Steve and I share a longtime interest in the work of self-taught visual artists. Among our favorite artists is Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830-1923). Born in Brandenburg, Prussia, Dellschau emigrated to the U.S. through the Port of Galveston at the age of twenty. He applied for U.S. Citizenship, married a widow with a young daughter, and fathered three children. Dellschau worked most of his life as butcher, and later as a clerk in his son-in-law’s saddle and harness shop in Houston.
After retiring in 1900 at the age of seventy, Dellschau began creating a series of scrapbooks in which he affixed mixed-media drawings of primitive flying machines. He called his drawings press blumen, or “press blooms.” Dellschau first drew grids in pencil on paper over which he drew the flying machines, or “aeros,” in ink and watercolor. To these, he added collage of newspaper clippings of the day, many relating to aeronautics and other scientific discoveries.
Each flying machine was given a name, attributed to a designer, pictured from various angles, and accompanied with notes regarding its history written in German and English as well as strange symbols that comprised a secret code. The final drawings are dated 1921, just two years before Dellschau’s death at the age of ninety-three.
The drawings remained unknown for more than forty years after Dellschau’s death, stored in the attic of the family home. In 1967, twelve of the scrapbooks were placed on the street for trash pickup, where they were rescued, and ended up in a junk store where they sat unnoticed for two more years. Found there in 1969 by a local college student, four of the books were eventually purchased for Houston’s Menil Collection. Four additional books are now shared between the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum, and four more eventually came on to the market via a New York gallery. It is estimated that he may have created as many as 2000 drawings.
Until the late 1990s, Dellschau’s drawings spent most of their time in museum storage due to their fragile condition. They remained unknown outside of Texas—except to a small group of folk art scholars, amateur scientists, inventors, and individuals with interests ranging from physics to paranormal and extra-terrestrial phenomena. The drawings were at the center of a mystery involving a secret society and reported UFO sightings in the 19th century.
They became the passion of Pete Navarro, a Houston UFOlogist who deciphered Dellschau’s code, translated the texts from German to English, and uncovered a fascinating tale. He found that Dellschau claimed to be a member of a secret aero club comprised of some sixty individuals who gathered in the 1850s in Sonora, California. The drawings were said to represent airships that had actually been built and flown by the Sonora Aero Club before being dismantled. Navarro found that the books held designs for more than 100 distinct aircraft.
It is difficult to imagine any of Dellschau’s eccentric contraptions having aerodynamic capability. But supposedly, the aeros did not rely on conventional gases such as helium or hydrogen commonly used in dirigibles and balloons of the day. A member of Dellschau’s society had discovered a secret substance made from green crystals distilled from coal, which, when added to water, created a hot gas that had the ability to negate weight. With this antigravity substance, known as the “supe,” the airships were lifted and propelled in flight. The supe recipe was lost forever when its inventor died, and soon the group disbanded.
There are numerous newspaper accounts of mysterious airship sightings throughout the U.S. toward the end of the 19th century. But whether Dellschau’s drawings were designs for actual aircraft, or the fanciful creations of the artist’s imagination, one thing is certain: they represent an artistic achievement of great vision and importance, and serve as valuable documentation of man’s obsession with flight.