An 1897 illustration of Professor Barnard’s flight over Nashville in his sky cycle. The Nashville American

It’s been 125 years since the Lewiston Evening Journal proudly proclaimed that a former Auburn man created “the first successful flying machine,” exhibited before thousands of people at the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in Nashville.

Like much else published about the event, that’s not true.

It’s time for both a long-delayed correction and a more thorough account of Arthur Wallace Barnard’s flight through the skies over Nashville on May 6, 1897, and his few subsequent forays into the atmosphere.

At 11:15 a.m. that Thursday in Tennessee, with clear skies and a light breeze, Barnard stood beside a strange craft consisting of a large yellow balloon with floppy wings and an attached bicycle that had its pedals connected to large, flimsy propellers.

With a curious crowd gathered about him, fair officials at his side and a reporter from the Nashville Banner scribbling notes, Barnard mounted the bike, doffed his hat and declared, “Well, I’m off.”

With that, the silk and cotton balloon slowly rose overhead, initially tethered to the ground but then allowed to drift away, far above a railway line with Barnard vaguely in control of its direction. He wound up biking through the air for more than an hour, covering at least 20 miles before touching down safely among some willow trees.


Upon landing, Barnard complained that it had been quite cold up in the thin air, forcing him to turn up the collar of his coat to add a little extra warmth.

In those years before the Wright Brothers headed to Kitty Hawk and ushered in the true age of flight, Barnard’s journey seemed miraculous to some.

“First Trip In A Real Air Ship,” screamed a front-page headline in the San Francisco Examiner.

“He Sailed In The Heavens,” The Buffalo Evening News exclaimed in New York.

“This Airship A Flyer,” thundered The World in New York City.

Not to be outdone, the Nashville American called it, in bold type on page 1, “the greatest feat of the century,” putting Barnard’s sky cycle ahead of the invention of steamships, light bulbs, telephones and automobiles.


Toning it down slightly, Lewiston’s afternoon daily insisted only that Barnard had “beat all creation” by figuring out a way to take a controlled flight, apparently stirring immense pride in Auburn, where the paper said hearts were “exalted and lifted up” by his success.

The Journal claimed that Barnard had been “renowned as a believer in flying” during his time as secretary of Auburn’s YMCA and that he developed the idea of how to pull it off during his time in the Pine Tree State.

“Maine can therefore claim to be the birthplace of the idea of the first successful flying machine,” the paper said.

Let’s treat that line gently and say its assertion was …  an exaggeration.


Barnard, a physical education teacher for the Young Men’s Christian Association, lived in Auburn for a couple of years before moving to a similar job in Nashville. He called himself a professor.


Most of the news stories about his achievement, including the one in the Journal, went along with his preferred title, calling him Professor Barnard.

Professor A.W. Barnard in 1897 Iowa County Democrat

But it appears exceedingly unlikely he had earned the title from any institution.

In those days, though, grand titles were commonplace among snake oil salesmen, carnival barkers, showmen and more. It didn’t take years of slogging through a doctoral thesis to earn the appellation. It just took chutzpah.

In any case, for a man who racked up tens of thousands of column inches of newsprint around the world in 1897, little is known about Barnard.

He was born in Massachusetts in 1865, attended common schools there and then a military academy in Albany, New York, compiling a solid record as an amateur athlete.

Initially hired as a physical director for the YMCA in Tonawanda, New York, he moved on about 1889 to serve as physical director and general secretary for Auburn’s YMCA for two years.


Still working for the YMCA, he left for a position in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and then landed in Nashville.

The Journal’s story, apparently written by legendary Editor Frank Dingley, filled in a little more.

It said that Barnard, during his time in Auburn, had lived a “quiet, unassuming, Christian life.”

Barnard also authored an article for the newspaper on longevity, the story said, “beginning with a history of Methuselah,” a long-lived figure in the Bible, “and ending with David Loring,” an Auburn man who turned 100 that year after living “an uneventful life,” according to the Journal.

“Methuselah was blue-penciled,” the paper said, an indication the section had been stricken from the text, “but we saved the story of Mr. Loring.”

Regrettably, Barnard’s story is lost somewhere in a sea of fading ink on aging paper.


The Journal’s account of Barnard’s flight noted, too, that Barnard had won medals for his “feats of strength and skill in the gymnasium.”

After mentioning that Barnard “was renowned as a believer in flying” while he lived in Auburn, the piece added, “Here he developed his ideas, which later were formulated into plans and executed at Nashville.”


Working in secret in a large barn for about a year, Barnard managed to get together all the pieces he needed and assemble them just in time for the Tennessee centennial celebration, a major fair that covered the $1,200 tab that the inventor ran up as he got ready.

Long planned as a key attraction for the fair, he hauled the contraption out of the barn where he’d been constructing it and decided to take to the air.

As the balloon rose, Barnard later told reporters, “ I worked the aero planes and turned the machine around two or three times” in a strong breeze, enough to satisfy himself that he could control its direction to a degree.


A photograph from 1897 of Professor Barnard’s bicycle-powered balloon. The Nashville Tennessean

But, he said, since he wanted to take it slow, he decided to let the wind direction set his course, abandoning a plan to circle Nashville.

More than half-a-century later, C.J. O’Brien remembered looking up from his home in the city and seeing a cigar-shaped balloon overhead with a man up in the air below it “sitting on a bicycle-like frame, busily working hands and feet” to control it, according to a 1954 column in the Nashville Banner.

