Did you know that Oregon’s own version of Nicola Tesla was raised and died in Benton County? If his biggest project, an all-aluminum airship had not failed, perhaps he would have been better remembered in history.
Thomas Benton Slate was born in Tangent and raised in Alsea. During World War I, he designed aircraft technology for the Allies. According to Offbeat Oregon, Slate called this time of his life “the highlight of my inventive career.”
After the Great War, he built what was possibly the world’s first motorhome, what he called a “Housecar.” It was essentially a large box on top of a Ford TT one-ton truck, and Slate and his family used it to travel cross-country.
When they moved to the East Coast in the early 1920s, Slate founded a company called DryIce, having discovered a cost-effective way to make CO2 ice. This business was a big success, and it’s the reason we call CO2 ice “dry ice.”
Slate came back to the West Coast after selling his business and settled in Glendale with his family. With his wealth from DryIce, he and his two brothers started Slate Aircraft Co. and leased land at Glendale Airport.
At the time, Slate saw many problems with airships which he wanted to fix: first, the vessels were full of an explosive gas, hydrogen; second, they required large ground infrastructure; and third, they were vulnerable to heavy weather.
In hopes of addressing these issues, Slate decided to build an all-aluminum airship – one that was completely fireproof, would stay in the air at all times – never landing at airports and always hovering over hotels and resorts, and was practically stormproof. He called the airship the City of Glendale.
However, Slate’s airship failed when, while building, the California heat became too much for the aluminum hull. Due to the temperature, the pressure-release valve stuck and exploded. Slate and his crew found that the damage it had done was not fixable.
Slate didn’t give up, however. He sought to raise funds for a second model. Unfortunately, by that time, the U.S. had entered the Great Depression, and he could not find investors or money for the project.
In 1931, Slate Aircraft Co. filed for bankruptcy.
Later on, Slate’s son Claude tried to revive his father’s business and ideas, but nothing came of his attempts. And after 1937, the public had been turned off by the idea of airship travel due to the Hindenburg Disaster, in which an airship fell flaming out of the sky in New Jersey and killed 36 passengers and crewmembers.
Slate and his family later returned to Oregon. He continued to invent and file for patents, which included plans for a cyclone-generating device to remove smog from the air and a reimagined flying-boat, according to Offbeat Oregon.
Slate died in November of 1980, a week before his 100th birthday.
By Cara Nixon