Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1696:
HARRIET QUIMBY

by John H. Lienhard

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 photojournalist.

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" driving was.

Harriet QuimbyIn 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 pants.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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:
http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/quimby.htm
PBS on Harriet Quimby.
Another PBS Harriet Quimby site.

Here is a picture of the Moisant monoplane in which Harriet Quimby learned to fly:

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.