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Cowan, Richard W.
Autograph Letter Signed, Montreal July 26, 1878 to Dr. Abel Hureau de Villeneuve, Rue Lafayette 95, Paris

quarto, 2 pages, formerly folded, neatly inscribed in ink, foredge of first page browned, otherwise in very good, clean and legible condition.

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“Dear Sir,

As I am a subscriber to the “Aéronaute” & possess a complete fyle [sic] of the work, I take the liberty of sending you a copy of the plans and specifications of a new flying machine or improvements in “Aerial Paddle Wheels” for which Mr. Chas Pagé & myself have obtained letters Patent.

We simply claim that with the use of our invention we can so control a balloon in ascending or descending that there need be no loss of Gas or ballast. I would remark that the Paddles are so arranged that at least one on each side of the aerial car or submarine boat shall be at right angles. The arm which projects from the bearing-sleeve, to hold firmly the paddles at right angles to the car during a portion of their revolution, may be adjusted to different radial positions in order that the paddles shall present their flat surfaces to the resisting medium from above, below, in front &c.

We are in search of a suitable motor of say three horse power to work our invention but have not found one as yet. Can we be permitted to ask you to recommend one to us that will combine the following excellencies, viz lightness, simplicity in construction and durability. Will you also kindly favor us with your ideas upon the best kind of balloon as regards to make & finish that you would recommend for our purposes. We want a balloon with a lifting capacity of 2500 or 3000 lbs.

An estimate of the probable cost would also greatly oblige. I shall be most happy to remunerate you for trouble or expense you may incur on our account. We have applied through our representatives for a “Brevet” for France.

I remain Dear Sir Yours Very Truly

R. W. Cowan”


Charles Pagé was a machinist and inventor. He had the idea to suspend a gondola below a balloon equipped with two propellers which would be made to turn by a hand crank located in the basket. These propellers were called “fans” or “paddles”. Considered a remarkably new concept, at the time, Pagé is generally credited with being one of the earliest machinists to evolve the idea of using propellers in the air. By their use balloons could then be steered, instead of merely being subject to the winds. He formed an alliance with Richard W. Cowan, a Montreal merchant and flight enthusiast, who provided financial support. While they had hoped for a more aerodynamic cigar shape for their balloon, financial considerations forced a compromise use of the standard round form.

On July 31, 1879, Cowan and Pagé flew The Canadian, the first balloon to be built in Canada, ascending from the Shamrock Lacrosse Grounds in Montreal.

This letter reveals that Cowan was far more involved in the design than he had previously been credited. Most importantly, in the letter offered here, which was written over a year before their first flight, Cowan was attempting to source an internal combustion engine to power the crank propellers.

In 1872 Paul Haenlein flew the first (tethered) internal combustion motor-powered balloon, but it was not until 26 years later, in 1898, that the first untethered airship powered by an internal combustion engine was flown by Alberto Santos Dumont.

          Cowan and Pagé acquired U.S. Patent No. 204,296, on May 28, 1878 for their “Aerial Paddle-Wheel.”