Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Millions of us have used the airplane to earn a living, to travel from place to place or simply to amuse ourselves. Among twentieth-century innovations, the airplane has most dramatically changed the way we think about time and distance; people now consider transcontinental or transoceanic journeys in terms of hours rather than days or weeks. The airplane is a familiar technology. Yet historians – particularly those with local or state interests – have begun only recently to examine closely the process whereby the airplane and its predecessor the balloon gained popular acceptance and aeronautics as a whole attained maturity by the middle of the twentieth century.

Mankind has longed to fly. Psychologists confirm that one of the more common dreams is that of floating or flying, leading to the supposition that flight is inherent in our collective psychic makeup. The stars and planets have also fascinated us for millennia. John Wise, a native of Lancaster and the premier antebellum American balloonist, recalled lying on a pile of hay and staring heavenward for hours. He said the sight of a meteor streaking across the sky filled him with “rapturous joy.”

ft was natural that the more adventurous would endeavor to transform these dreams into reality. Joseph­Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier succeeded with lighter-than-air flight in France in 1783. Benjamin Franklin was there on November 21 when Francois Pilatre de Rozier and his colleague the Marquis d’Arlandes lifted off for the first free flight in a Mont­golfier balloon. Franklin later remarked that flight was a “discovery of great Importance, and what may possibly give a new turn to human Affairs.” And yet even someone with such unusual prescience as Franklin had no clear vision of the utility of flight. Among the more bizarre ideas he had for using balloons was to tether them at great altitudes and winch up fresh meats to be fast frozen for later consumption.

Others looked upon the balloon as simply an amusing scientific or technical phenomenon. Dr. John Foulke, a youthful graduate of the University of Penn­sylvania, completed his medical studies in Paris where he had become familiar wth the Montgolfier brothers’ work. Back in Philadelphia, Foulke assem­bled small, paper hot-air balloons patterned after those of the Montgolfiers. One of these, released from the courtyard of the Dutch minister’s residence on May 10, 1784, was the first recorded balloon flight in the United States. In June, Dr. John Morgan led a public subscription in Philadelphia for a large hot-air balloon and received the support of eighty-five prominent resi­dents whose “love of science” presumably was enough incentive for them to part with their money.

This flurry of interest in the balloon reached a crescendo with the arrival in Philadelphia of Peter A. Carnes. Carnes had sent young Edward Warren up in a tethered hot-air balloon near Baltimore in June and wanted to try a free flight on his own. Benjamin Rush wrote that Carnes’s presence in the city elicited wide­spread attention: “Philos­ophy, curiosity, and even wit and humor, are all at work in our city upon the subject of balloons. There is little else talked of -.” On July 17, before ten thousand Philadel­phians, Carnes lifted off from the prison yard, only to be knocked from the basket by a sudden gust of wind. He survived the fall but his balloon caught fire and was completely destroyed. There­after Carnes’s and others’ desire to fly in balloons cooled markedly.

Not until the free flight of the Frenchman Jean Pierre Blanchard in Philadelphia on January 9, 1793, was popu­lar enthusiasm for the balloon rekindled. Local newspapers chronicled Blanchard’s activities and provided detailed accounts of the elaborate preparations he made for the ascension. Blan­chard’s yellow silk balloon, inflated with hydrogen, lifted off before a large and vocal crowd at the Washington Prison yard and carried Blanchard on a forty-six­-minute voyage across the Delaware to a safe landing in New Jersey.

It was the 1830s, however, before the balloon became an accepted part of the popular culture in Pennsylvania, but once it did, few residents of the Commonwealth could ignore it. Vauxhall Garden in Philadelphia and the Common in Allegheny (now Pittsburgh’s North Side) were frequent sites for balloon exhibitions. Following a series of flights by James Mills in the summer of 1834, the United States Gazette described the “balloon fever” that infected Philadelphia. Children played with toy, paper hot-air balloons, and “every tree [was] festooned with one or more” of them. Ascensions were heavily ad­vertised and carefully orchestrated to maximize entertainment and generate the most profit. Brass bands and fireworks displays heightened the generaUy festive nature of these events.

