An Antipodean Atmotic Vessel

A model of an airship appeared in the New South Wales section of the London Great Exhibition of 1862. Doctor William Bland designed the ‘atmotic vessel’ in 1851.

Born in London in 1789, Doctor Bland, after qualifying in medicine, joined the Navy. He served aboard the HMS Hesper and on a journey to Bombay became involved in a quarrel and settled it with a duel. Bland fatally wounded his opponent and after being tried in Bombay was sentenced to seven years transportation. He arrived in Sydney in 1814 and the following year received a Crown Pardon.

Bland remained in Sydney where he ran afoul of Governor Macquarie, and being found guilty of libel spent a year in prison. On release he resumed his medical practice and also worked for the Benevolent Asylum. He donated to charities and was a ‘patron of literary workers’. His political activity began in the 1820s and he was elected to the legislative council in 1843. Bland died in Sydney from pneumonia in 1868 and received a state funeral.

Bland had detailed plans of his atmotic vessel drawn up but it was never built. It had a proposed length of 300 feet with two steam driven propellers and sliding weights to assist with take-offs and landings. He estimated the speed to be 50 mph with a carrying capacity of one and a half tons.

Apart from the technical details Bland also raised questions about the use of this new technology. He asked, ‘…would this method of travelling tend to place the races of man too much on par with each other as to their aggressive powers, and if so, would it not enable the barbarous nations of the earth, by their vast aggregate numerical superiority, to overwhelm the civilised portions of the globe?’ By barbarous he was referring to anyone who wasn’t ethnic western European. Bland also raised the possibility of air power being used by one civilised nation to dominate its weaker neighbours and that perhaps airships should be banned.

However, Bland dismissed these objections, holding the view it’s better to build bridges between people than create barriers. He saw free communication between different groups acting to educate and elevate, and new ideas to be embraced. Optimistically he reasons that that the embracing of the new technology and accompanying learning will ‘…so fully prevail as to supersede all narrow selfishness, and that thus the inducements to war, but war itself eventually may altogether cease!’

Bland also listed other uses to which ‘aerial navigation’ might be put. These were the furthering of meteorological knowledge and assistance to astronomy; the shortening of travel routes so a journey from London to Sydney might be cut from two or three months to four or five days, and the exploration of difficult places. Postal services could be established by air, passengers carried, gold shipped and ‘generally, for the promotion of science, and the more rapid and universal spread of civilisation.’

Doctor Bland is remembered for his political, medical and philanthropic activity; his airship design more of an interesting footnote to his life story. On the grave monument erected by his peers is the dedication:

‘To the memory of William Bland, Esq. Surgeon. R.N. Who laboured long, zealously and successfully for trial by jury and free institutions for this colony and who for upwards of fifty years devoted his time, his talent and his fortune to the service of suffering humanity.’

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