Today, we invent a hero. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Amelia Earhart and Charles
Lindbergh looked like two peas from the same pod --
lean, shy, same mouth, same eyes, same short hair.
In 1928, the year after Lindbergh flew the
Atlantic, Earhart became the first woman to cross
the ocean in a plane.
Philadelphia socialite Amy Guest had asked
publisher George Putnam to organize a transatlatic
flight in her own Fokker Trimotor. Putnam found a
pilot to fly it. Then he interviewed women to find,
and I quote, "[a] girl who would measure up to
adequate standards of American womanhood." she
would keep the flight log.
Earhart did her homework. Don't be too appealing --
that might cause Putnam to be protective. Don't
make a big deal of the fact you're also a pilot --
they only want a second banana here.
So she showed up looking just like Charles
Lindbergh and she kept her mouth shut. It worked --
she became the first woman to make the flight. She
stepped out of the plane into a media maelstrom
that never ended for her.
Earhart was the hottest story in the papers, even
if she had only been a passenger. Putnam took on
the role of publicist. He booked high-pressure
speaking tours. He fed material to the press. He
made it hard on competing women pilots. It was a
peculiar symbiosis. He manufactured her fame. She
rode that wave. Then she slowly began drowning in
Idealism drove Earhart. She started out to be a
poet. She learned to fly from a rare woman
instructor named Neta Snook in California. By the
time she rode across the Atlantic, she was a
seasoned pilot making her living as a social worker
She married Putnam in 1930. It began as a marriage
of convenience between two workaholics. But it grew
into much more while the mad whirl continued. She
finally flew the Atlantic solo in 1932. Earhart
wished she had the mind-space to write more poetry,
but she never had time to meet her own standards.
For nine years Putnam managed Earhart -- pushing an
able pilot into the limelight over better fliers.
Earhart used her bully pulpit to push things she
believed in -- women's rights, pacifism -- and
flight. Her last round-the-world flight had little
real importance. If she'd made it, it would've been
But she vanished at sea, and we've spent the last
60 years wondering what became of her. Was it cover
for naval spying on the Japanese? One theory says
Earhart used it to vanish from the public eye --
that she lived under another identity for years
It was probably just bungled navigation. Yet the
dropping-out-of-sight theory reflects the sad truth
of her plight. For she was shy, bright, and caught
in the web of dubious success. And we're left to
wonder: what might she've said in her book of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Earhart, A., The Fun of It. New York:
Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1932.
Earhart, A., Last Flight. New York:
Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1937.
(George Putnam pieced this account of Earhart's
last flight together from her telegraphed
dispatches and published it a scant five months
after her disappearance. I am grateful to The
Detering Book Gallery for lending me a 1st edition
of this odd book.)
Loomis, V.,V., and Ethell, J.L., Amelia
Earhart: The Final Story. New York: Random
Lovell, M.S., The Sound of Wings: The Life of
Amelia Earhart. New York: St.
Martinís Press, 1989.
Ware, S., Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and
the Search for Modern Feminism. New York:
W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.
The Special Collections unit at Purdue University
maintains a George Palmer Putnam Collection of
Amelia Earhart Papers which I recommend to you:
Image courtesy of the Aviation
Museums of North Texas
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.