For many, the balloon inspired romantic visions. After a flight from Allegheny by the Cincinnati aeronaut Richard Clayton at the end of August 1837, the editor of the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette longed that he could “will­ingly forsake this tedious earth” and be “borne . . . on the swift current of the wild wind.” Others turned to poetry. In idiomatic French, a Pittsburgher wrote what Clayton must have felt during another ascension from Allegheny in 1837:

“I have approached the light of the sun.
I have touched the feet of the Gods!
And I believe they have smiled on me.”

At the same time, the balloon generated less lofty feelings. After his first flight from Allegheny carried him into the mountains around Johnstown, Clayton reported “how some ignorant and superstitious people were alarmed on seeing the balloon, taking it for some demon or monster …. One woman, in particular, fell upon her knees and prayed to God to save her from his wrath.” Balloon exhibitions all too often attracted the hard-drinking, rowdy elements of Penn­sylvania’s burgeoning nine­teenth-century cities. In Philadelphia in September 1819 a mob of 35,000, angered when a promised ascension failed to take place, wrecked the balloon, robbed the aeronaut of his proceeds and burned down a substantial portion of Vauxhall Garden. When George Elliott did not fly in August 1834, another Philadelphia crowd responded by tearing his balloon to shreds. Much the same thing happened to John Wise in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1853. When a sudden gust of wind tore the fragile envelope of his balloon, the impatient spectators tossed bricks and bottles at Wise, prompting him to cancel any further attempts to fly in the city.

If the spectacle of a balloon ascension appealed to the unruly, flight also seemed to mesh well with a society entranced by the wonders of modern science. Many aeronauts in Pennsylvania, while acknowledging the entertainment value of the balloon, sought to present a more positive image of the professional seeking greater understanding of the natural world. John Wise conducted meteorological observations during his flights and speculated on west-to-east upper air flows that would make possible flights of thousands of miles. In 1885 Philadelphian Samuel Archer King made a number of meteorological ascensions under the spon­sorship of the U.S. Signal Service. These flying “professors” often delivered popular lectures on scientific phenomena in conjunction with their balloon exhibitions.

By the end of the century, balloon flight was part of the everyday lives of Pennsyl­vanians. Advertisements exploited the popular fasci­nation with aeronautics; businessmen used balloon themes on trade cards for soap powder, butter and notions; and balloon representations were found on everything from jewelry to restaurant menus and furniture.

It was stylish for women to fly in the years after the Civil War. Daring and handsome Philadelphia-born Washington Harrison Donaldson carried aloft five young women from the “fashionable circles” of Pitts­burgh and Allegheny in October 1874. As the balloon drifted into the gathering dusk, one of the women asked Donaldson “if he would not get them a star,” to which he replied, “I think we have enough of stars in the basket already.” Other women were more serious about ballooning. Lizzie Oiling made at least one successful ascension at Huntingdon in 1876, and at the turn of the century “Madame Carlotta,” the wife of veteran aeronaut Carl E. Myers, thrilled thousands with ascensions from Pitts­burgh in 1897.

The balloon filled the in­creasing needs of nineteenth­-century Pennsylvanians for adventure and entertainment while preparing them psy­chologically for the advent of heavier-than-air flight, something which had been experimented with at least since the 1820s. In September 1828, George and Christian Pletz attempted to fly in the Dauphin County village of Linglestown. The foolish experiment cost George his life but did little to dampen the confidence of others in the practicability of winged flight. Many had their appetites whetted by kites, among them young John Wise, who used a kite to take up a kitten. But the box kite, invented by Lawrence Hargrave in 1893, caused the most interest. Pennsylvania newspapers carried numerous advertise­ments for the new toy, which had greater lifting power and more stability than did conventional kites and shared some of the general con­struction characteristics with later gliders and airplanes.