A 92-year-old Dora Oliver told The Tennessean in 1969 that she saw the flying machine circling what became Centennial Park.

“I’ll never forget the excitement of that moment,” Oliver said. “For anybody who saw that, I doubt that any trips to the moon, marvelous as they are, can ever equal that first flying machine over Nashville.”

Barnard said he drifted 20 miles to the west before he began looking for a spot to land.

“I had accomplished enough for one day,” Barnard said, so he began to let hydrogen out of the balloon so that it began to descend.


He spotted a field just beyond a village that looked like a good target, but overshot it slightly, snagging the balloon on a fence and falling over the rail into a willow. Barnard emerged unscathed.

Barnard caught a ride on a farm wagon back to his home in the city, where reporters found him.

One asked what he thought about his new fame.

“Oh, I don’t care about that,” Barnard said. He insisted he only cared about his creation, which he hoped would open the door to mastery of the air.

“I am well-pleased with the machine,” Barnard said later, according to the Lewiston Daily Sun. “I do not claim that I can master strongly adverse currents of air, but, under normal conditions, the machine can be controlled and return to its starting place.”



The invention by the Wright Brothers of a heavier-than-air flying machine in 1903 proved to be the catalyst for an era of aviation beyond anyone’s dreams in 1897.

But those who came before helped lay the foundation for Orville and Wilbur’s inspired tinkering and careful engineering.

An illustration of Professor Barnard’s airship from 1897. The Valentine (Nebraska) Democrat

Barnard’s notion of a balloon that could be controlled wasn’t ridiculous. The idea ultimately led to dirigibles hauling passengers and freight across the Atlantic until the explosion of the Hindenburg as it landed in New Jersey in 1937 shattered any hope of blimps becoming commonplace.

Barnard’s flight, though, wasn’t especially noteworthy, not worth even an asterisk in the history of balloon-based flight.

There was “nothing new or novel” about it,” Smithsonian Institution chief Samuel Langley told the New York Sun. The real trick, he said, was heavier-than-air flying machines, something he’d been working on for years. Balloons were no big deal, Langley said.

Men began rising in tethered balloons in the 17th century, perhaps first doing so in Portugal, and by the late 18th century, they’d figured out how to float through the air without being tethered to the ground.


In 1785, Jean Pierre François Blanchard and an American physician, John Jeffries, made the first flight across the English Channel, though they also wound up in the ocean before they threw almost everything overboard to stay airborne. Even Blanchard’s pants went over the side.

In 1852, Henri Giffard managed to construct a 144-foot-long balloon that could hold up a 350-pound steam engine, allowing him to fly 20 miles in Paris at about 6 mph, the first true airship.

In his wake, many other inventors came up with balloons that could be controlled with electric, gasoline or other engines, some of them reasonably successful. Some of them flew air bikes not so different than Barnard’s, though the photographs and drawings of them present quite an array of oddball designs.

Yet all of them were seen by few and none of their flights attracted wide attention beyond the cities where they happened.

What was different for Barnard, more than anything else, was the presence of reporters in an era when news could be transmitted widely and images of flying machines could be reprinted in penny newspapers across the world. It helped, too, that newspapers at the time were only too happy to make wild assertions in bold headlines that helped their teams of newsboys hawk them to harried passersby.

Take, for instance, The New York Journal and Advertiser.


It insisted in its front-page story that Barnard built his ship of aluminum with a prow “sharp as a needle” and six giant fans aligned “like mighty wings” along its side. The tale also mentioned several motors and lots of silk, before claiming that the wings flitted furiously like a bumblebee as they whizzed the craft out of sight.

For good measure, the story described Barnard himself as “muscular as a lion and as plucky as a bull terrier.”

It’s not surprising then that Barnard became instantly famous.

Still, nothing about his flight impressed The New York Times, which quibbled with Barnard’s false claim to be a professor and dismissed his invention as “a toy to play with on exceptionally calm days.”

A contemporary illustration of Professor Barnard’s modified balloon that appeared in a number of newspapers. Las Vegas Daily Optic


Barnard took to the sky in his air bike at least a few more times with varying degrees of luck.


But he appears to have given up the effort for good in June 1897 after the balloon attached to his cycle suddenly split along its seams 5,000 feet in the air above Nashville.

A reporter for The Philadelphia Times said that on takeoff the perhaps overfilled balloon “shot away like a mighty bird” when Barnard told an assistant to release the rope holding it down.

As it rose, the streets quickly filled with people watching the strange contraption from far below as it ascended.

“When it had become a mere speck against the sky,” the story said, “the spectators suddenly saw it reverse its course and begin to fall.”

As the balloon plummeted, it lost most of its gas and its “loose sides were flopping like so many streamers,” the story said. Sometimes it fell with fierce velocity but other times it slowed as the air caught the remnants of the bag that had held hydrogen.

Finally, the story said, the balloon flattened out and, by sheer luck, served as a sort of makeshift parachute swaying from side to side harshly enough that watchers feared Barnard would be thrown off his bike.


In the end, though, the wrecked craft hit the ground and snagged against a fence, leaving Barnard stunned but not injured.

He talked to reporters, headed home and quietly vanished from the pages of history.

What happened to him after that day is uncertain. He went from worldwide celebrity to utter invisibility in little more than a month, leaving no clear trace in news accounts, census records or any easily available piece of writing.

Barnard, in short, fell out of sight after falling out of the sky. But for a brief time, with amazed crowds below him and an audience across the globe eager for news of his exploits, nobody flew higher.

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