Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
Starting in 1908 and 1909, aviation began to have an impact on the public conscience and imagination, evidenced by its appearance in popular culture of the day, including music, books and films.
Tens of thousands of people saw the Wrights fly at Ft. Myer in 1908 and1909. In February 1909, Congress recognized the Wright’s work and in July Glenn Curtiss won the Scientific American Trophy. In September 1909 thousands of New Yorkers saw Wilbur Wright fly from Governors Island, around the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River, past Grants Tomb. During 1910 both the Wrights and Curtiss opened flying schools and organized aerial exhibition teams. Across the country the public was given a chance at county fairs, circuses, and flying meets to witness firsthand the new technical wonder. These exhibitions and meets were extremely popular and they exposed people all across the land to flying.
One sign of the growing interest in aviation could be seen in its appearance as a topic in popular culture. Songs, books and films started appearing with aeronautical themes. The very popular song, “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” appeared in 1910. Juvenile novels with an aviation theme began in 1908 with such series as the “Boy Aviators” by Captain Wilbur Lawton, the “Bird Boys” by Langworthy, and the “Aeroplane Boys” by Ashton Lamar.
The female of the species was not forgotten either. For girl readers there was a series called the “Girl Aviators” (advertised as “clean aviation stories”) by Margaret Burnham; and a book, “Virginia of the Air Lanes,” by Herbert Quick.
Existing juvenile characters were not forgotten as Tom Swift, the Motor Boys, the Rover Boys, and Ben Hardy also discovered the flying machine and took to the air. Titles in 1910 were not too imaginative, with phrases such as “in the sky,” “in the clouds,” “among the clouds,” and “in the air” appearing regularly.
Though flying machines were not at many locations in the real world in 1910, they were scattered far and wide in the world of fiction with such places as “to the North Pole,” “in Nicaragua,” “in the Antarctic,” and “in the Tropics” as locales for the stories. By 1910 more than 20 of these novels had been published.
The Aeroplane Boys series by Aston Lamar included: “ln the Clouds for Uncle Sam,” “The Stolen Airplane,” “The Aeroplane Express,” and “The Boy Aeronautics’ Club.” The publisher of the series, Reilley & Britton of Chicago, promised, “These stories are the newest and most up-to-date. All aeroplane details are correct.”
The aeroplane in “The Aeroplane Express” was described as follows: “The flying machine had used two plane surfaces, but instead of being superimposed, one was behind the other, and, instead of being practically flat surfaces, his two planes were curved … The frame is of Oregon spruce and bamboo, the planes of rubberized silk balloon cloth. The powerplant is a four-cylinder, gasoline, water-cooled motorcycle engine, 25 hp.”
The Wrights’ patent infringement lawsuit of 1909 seems to have impacted the novel as the fictional manufacturer of the flying machine stated to a potential customer, “We have purchased every patent that we believe is needed in making a high-class aeroplane.”
It is interesting to see the notion of a “plane in every garage” mentioned in such an early flying story. The factory owner again said, “with our facilities we mean to popularize aeroplanes until they become as common as automobiles.”
Later in the story, after the passenger said he thought that flying looked easy, the pilot (our 17-year-old hero) remarks “Everyone’ll do it in a few years. I guess I won’t have my job very long.”
This novel also gives an indication of a possible commercial use of the airplane. The purchaser of the plane ran a mining company in Utah and he thought the craft would be a good way to keep in communication with his prospecting parties in the desert: “We’ve got from four to eight prospectin’ parties out on them deserts all the time. For weeks and months we don’t hear from them. It would be a big help if we could keep in touch with them. They say an aeroplane can travel 45 miles an hour. Why can’t I use it to keep track of our prospectors?”
The airplane builder in the novel said there would be no trouble providing a machine to do the job, but finding the pilot would be difficult. “That’s the one trouble that confronts us — we have as yet developed no training-schools for aviators, as we have schools for chauffeurs.”
In contrast to the other series of novels in which the aircraft for the most part were patterned after the
Wright Flyer, the novel “Virginia of the Air Lanes” introduces a new type of aircraft. As the novel begins, the first chapter “Maidens Fell from the Sky” features characters on the shore of Mobile, Alabama, who see a shimmering object appear in the skies. As it gets closer, they see that it is an airship. As the airship gets nearer an object drops from the airship and then rises above it. One character cries out, “Heavens! See that thing shoot up! It’s some sort of helicopter.” Could this be the first reference to a helicopter in a novel? Apparently the author didn’t have much faith in the future of the helicopter as he had one of his characters in the novel say, “that insidious toy that promised so much for the conquest of the air and paid so little.”
These novels, fairly well written and with a decent vocabulary, aimed for the most part at high school boys, give a good indication of some of the attitudes in society as to the public response to the flying machine and some views as to its prospects.
As juvenile aviation magazines such as “Air Trails” or “Model Airplane News” did not exist until the 1930s, these novels were probably one of the few places for the youth of the time to learn about aviation.
Dennis can be reached at email@example.com.