Ubiquitous and spectacular in their mastery of the air, birds most often sparked interest in flight. George A. Spratt, a Coatesville native who among Pennsylvanians carried out some of the most important early work in aerodynamics, recalled, “I never scared a bird up or saw it cross a valley, but what I longed to go with it and envied it.” But those employ­ing the bird as a technological model found it to be less than perfect. Pennsylvanians took out patents for, or constructed, ornithopters (an odd-looking experimental type of aircraft designed to be propelled by the flapping of the wings), some complete with feathers, but none capable of flight. Samuel Pierpont Langley, director of the Allegheny Observatory and one of the best-known nineteenth-century ex­perimenters in aerodynamics, attached stuffed specimens of soaring birds to the whirling table he used in place of a wind tunnel. To his disappointment he found their flying qualities greatly inferior to ones he had observed in the wild.

Although the work of Spratt j and Langley lent legitimacy to experimentation in heavier-than-air flight, it was not until well after the Wright brothers’ success in 1903 that the general public accepted the airplane as something deserving more than idle parlor-room conver­sation. Beginning with Charles F. Willard’s exhibition flights in Athens, Bradford County, in September 1909, and carrying up to the eve of World War I, aviators brought the airplane to nearly every city and town in the state. Soon hundreds of thousands came face-to-face with the reality of manned heavier­-than-air flight.

As did the balloon in an earlier era, the airplane captured the popular imagi­nation. At a time when rapid industrialization and increasing depersonalization in society seemed to gen­erate anonymity and aliena­tion, the airplane restored some of the zest and challenge to life. The vigor that Theodore Roosevelt exem­plified in public life was easily transferred by a recep­tive populace to such courageous aviators as Pittsburgh’s Cal Rodgers, Brookville’s Earle Sandt or Philadelphia’s Chips Drexel. Those who ventured the sky in frail stick-and-wire machines were heroes to many who followed their exploits in the press, a popular medium that craved sensation and action. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a weekly “Birdman” column that kept its readers up-to­-date on the latest aviation events.

The first sight of an airplane in full flight usually evoked premature optimism about its utility. Virtually ignoring the shortcomings of these primitive airplanes in range, payload, stability and control, observers predicted a utopian era of travel lay just ahead. After a spectacular flight between New York and Philadelphia by Charles K. Hamilton in June 1910, Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart predicted the imminence of a new age of aerial transportation. The editors of the Cameron County Free Press in Emporium said in 1911 that aviation had been “lifted into the place of first importance” by the feats of exhibition fliers and pointed to the near future when express and mail would be regularly carried by airplanes.

Within a short time, however, a pessimistic reaction set in. John Eckert of the Allentown Fair Asso­ciation, which sponsored an exhibition by Glenn Curtiss in September 1910, was disillusioned by the infrequency of his flights. “We are through with him,” Eckert said. “He has disappointed and disgusted us and we will have nothing whatever to do with him.” When winds grounded Curtiss and his team at Brunot’s Island in Pitts­burgh in August 1910, W.L. Smith, president of the local aero club, complained, “I think that if I made my living flying, I would have tried to do a little more than was done at our meet. They all seemed to get cold feet.” Smith saw no practical use for the airplane, espe­cially not in naval warfare where ships had only to keep a supply of electric fans to ward off would-be aerial attackers. Others questioned the high death rate among fliers. The Philadelphia Inquirer guessed that three out of five people thought aviators were madmen and asked, “Is the game worth the candle?”

Only after World War I did the airplane emerge from its exuberant adolescence into an orderly maturity. Almost universal was the biplane configuration and the tractor engine, sometimes driving an adjustable-pitch propeller. Metal construction and improved airfoils led to vastly greater power-to­-weight ratios and corre­spondingly better performance. The transference of the airmail from a government monopoly to private contrac­tors after 1925 spurred the development of commer­cial air transport in Pennsylvania as in other states. But not until Charles Augustus Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic did the airplane once more grip the public’s imagination.

Lindbergh himself was lean, quiet and modest­ – characteristics ideally fitting the image of an American hero. George R. Hann, one of the founders of Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Cor­poration in 1928, remembered staying up all night listen­ing to reports on the Lindbergh flight. After Lind­bergh’s triumph, Hann said “how fortunate” it was that “the hero was such a splendid, unassuming character.”

