NAA History Series: Part 2

NAA History Series: Part 2

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

You have heard it said that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.

If you harbor any doubt on this point, consider the history of NAA.

In Part 1 of this series, we reported that the Association’s true beginnings can be traced back beyond the Wright Brothers to two developments in the 1870s, when Wilbur and Orville were still children. As strange as that claim may sound, it happened as follows: the two developments in question came together in a roundabout way to contribute to the invention of the airplane in 1903 and to formation of a national aviation organization–the Aero Club of America, NAA’s predecessor–in 1905.

The two developments were: (1) the engineering of a practical internal-combustion engine, and (2) the engineering of a practical bicycle.

The inclusion of an engine on this list will come as no surprise to modern readers, but the inclusion of the bicycle might. What about the bicycle could make it rank with the internal-combustion engine as a significant factor in either the airplane’s origins or NAA’s story?

Part of the answer, as we mentioned in Part 1, is that improvements in bicycle design in the 1870s turned the bicycle into a hot consumer product in the 1880s and 1890s. That’s what led the Wright Brothers to open a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1893. Either by chance or by providence, depending on your point of view, opening the shop meant the brothers had both the opportunity and the physical resources (tools, workspace, etc.) to experiment with mechanical devices. Not incidentally, they also had the services of a shop assistant, Charlie Taylor, an experienced machinist who joined them in 1901and subsequently did most of the work building a gasoline engine for them for their 1903 Flyer.

Not nearly as easy to discern when we look back at the late 1800s is the indirect influence of the bicycle on aviation’s future. The bicycle’s success had two unintended consequences for American society that helped generate interest in aeronautics and set the stage for the emergence of the Aero Club just two years after the Wright Brothers’ Flyer made its debut at Kitty Hawk.

The first effect of the bicycle was to change the idea of personal transportation. As hard as it is to imagine today, the world of 100 years ago was still largely defined by the horse as the primary short-haul mover of people and goods on land. Railroads had revolutionized intercity travel, but horses remained a mainstay of everyday experience. In fact, according to one source, the “bicycle actually evolved from a little wooden horse with a fixed front wheel, which was invented in France in the 1790s.” The bicycle thus became, in one sense, the first horseless carriage.

To be sure, the bicycle was not a direct substitute for a horse and was not generally perceived as such. Rather, it took on symbolic value as an alternative form of personal freedom. The Industrial Age was opening the door to new kinds of mobility. And inventors were quick to move in. Just as they began to adapt engines of various kinds to wagons and carriages, it did not take them long to also strap engines on bicycles. Technology was giving a whole new meaning to the notion of “wind in your face.”

Take just one example. In the early 1890s in Rochester, New York, a teenager named Glenn Curtiss took a job as a bicycle messenger for Western Union. He also began riding cycles competitively and eventually went to work in a bicycle shop in his hometown of Hammondsport, New York. In 1901, he attached a mail-order motor to one of his bikes and tried it out in a public demonstration, with near-disasterous results. Undeterred, he built a new bike, this time with an engine of his own design. The new model worked so well, he started a company to manufacture small engines and motorcycles.

In 1904, a California showman named Thomas Baldwin ordered a Curtiss engine to hook to a balloon. This led in a few years to a joint venture by Baldwin and Curtiss to build airships. In 1906, Curtiss approached the Wright Brothers in hopes of selling them aircraft engines, but they declined his offer. The following year, he teamed up with Alexander Graham Bell to design an airplane, the June Bug, with which he won a trophy in 1908. Curtiss’s fascination with speed, born on the seat of a bicycle, had thus transfigured him by fits and starts into a pioneer aviator.

Curtiss’s experience was hardlly unique. Sportsmen and entrepreneurs everywhere were enthralled by the possibilities of new machines to overcome the traditional boundaries of travel. And the bicycle would play one more role in the process. We will explore that part of the story next time.