History Behind The Card: United States Military Dirigible No. 1
Card #10 of 50, W.D. & H.O. Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Thomas Scott Baldwin, June 30, 1854, in Marion County, Missouri, United States of America -May 17, 1923, Buffalo, New York, United States of America.
Baldwin picked up the sobriquet: “Father of the American Dirigible.”
Only 12-years-old when he saw both his parents murdered by renegades during the U.S. Civil War, Thomas Scott Baldwin performed many odd jobs before settling in with a circus as a trapeze artist, using a hot-air balloon with a trapeze underneath it to perform his act.
Coing the name “Captain Tom” and purchasing his own balloon, he eventually left the circus and performed balloon flights. Becoming bored, he discovered the rigid parachute invented 100 years earlier and redesigned it by making it lighter, more compact and flexible.
On January 30, 1885 he made one of the earliest recorded parachute jumps from a balloon.
He then started dare-devil parachuting at $1 per foot with 610-meters (2,000-feet) in height being his effective limit.
His non-copyrighted parachute ride entailed him being seated underneath the balloon with his parachute dangling beneath him. After reaching the necessary height, he pulled a chord that would effectively tear a hole in the balloon causing it to release hot air that would in turn cause it to fall quickly. Thanks to the momentum gained from falling, the parachute filled with air at which time he would leap from his seat and parachute down to the ground.
Tiring of the adrenaline rush, he traveled to France to study motor driven balloons, but was unable to find an engine he liked for four years—finally finding the light motorcycle motors being built by one Glenn Hammond Curtiss. Curtiss would later become renowned for his motorcycle engines, his work with the AEA (Aerial Experiment Association) and with aviation in general.
Baldwin completed his dirigible—the ‘California Arrow’—in July of 1904, with a maiden voyage on July 29 and its first public flight on August 3 when it underwent the first controlled circular flight in America. The aircraft was piloted by Roy Knabenshue at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.
Knowing who Baldwin was, Curtiss was keen on finding out how his engine would perform, and is said to have sparked his interest in aviation.
The ‘California Arrow’ was a success and sparked the interest of both the public and the U.S. army who saw its potential. This prompted Baldwin to form the Baldwin Airship Company, Inc. in 1905.
In 1907, Brigadier General James Allen, chief signal officer of the Army Signal Corps paid US$10,000, for a dirigible and received a Baldwin-built 29-meter (95-feet) long, 5.95-meters (19.5-feet) in diameter, non-rigid dirigible with a 566.34-cubic meter (20,000-cubic foot) capacity air ship that was designated as ‘U.S. Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1’.
The dirigible weighed 617-kilograms (1,360-pounds), and was powered by a newer more powerful 20 horsepower Curtiss water-cooled engine that gave it a top speed of 32.19-kilometers per hour (20-miles per hour). Behind the engine, the pilot sat, and in the front a biplane was mounted acting as a stabilizer and trimming plane, while on the stern of the girder a cruciform tail insured vertical and directional control.
Pilots taught to fly it were: Lt. Frank Lahm, Lt. Benjamin Foulois and Lt.Thomas Selfridge—Selfridge, along with engine manufacturer Curtiss were an important part of the Canada’s first aircraft, ‘The Silver Dart’, though Selfridge is more infamously known as being the first fatality from a heavier-than-air craft aboard a Wright Bros. aircraft (the Wright Flyer) flown by Wilbur Wright on September 17, 1908.
[Editor’s Note: I actually wrote a magazine article on the Silver Dart – which I shall present in its entirety when we get to the actual Wills’s card. As well, for your viewing pleasure, the image of the plane that lines the Pioneers Of Aviation blog is, indeed, the Silver Dart. It’s a photo from my personal collection of photos my father-in-law got from the widow of Casey Baldwin, who was one of the five-man team that built the plane. Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was part of that team, along with J.A.D. McCurdy, Selfridge and Curtiss.]
‘Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1’ was sent to Omaha, Nebraska, and it remained there as the only Signal Corps dirigible. The Army scrapped ‘Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1’ in 1912 and did not purchase another dirigible until after World War I.
Next up for Baldwin, was designing a pusher biplane called the ‘Red Devil’ in 1911 that had a frame utilizing struts of steel tubing and wooded frame wings, but, in 1914 just before the start of WWI, he went back to dirigibles and designed the Navy’s ‘DN-I’.
He also managed the Curtiss’ School training fliers including one William Lendrum “Billy” Mitchell, an American Army general who is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force.
During the war, Baldwin became chief of Army balloon inspection and production and personally checked every balloon and airship used by the U.S. Army. Finally, he was last employed by the Good Year Tire and Rubber Company, designing and manufacturing airships.
Baldwin died at the age of 69 on May 17, 1923, with his feet on the ground, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.