But the Lindbergh symbol as crucial as it was to the growth of aviation in the late twenties, was overwhelm­ingly white and male. Blacks were for the most part excluded from aviation in Pennsylvania by their low economic status and, frequently, by discrimination at schools and flying fields. Although Charles Wesley Peters of Pittsburgh began flying as early as 1911, and a few others, including Abram Jackson of Erie, George Allen of Latrobe and Charles A. Anderson of Philadel­phia, broke the color line in aviation during the 1920s and 1930s, the Pittsburgh Courier‘s expectation that the Lind­bergh flight meant “it will not be long before the Negro will be a recognized factor in aviation” proved vain. There was no black Lind­bergh. For a heroic reference point, Pennsylvania blacks had to wait until those of their race went into combat with the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group in World War II.

Women, as well, had no heroes to inspire them during the decades before World War II. The woman in aviation was used not as a heroic image but instead to demonstrate the safety and practicality of flying on an everyday basis. Pitts­burgh-based Central Air Lines hired McKeesport native Helen Richey in late 1934 as a copilot on its Washing­ton-Pittsburgh-Detroit route. Publicists expected the example of a weak and vul­nerable woman flying a modern airliner to encourage men to make more regular use of Central’s services on their business trips. It is impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of such subtle exploitation, especially in Richey’s case, since she resigned in protest in November 1935 after the Department of Commerce restricted her to fair-weather operations.

Although blacks and women were major segments of society that played a disproportionately small role in aviation, some innovators sought means of bringing the benefits of flight to a larger cross section of the public. One of these was Harold Pitcairn of Bryn Athyn; he saw the autogiro, an aircraft with a freewheeling rotor in place of conventional fixed wings, as a safe and practical “airplane for every­man.” Through his work in the late 1920s and early i930s, the autogiro underwent major improvements, but its complexity and high cost precluded general public use. More successful was William T. Piper of Bradford. Piper took over the bankrupt aircraft firm of C. Gilbert Taylor in 1930 and redirected it toward the production of simple and safe airplanes priced to attract large numbers of customers. Piper’s and Taylor’s Cub, eventually selling for as little as $1,300, revolutionized private flying and came as close as any­thing did to the elusive air­plane for everyman.

Lytle S. Adams took another approach to the democratization of aviation. Believing he could make aviation “a real success for the majority of our people,” Adams invented a nonstop aerial pickup and delivery system to introduce air transportation to isolated rural communities. He settled permanently in Irwin near Pittsburgh in the mid-1930s, perfected his device and received the backing of West Virginia congressman Jennings Randolph. While Randolph secured government support for an experimental airmail network, Adams persuaded Richard C. du Pont to supply the necessary capital for his company, All American Aviation, Inc. In 1939 All American began flying routes out of Pittsburgh into rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and continued its pickup operations until 1949.

Adams was among the many individuals who, by 1950, had skillfully helped to weave aeronautics into the fabric of Pennsylvania life. Technological progress and the public’s eventual acceptance of flight – once the domain of entrepreneuring showmen, daredevils, heroes and scientists – were essen­tial before the airplane could prevail as a common, especially trusted, means of public and private con­veyance. Nearly one hundred and seventy years passed between the time the first hot-air balloon in the United States wafted precariously above Philadelphia and the day when the shuttle of cargo, mail and passengers high above both city and village became commonplace. In those years, thousands of inventors, mechanics, experimenters and pilots labored diligently, confronted by seemingly impossible tasks, to help man realize his greatest dream – to fly.


For Further Reading

Autogiro Company of America. Some Facts of Interest About Rotating-Wing Aircraft. Philadelphia: Autogiro Company of America, 1944.

Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: Aviation and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washing­ton, D.C.: Smithsonian Insti­tution Press, 1983.

____. A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875-1905. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.

Francis, Devon. Mr. Piper and His Cubs. Ames: The Iowa State University Press, 1973.

Harris, Sherwood. The First to Fly: Aviation’s Pioneer Days. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.


William F. Trimble, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 1974, has been editor at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh since 1975. His book, High Frontier: A History of Aeronautics in Pennsylvania, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1982.