On August 19, National Aviation Day, we celebrate aviation and all things flight-related. This day was declared by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to encourage interest in aviation. Humans have envied birds in flight for time immemorial, as seen in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. We have flung gliders and balloons in the air but it was not until 19th and 20th century that we became airborne. Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, NC started an aviation craze throughout the world.
After the Wright Brothers’ flight people continued to work on creating flying machines. The brothers were secretive about their process and at one point disassembled their machine to protect it. This led to increased interest in making functional aviation devices by. During the early 1900s many investors offered cash awards for functional flying machines. This spurred on innovation surrounding flight both for inventors and everyday people.
Newspapers referenced aviation innovations, keeping the public informed on where the science was. Opinions on the feasibility of flight peppered pages. Finally, several Wyoming inventors tried their hand at flight. While few patents made the long trek to receive a patent in D.C., interest was growing in the state. Only five flying machine inventions made it through the patent process before 1920. By looking at three of these patents we can see the variety of Wyomingite’s attempts at flight.
The first airship patent in Wyoming came out of Marshall in 1912. It resembles a helicopter more than a plane, with two sets of sailed rotors. Invented by Barrett C. Cole the intention was to lift straight up from the ground in flight. Other inventors used similar designs and even Leonardo Da Vinci had a prototype. It was not until modern engines that helicopter flight became possible.
Two years after Barret Cole’s patent, an inventor in Douglas perfected his flying machine. David Smith received a patent for his flying-machine on October 20, 1914. His invention resembles an early Wright brothers’ plane, with a boxy shape and two sets of wings. Bill Barlow’s Budget indicates that there were manufacturers interested in building his machine. Yet, there is no sign in the newspaper collection that this business ever happened.
Cheyenne resident W. H. Kelly was a more fanciful inventor. He received two patents for flying machines in the early 1910’s. Kelly’s 1917 patent took inspiration from the natural world. In the patent he notes that, “the wings of the device are operated by a flapping movement in imitation of the movement employed by birds.” His previous patent from 1916, also referenced bird wings as a method of flight.
While we do not know if any of these inventions flew, they provide a look into the early history of aviation. In the 120 years since the Wright Brothers’ flight, much has changed in aviation. We’ve gone from celebrating a 12-second flight, to having military drones that can stay aloft for 42 hours. To see a full history of aviation check out Britannica’s entry on the history of flight, available through GoWYLD.net with a local library card.
For more aviation stories on Wyoming’s aviation history WyoHistory has two great accounts: one on early sky pioneers who delivered mail and one on Amelia Earhart’s trip across the state. Find early reports on flight in the newspapers available at the Wyoming Digital Newspaper Collection. For more historic state aviation history check out the Aeronautics Commissions 1958-1964 Aviation Newsletters.
All patents in this article came from the Wyoming Inventors Digital Collection. To see more fascinating inventions from Wyomingites, check out Wyoming Inventors for yourself.