Today, Harriet Quimby. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Of all the early women
fliers, few draw us quite the way Harriet Quimby
does. Quimby's stunning beauty is central to her
story, but not in the way we first might think. For
beauty is a created quality. That was certainly
true in her case.
She was born on a Michigan farm in 1875. The Quimby
family moved to San Francisco during Harriet's
early teens. She wanted to become an actress, and,
indeed, she's listed as one in the 1900 census.
Did Harriet Quimby ever do any theater? If she did,
we have no record of it. Instead, she began writing
for various magazines. In 1903 she went to New York
and found work with Leslie's Illustrated
Weekly. She eventually became a full-time
Her writing leaned toward excitement -- travel,
theater, racecars, flight. In 1906, after a ride on
an automobile racetrack, she bought her own car.
That's not impressive until you realize how
primitive autos were, and what a "guy thing"
In 1910, she covered a so-called
International Aviation Tournament. Flight
had only just found its way into the American
consciousness, and airplanes were still
antedeluvian. By now, Quimby was a close friend to
both John and Matilde Moisant. John Moisant ran a
flying school, and he produced his own monoplane.
Harriet and Matilde enrolled in the school. Quimby
was the first American woman to be licensed as a
flyer; Matilde soon followed. A few other women had
flown, but none were licensed.
John died in an accident a few months later, but
Harriet and Matilde went right on flying. Harriet
had her stage. She created a trademark purple
flying costume — a satin jacket with a soft cowl
around her head, high laced boots and satin riding
Tall and elegant, she was unmistakable at a
distance. And close-up photos show an ethereal face
with dark eyes looking out from the
shadows of that cowl. She seemed to be of
another world. She was also an instant hit on the
barnstorming circuit, and her articles about flying
carried her popularity to a larger public.
That spring she went to England to buy a Bleriot
airplane. She borrowed one in Dover, and, early
on the morning of April 16th, 1912, she took off
and became the first woman to fly the English
Channel. But fate got in her way. Hours earlier the
world learned about Titanic's sinking, and
Quimby was wiped from the headlines.
So it was back to America and more barnstorming. On
July 1st, she was paid handsomely to do an air show
near Boston. In front of everyone, her plane
lurched, throwing her passenger to his death.
Quimby struggled to regain control; then she too
was thrown out. The empty airplane glided in,
landed, and flipped over in the mud.
So ended a meteoric life: Harriet Quimby had flown
less than a year, but she'd written history while
she did. And she had, in a way, become the actress
she'd always wanted to be. Now her purple-cowled
ghost stands alongside Lilienthal, Earhart, and all the rest who
died pointing our way into the sky.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Much has been written in books about Harriet Quimby.
But you can also find a great deal of material on the
web. Here are three fine sources:
PBS on Harriet Quimby.
Another PBS Harriet Quimby site.
Here is a picture of the
monoplane in which
Harriet Quimby learned to fly:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.