NAA History Series: Part 5

NAA History Series: Part 5

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

Automobiles and airplanes practically grew up together–largely because of the one thing they had in common: an internal-combustion engine.

Automobiles had a slight headstart. In the early 1890s, while two brothers named Wright were getting into the bicycle business in Ohio, two brothers in Massachusetts–Charles and Frank Duryea–were getting out of the bicycle business to concentrate on making cars. In 1895, they won America’s first road race, staged in Chicago, in one of their “motor wagons.” The following year, they set up a manufacturing company–the first to sell gasoline-powered autos in the United States.

Automobiles were a rich man’s toy in the early days and mostly an urban phenomenon, since prices tended to be high and suitable roads were hard to find beyond heavily populated areas. For these two reasons, it was mainly prominent and near-prominent people in larger cities who began to organize auto clubs to promote the new technology for both recreational and commercial purposes. In 1899 for example, the same year that Wilbur and Orville Wright became interested in flying, the Automobile Club of America was founded in New York City by a number of well-placed citizens.

Not surprisingly, sportsmen and other people enthusiastic about autos were also intrigued by another newly emerging form of transportation: the gas balloon. For the most part, ballooning and aviation were synonymous in the public mind, since the only other method of flying–gliders–was still very experimental. And only a few individuals had tried attaching a motor to a glider-type device, none with any success (except for a few unmanned designs). The Wrights would be the first to do it, in 1903.

The close connection between cars and balloons produced a colorful cast of entrepreneurs. In England, auto manufacturer Charles Rolls–best known for his partnership with Henry Royce–got involved with ballooning in the early 1900s and flew competitively. Ironically, he died in 1910 in the crash of an airplane built under license from the Wright Brothers.

In France, a wealthy Brazilian of French ancestry, Alberto Santos-Dumont, indulged his taste for adventure by testing “steerable balloons and automobiles,” both true novelties in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Although some of his friends thought he was suicidal, Santos-Dumont explained his behavior quite simply: “My automobiling experience has stood me in good stead with my airships. I owe all my success to the combustible engine.”

Santos-Dumont’s exploits garnered him headlines around the world. In New York, members of the Automobile Club of America were sufficiently impressed by his efforts that in 1904, they awarded him the Club’s first honorary membership. Like him, they were attracted to ballooning as well as to cars and saw in him the kind of daring and forward-thinking to which they believed the upper classes in society were called. As Bill Robie, NAA’s official historian, has written:

“The wealthy in America, as elsewhere, espoused a new doctrine known as social Darwinism. This pseudoscience taught, and the powerful eagerly believed, that the principles of biological evolution also worked within the social structure. It stated that those who were characteristically brave and strong were the fittest leaders, ones who must, by the ‘laws of nature,’ inevitably assume positions of power.” As a result, such men “set about confirming to themselves that they were, indeed, the best suited to leadership. They participated in vigorous sports like big-game hunting, long-distance automobile touring, and aviation.”

The Automobile Club’s recognition of Santos-Dumont was a sign of things to come. Although most of the Club’s founders had never actually flown in a balloon, they did not need any prompting to realize that Europe’s successful balloon demonstrations presented both opportunities and challenges to Americans to push the same envelope in the States. That, however, was easier said than done; the U.S. had no high-profile figure like Santos-Dumont to lead the way.

Undeterred, officers of the Automobile Club decided to take a cue from the Massachusetts Automobile Club, which had served in 1902 as incubator of America’s first aeronautical organization, the Aero Club of New England (ACONE). Chief mover and shaker behind ACONE was Charles J. Glidden, a native New Englander who went to work as a teenager for a telegraph office in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. His career took off a few years later when he helped Alexander Graham Bell conduct tests of Bell’s new invention, the telephone. Glidden and other investors subsequently established a network of telephone companies that Glidden’s syndicate sold to Bell in 1900, leaving Glidden with what one writer describes as the “leisure and means to devote the rest of his life to motoring and aviation, in which, successively, he became interested.”

In late 1904, New York City Magistrate Leroy Crane addressed a meeting of the Automobile Club of America to ask that the organization encourage safer operation of cars both for the benefit of the public and for the benefit of an industry trying to establish the automobile as a reliable form of transportation. Auto safety was in the news at that moment because of the recent hit-and-run death of a farmer at Pelham, New York.

Charles Glidden, along with four other key personalities in the Automobile Club, recognized that Crane’s remarks could just as easily apply to flying machines as to horseless carriages. Both technologies needed some degree of regulation as well as promotion. The five men put together a plan to spin off a new group–the Aero Club of America–modeled on the Automobile Club and devoted to aviation both as a sport and as a venture with great business potential. The timing was right. Not only was ballooning drawing crowds, people like Santos-Dumont and Germany’s Ferdinand von Zeppelin were developing airships, and a multitude of inventors, from inept to serious, was working on powered airframes. There were even reports that two men in Ohio had successfully flown.

Glidden’s partners in envisioning the Aero Club were Augustus Post, Homer W. Hedge, David H. Morris, and John F. O’Rourke. In our next installment, we will meet these men and mark the takeoff of their new organization.