NAA History Series: Part 1

NAA History Series: Part 1

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

How does the history of NAA begin? Not exactly as you might expect.

Officially, NAA’s date of birth is 1905, the year that a group of men in New York City organized the Aero Club of America, which later evolved into the National Aeronautic Association. In recognition of that date, the Association has launched preparations for its 100th birthday celebration two years from now.

But if we dig a little deeper in the historical record, we can trace NAA’s origins back farther than 1905–back, in fact, to events that were happening when the Wright Brothers were still children. To properly follow this somewhat-winding trail into the past, we need to recall what life in the United States was like over a century ago.

Unlike the end of the 1900s, the end of the 1800s was a period of unbridled economic expectations. The Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century had triggered a stream of innovations that virtually reinvented the civilized world. As every schoolchild knows, products such as the typewriter (1867), the phonograph (1877), the light bulb (1879), and the Brownie camera (1900) were all developed during the post-Civil War boom in technology. Even Coca-Cola made its appearance at this time (1886).

Another date familiar to schoolchildren is 1876, the year of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. On practically anyone’s short list of really important historic moments, you are likely to find Bell’s brief voice transmission by wire to his assistant Thomas Watson on March 10, 1876.

But, for reasons far less obvious, 1876 is also a date important to aviation, because two things occurred that year that would come together in a roundabout way to produce an airplane in 1903 and a national organization devoted to flying in 1905.

First, a German traveling salesman and mechanical tinkerer, Nicolaus Otto, devised the first practical, four-cycle, internal-combustion engine in 1876. That, in turn, encouraged other inventors, including fellow Germans Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, who improved upon Otto’s design in 1885 and adapted it the following year to a stagecoach, thus building the world’s first viable four-wheeled, gasoline-powered horseless carriage. In 1889, they went one better, designing a gas-fueled vehicle from the ground up–the first true automobile. Close on their heels was another German, Karl Benz, who introduced a four-wheeled, internal-combustion car in 1891.

In a second development in 1876, an Englishman, Harry Lawson, designed a “safety” version of a new-fangled contraption known as a bicycle. A safety bicycle was configured with two wheels of the same size for stability. Although Lawson’s idea did not catch on immediately, it set the stage for America’s bicycle craze of the 1880s and 1890s–the same craze that prompted Wilbur and Orville Wright to open a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1893 to supplement their income from a small printing business. At the time they started Wright Cycle Exchange, there were already 13 other bicycle stores or repair shops in the city.

In the case of the Wrights, the historical link between the bicycle and aviation is easy to identify. Not only did the bicycle provide the Wright Brothers with a livelihood, it provided them with work space–and later with a source of skilled labor (their assistant Charles Taylor)–for building mechanical things. Consequently, when they became interested in the subject of flying in 1899, they were well positioned to undertake experiments.

Not so evident is the historical link between bicycles and the beginnings of NAA. To that part of the story–and to how the automobile fits into the picture–we will turn in Part 2 of this series on “NAA’s First Century.”