Elijah Swan’s Inventions

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Inventions Designed While On The Pliddel Plantation

cotton picker“A device for picking cotton, which may reduce the average time of harvesting to one-forth its current duration.” Invented by Swan while a slave on the Pliddel plantation, with the goal of cutting down the slaves’ working hours.  Instead it merely raised the plantation owner’s expectations about how much could be accomplished in a day.

aerial planter“Based on Archimedes’ principle of Buoyancy and Newton’s First Law of Motion, The Aerial Planter…(text illegible)… floating envelope to ease the burden of seed distribution.”  Invented on the Pliddel plantation, and shortly thereafter modified into an escape vehicle (see below.)

modified planter“Removed tethers and seed distribution buckets.  Attach (sic) chairs, equally spaced from center of balloon.”  In it the Swans escaped the Pliddel plantation.  Since it had no steering, however, they failed to reach the North, and instead were blown south to the Outer Banks, where they touched down in the midst of the Battle of Ft. Macon.

Inventions Designed While With The 13th R.I.

flying needle launcherDevised shortly after Swan joined the 13th Rhode Island in 1862, the Flying Needle Launcher was invented to remedy the fact that the regiment’s “Contraband” (former slaves) had not been issued arms prior to the 13th’s detachment from the U.S. Army proper.  This ingenious weapon could be constructed in the field from readily available materials.

paddle balloonWhile deployed with the 13th Rhode Island, Swan begins to revisit the idea of practical air travel.  The Paddle Balloon is his first known attempt to design a steerable hot-air balloon.  Note Swan’s assessment of this particular idea: “Doubtful!”


prop balloonAnother attempt, this time changing out the paddles for propellers.   Swan’s verdict on the Propeller Balloon: “Will not work!”transparentspacer

four balloons with sailHere Swan tries a Four Balloons With Sail design.  It is unclear as to why he suddenly decided that more airbags were needed, but it appears that he did not revisit the idea subsequent to this rendering.  Swan deemed this design “Impracticable!”

single balloonA streamlined revision of the previous design, Swan none-the-less unflinchingly adjudged the Single Balloon With Sail a “Stupid Idea!”


Palm BombAlthough we know from Colonel Hale’s diary that Swan designed a multitude of machines and weapons for the 13th Rhode Island, this rendering of the Palm Bomb is one of the very few to come down to us.  According to Hale a prototype of this ordinance was built, but it’s destructive effects were deemed so terrible that it was never put into production.

air boatSwan’s final attempt at a steerable balloon, the Self-Propelled Maneuverable Air Boat was nothing less than a fully realized airship, incorporating a cylindrical airbag, sophisticated flight control surfaces, and a pedal-powered propeller.  Although at the time this rendering was made Swan assessed his design “Inconclusive,” the vehicle later proved a success when it was utilized during the battle of Pussy Willow Creek to drop the so-called “dope bombs” on the enemy.

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