Let’s summarize Charles Dellschau’s life quickly, because at first, it seems relatively boring. Born in Berlin in 1830, Dellschau immigrated to the United States at age 19 and worked as a butcher near Houston Texas. He married a widow, raised three children, and served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. After his wife and son died in 1877, Dellschau worked as a clerk for his son-in-law’s saddlery until his death in 1923. 40 years laters, a junk dealer uncovered 12 notebooks, bound with shoelaces, from a trash heap outside the Dellschau family home. The notebooks changed hands a few times, eventually winding up in the care of art history student Mary Jane Victor.
The 12 notebooks were created by Charles Dellschau between 1908 and 1921, and document the invention of an anti-gravity fuel called NB Gas by a secret society of aviators called the Sonora Aero Club. Containing more than 2,500 drawings of flying machines, the diaries piece together newspaper clippings, diagrams and coded language. The notebooks recount Dellschau’s time living in a boarding house from 1854 to 1859, when his neighbors included members of the Sonora Aero Club. The club appointed Dellschau as their scribe, and he narrates the group’s activities in extraordinary detail, describing many members by name. Peter Mennis, whose Aero Goosey was among the group’s most successful crafts, Tosh Wilson, Louis Caro, and Jacob Mischer, whose plan to sell the designs for his airship ended in its sabotage and fiery crash.
The Dellschau notebooks are commonly seen as a work of fiction, an invented world similar to the fever dreams of Adolf Wölfli. But in 1897, nearly 30 years after Dellschau’s time with the Aero Club, an airship was sighted near five cities across Texas and Louisiana. On April 28, the Galveston Daily News ran the headline “Airship Inventor Wilson"—an interview with Hiram Wilson, the nephew of the Aero Club’s Tosh Wilson.
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Reed Enger, "Charles Dellschau, Anti-gravity fuel and the adventures of the Sonora Aero Club," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 26, 2016; last modified October 27, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/charles-dellschau/.