NAA History Series: Part 4

NAA History Series: Part 4

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds…very general and very particular, immense and small…. In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”

That may sound like a modern commentator talking, but in fact it is Alexis de Tocqueville writing about his trip to the U.S. in the early 1830s. De Tocqueville’s observations go a long way toward explaining the origins of the National Aeronautic Association, which grew out of the old Aero Club of America, founded in 1905. Americans, indeed, love to organize themselves around common interests, and the Aero Club is a good example. The only twist, as we began to examine in Part 3 of this series of articles, is that the Aero Club did not owe its existence directly to aviators but, rather, indirectly to enthusiasts for another kind of locomotion: the bicycle. Here’s how it happened:

Bicycling became a popular sport in America in the 1880s following development of the “safety” bike, which used two wheels of the same size and other innovations to make riding a lot more practical than it had been previously. In short order, cycling clubs began to appear in towns and cities and join with bicycle manufacturers to instigate the “Good Roads” movement aimed at creating the best possible environment–upgraded roads, favorable regulations, more services, etc.–for cyclists. In 1883, for example, the League of American Wheelmen was able to defeat an attempt in Ohio to prohibit the use of bikes. We can only imagine how the story of aviation would have played out if that proposition had succeeded. Wilbur and Orville Wright opened their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1893.

Good roads, however, did not have just one constituency. What was good for bikes was also good for another invention showing up in the late 1800s: the automobile. There was, in fact, considerable overlap between the evolution of the two technologies. Take the case of Albert Pope, whose Columbia line of bicycles claimed a large share of the industry at the turn of the century (Wilbur and Orville Wright both owned Columbias). Pope quickly realized that the advances he was making in tires, drive systems, and other aspects of bicycle construction were applicable to horseless carriages. In 1892, he expanded his business to include motor carriage production. Over the next few years, he bought up or developed additional designs and by 1897 was selling cars for $3,000 each.

And Pope was not alone. Two brothers, Frank and Charles Duryea, turned from building bicycles to building automobiles in the early 1890s, and managed to win America’s first auto race, staged in Chicago in 1895.

As de Tocqueville had foreseen, automobiles generated the same kind of organizing frenzy that bicycles were generating. By 1899, a national group–the Automobile Club of America–was up and running. And better roads were the primary agenda. As early as 1898, in Los Angeles, transportation officials were treating roads with oil in an effort to reduce the dust stirred up by auto wheels.

But the future of the automobile at this moment in time was not at all obvious, with or without good roads. The problem was the powerplant. Auto makers were divided in their opinions as to which type of engine–steam, gasoline, or electric–was the most promising. Steam and electric were proving more popular, but that was because development of the internal-combustion engine had lagged behind the others. It was not until 1889 that German engineer Gottlieb Daimler and his partner Wilhelm Maybach designed a gasoline-powered vehicle from the ground up.

Then, on January 10, 1901, the culture of the automobile as we know it today was decided in a single, stupendous event. In the middle of nowhere–a salt dome near Beaumont, Texas–mud began spitting from a drilling site, sending startled roughnecks running for their lives as six tons of pipe came blasting out of the hole, followed by dirt, rocks, gas, and a tower of black oil. It was America’s first great gusher: the Spindletop oilfield. Suddenly, auto makers had the best possible reason to think about internal combustion: cheap fuel.

Spindletop opened the gates for huge new industries, not just automotive but aeronautical. When the Wright Brothers built their first powered machine in 1903, they designed their own gasoline engine. The die had been cast not just for them but for virtually all aircraft manufacturers who were to follow in their footsteps.

So too did the Automobile Club of America look out upon an horizon of vast possibilities. And already, as we shall see in our next installment, some members of the Club had an eye on aviation.