A discovery of an auction item of Dan Dare-related art by Frank Hampson sheds welcome light on the artist and writer’s visionary design work, and how he not only drew on contemporary design but came up with all-new inventions for the “Dan Dare” comic strip for Eagle, some that would become reality.
Auctioned in 2017 by Donnington-based Dreweatts, the lot is described here as “A small archive of original inventions for various forms of space transport” designed by Frank Hampson, comprising a signed sheet depicting six different craft, of which four were invented by Hampson and two represent comparable designs manufactured for the US military, specifically Hampson’s 1950 annotated design for the “Dare Helicar“, compared with the very similar McDonnell Convertiplane of 1953, and the “Dare Troop Carrier‘, also of 1950, with the US Army Rolligon of 1956.
The Helicar initially appeared in several episodes of the first “Dan Dare” story from the first issue of Eagle onwards, and was also the subject of one of the Dan Dare-inspired cards published by Manchester-based card company Calvert in 1954.
The McDonnell XV-1 Convertiplane was an experimental compound gyroplane developed for a joint research program between the United States Air Force and the United States Army, to explore technologies to develop an aircraft that could take off and land like a helicopter but fly at faster airspeeds, similar to a conventional airplane.
The Smithsonian notes that early helicopter engineers soon realised that retreating blade-stall would greatly limit the maximum forward speed of rotary-winged aircraft, limiting them limited to less than about 209 kph (130 mph). If helicopters were to rival airplanes in utility, they would have to approach comparable airplane speeds. By the early 1950s, the Army was greatly interested in increasing the mobility of its forces and Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft, which combined the best features of airplanes and helicopters, seemed to be the ideal solution.
The McDonnell XV-1 was one attempt to push a VTOL aircraft through this barrier, McDonnell aware that the retreating blade-stall handicap not only limited helicopters aerodynamically, it capped their sales potential too.
Without more speed, helicopters could never challenge fixed-wing airplanes as the most popular flying machines. Many experts believed that the number of helicopters in private, commercial, and military service could someday rival, and even replace, the fixed-wing airplanes serving those groups.
The “Troop Carrier” featured was a machine of Dan’s allies on Venus in his first story in Eagle, initially appearing, briefly, in Issue 12, transporting Dan and party to the Theron city.
It’s an indication of how much work that went into creating the strip that one machine, featured so little, went through the same design process as everything else Frank Hampson and his team came up with for the ground-breaking comic strip.
Rolligon is a trademark name for large, low pressure tires, designed to traverse the soft ground surfaces of the tundra. The product was invented by William Hamilton Albee in 1951, after he had seen Inuit using inflated seal hides to drag a heavy boat on shore during a trip to Alaska.
Because the weight of the vehicle is spread over a much larger surface compared to conventional tyres, the pressure is much lower. This prevents the vehicle from getting stuck, and limits damage to vulnerable plants of the tundra.
Sadly, Albee failed to turn the concept into a successful business and Amusing Planet notes his company ran into financial troubles, forcing Albee to sell his company’s assets, in 1960, to John G. Holland, who renamed the company Rolligon Corporation.
The trademark now owned by the Texas-based National Oilwell Varco, the world’s leading supplier of equipment and components used in oil and gas drilling. NOV still manufacturers Rolligon-equipped vehicles, their biggest clients oil companies operating in northern Alaska.
The other two drawings featured in the auction lot were Frank’s “Theron Flying House in Bubble of Air”, and the small “Jepeet”, and a published frame depicting his “Treen Flying Chair” mounted lower right.
Pencil drawings on wove paper, the sheet measures 325 x 210mm, and was signed in ink lower right, circa 1958. Also included in the lot were Hampson’s typescript list on five sheets of 36 inventions and innovations, most with descriptions, with a parallel column listing similar concepts that had coincidentally or otherwise reached fruition; with a covering letter on Eagle headed paper, dated 23rd October 1958, gifting the drawings and list to a young fan, the vendor, signed on Hampson’s behalf.
The lot came with a small collection of related press cuttings, reviews and obituaries.
The auction description notes “Frank Hampson (1918-1985) “revolutionised the comic-book hero with the creation of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, as the cover story of a new, wholesomely British, comic to inspire a post-war generation, the Eagle, launched in 1950 in collaboration of the Rev. Marcus Morris.
“A huge part of its success stemmed from the thorough research and technological intelligence that underpinned the credibility of this vision of the future, blurring the lines between science fiction and fact. The 5 sheets of Hampson’s inventions, brought to life by the accompanying sheet of drawings, stand as testimony to his inventive genius, which found the perfect stimulus and outlet through this comic hero of the 1950s.
“Each sheet represents a year’s creativity, in 1950, Q, R, S and U. Compiled in 1958, and generously sent to a young schoolboy in response to his fan mail, the list of comparable executed designs could have been much longer had it been drawn up a few decades later, such with his amazing prescience. Examples in 1950 include his inventions of the Helicar, 3D television, and electro-magnetic transport along vacuum tubes; in 1951 ‘Treen’ reflector space ships reflecting radio waves like later satellites, his satellite space station SFJ2 which he notes closely matches the description of the projected Sputnik spacecraft, as does his design for a dog space suit; in 1952 he invented a vertical take-off jet, four years before the first crude attempts at the ‘Flying Bedstead’ that eventually evolved int the Harrier Jump Jet. His advanced thinking also encompassed other aspects of life and society in the future, such as an immersive ‘Food Bath’, suspended animation, a U.N. police force in 1951, and in the same year he lists ‘Coloured General in command of mixed U.N. force, addressed as “Sir” and saluted by Dan & Co. – Accepted without comment by readers’.
“A true visionary who, sadly, died penniless due to relinquishing control of his creation, as a matter of principle, to new publishers who had other ideas about the future, but not before being honoured as the first ‘Prestigio Maestro’ and the biannual comic convention in Lucca, in 1979.”
As with previous posts featuring Frank Hampson’s design work, such as this one, featuring art created during the making of “Reign of the Robots”, while some of his designs don’t quite measure up to the realities of engineering, his vision of the future was often quite breath taking.
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