NAA History Series: Part 3

NAA History Series: Part 3

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

Strictly speaking, the National Aeronautic Association got its start in 1905 as the Aero Club of America, the predecessor group from which NAA emerged in 1922, but as we have been exploring in this series of articles, the true roots of the Association go back to America’s Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s, when inventive minds were changing the country’s landscape both figuratively and literally.

One of the technological marvels of the late 19th century was the “safety” bicycle, so called because of its novel design, which used two wheels of equal or near-equal size and pedals driving the rear wheel–a significant improvement over earlier types. Beginning in the 1880s, safety bikes caught on in a big way, attracting the attention of small businessmen like Wilbur and Orville Wright in Ohio, who opened a bicycle sales and repair shop in 1893 after becoming bike owners themselves the previous year.

As we saw in Part 2 of our story, the bicycle created a whole new way of thinking about personal transportation, which to that point in time had been almost exclusively the domain of the horse, at least on dry land. Rather suddenly–particularly in urban areas–there was an alternative to the horse for various uses. In terms of social change, that was a very liberating idea and it contributed quite naturally to the larger question of what else technology might offer to move people individually or in small numbers without the use of animal power?

The answer to that question lay in a curious connection. In 1896, a newspaper editor in Binghamton, New York, writing about new modes of transportation, made the observation, “The flying machine will not be the same shape, or at all in the style of the numerous kinds of cycles, but the study to produce a light, swift machine is likely to lead to an evolution in which wings will play a conspicuous part.” In other words, bicyclists will figure out how to fly.

As we look back today, such a remark jumps off the page as spookily accurate, not only because the Wright Brothers’ experience with bicycles helped them invent the airplane, but because the bicycle led indirectly to the success of another major invention that unintentionally helped promote the cause of aviation, including the founding of the Aero Club of America. This happened as follows:

First, the bicycle spun off a number of innovations important to development of the automobile, another product of the Industrial Revolution. As Tom Crouch, in his biography of the Wright Brothers, says, “The bicycle bridged the gap between the age of the horse and that of the automobile. It marked the first convergence of technologies crucial to automobile production, ranging from electrical welding and work on ball-bearings to experience with chain-and-shaft transmission systems, metal-stamping technology, and the manufacture of rubber tires. “A good example of this is the saga of Albert Pope, usually referred to by his honorary title of Colonel in recognition of his Civil War service. In 1877, he started a bicycle importing business in New England, which he quickly turned into a bicycle manufacturing business, with facilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Over the next few decades, his Columbia bikes became a familiar name in the marketplace. The bikes that Wilbur and Orville bought in 1892 were Columbias.

Early in the game, Pope recognized that sales of bikes were more or less captive to the environment in which people wanted to ride. Simply put, lousy roads meant limited sales. So in 1880, Pope started what he called the Wheeling Association to lobby for better roads and encourage the formation of bicycle clubs. That strategy, as events unfolded, had profound implications for turn-of-the-century America, because it established a paradigm for the development of new technology. That same year, another organization got going–The League of American Wheelmen–with much the same purpose as Pope’s: urging improvements in roads, signs, and maps. By 1898, the League was claiming 102,000 members, among them Wilbur and Orville Wright.

In our next installment, we will examine how the “Good Roads” movement pioneered by Colonel Pope and other promoters paid benefits that spilled over not just to automobiles but to airplanes.