Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1852:
DOOLITTLE'S FIRST AIRPLANE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Jimmy Doolittle's first airplane. 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.

An astonishing drawing in the 1910 Popular Mechanics shows young women in bathing suits lined up at a high diving board. Each holds a small glider of her own design. One woman has just left the board. Hanging from her glider, she sails out over the water.

These gliders aren't enough to sustain human flight, but they slow the trip from diving board to water and they give the sensation of flight. This was a scant six years after the Wright Brothers flew. And, we're told, this new sport, invented at a ladies swimming club in London, is rapidly spreading.

1910 altitude records I read on: an article about airplane altitude records shows five airplanes, all in reference to the Washington Monument. Only two have flown any higher than the monument, and Orville Wright has flown highest, just over 1500 feet. Flight is that primitive!

The magazine bursts with real airplanes, imagined airplanes, the world's smallest airplane, the death of a noted pilot, a combination bicycle/airplane. It also describes America's first air show, just held in Los Angeles. At that show was a thirteen-year-old boy named Jimmy Doolittle.

Doolittle was the WW-II pilot who, in 1942, flew from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He led sixteen B-25s on a daring raid over Tokyo. Now writer Mary Seelhorst tells a remarkable story about Doolittle and Popular Mechanics.

In 1909, the magazine provided a chilling set of instructions. They showed how to build a glider and how to fly it by running it off a cliff. Four years later, Popular Mechanics published a book titled, The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do. And that homemade glider formed its frontispiece.

Doolittle read the article, and he built one of those life-threatening machines. It's not surprising that he crashed. The instructions themselves include a magnificently understated warning, that we should take great care in landing, "otherwise [one] might suffer a sprained ankle or perhaps a broken limb."

Doolittle was undeterred. He became a barnstormer, a wing-walker, a leading race pilot. And then he became the 45-year-old leader of men half his age on that Tokyo raid. He did minimal damage to Japan. And all sixteen planes had to crash-land, mostly in China. But he gave America heart when we truly feared we were about to lose WW-II. I was [not quite] twelve then, in love with flight and airplanes, but also truly fearful of the seemingly unstoppable Axis forces.

A remarkable world was shaped, back in 1910, by women trying to fly off diving boards, and boys trying to fly off cliffs. A reviewer observes that Doolittle's autobiography seems "incapable of anything but short declarative sentences," and that "the result is just right." That makes sense once we've read these old Popular Mechanics magazines. For this was an age of action, of doing. This was how the twentieth century was made.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Exciting Aero-Swimming Game. Popular Mechanics, Vol. 13, 1910, pg. 18. (see also, the rest of Volume 18 for repeated references to flight.)

For the 1909 glider picture and a discussion of its implications, see: J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. New York: Oxford University Press, August, 2003, Chapter 12, see especially, pg. 193.

J. Doolittle, C. V. Glines, and B. M. Goldwater, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. New York: Bantam Books, 2001.


the aero-swiming game


two Doolittle airplanes


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.