
But the most revolutionary thing of all — and the most controversial — was that it would be virtually stormproof. It would make for itself a cushion of moving air, roaring around its teardrop-shaped hull in a continuing torrent of airflow that would prevent storm-driven winds from buffeting it directly about.
So Slate settled into Glendale and got busy making his dreams into a real, live, testable prototype. As he did so, he had no idea that in his hands was the future of the airship industry. And, unfortunately for that industry, there were one or two issues that he had overlooked as he’d made those plans.
We’ll talk about those oversights — and about what could have been, had they been foreseen — in next week’s column.
(Sources: Benton County Historical Society, www.bchsnow.org; “The Progress of Aviation,” Popular Science, June 1927; Radecki, Alan. “Slate’s Strange Dirigible,” MojaveWest Vintage Air, 20 Aug 2013, vintageairphotos.blogspot.com)