Thomas Scott Baldwin
Known as a showman and aviation daredevil, Baldwin accepted an invitation to demonstrate his “Red Devil” airplane in St. Louis in 1910. Amateur flyer Clifford Harmon had also been invited to fly but backed out at the last minute. “Never mind,” Capt. Baldwin said. “If Harmon doesn’t fly, I will.” He began in a field between Calvary Cemetery and the Mississippi River. He flew down the river to Carondelet, and over the Eads Bridge where thousands stood cheering him. Surprising his audience, Baldwin returned by air, flying under the Eads Bridge at 50 mph and under the McKinley Bridge, a feat of pure daring.
- Made a large number of balloon ascents throughout the U.S and was the first to make parachute descents from a balloon.
- Pioneered the construction and operation of the first dirigibles in America.
- Awarded a contract to design and build the first U.S. Army Signal Corps dirigible using a Curtiss engine.
Thomas Scott Baldwin was born on June 30th, 1854 in Marion County, Missouri to Samuel Yates and Jane Baldwin. He was only 12 years old when he witnessed the murder of his parents by marauding renegades during the Civil War. As an orphan, Baldwin lived with a foster family until he ran away at the age of 14. After becoming a railroad brakeman, a circus manager discovered him while Baldwin was practicing acrobatics atop railroad cars. After accepting a job with the circus, Baldwin began traveling as an apprentice acrobat, but soon he was performing on the high trapeze. He was not satisfied with his act, and he continued to modify it until he was using a hot-air balloon, which would ascend during his act, as he performed on the trapeze bar hung below. His daring death-defying acrobatics and feats soon made him a star attraction.
After acquiring his own hot-air balloon, Baldwin quit the circus and began a free-lance tour of the county fair circuit with his brother. Baldwin coined the name “Captain Tom”, not only to satisfy his ego, but also for name recognition, and continued to enhance his theatrics. When he made his first balloon ascent in 1875, Baldwin quickly became the star attraction at county fairs all over the country and in Canada and the Far East. Baldwin made nearly 3,000 ascents from a balloon and had several close calls, but his seemingly proverbial luck and great skill always saved him from disaster in even the most dangerous situations.
After ten years and thousands of shows, the novelty of balloon ascents began to fade and Baldwin found himself searching for a daring new exhibition specialty. The brothers rediscovered the rigid parachute, invented a century before, and redesigned it to be lighter, flexible and more compact. The Baldwins tested their first parachutes with weighted sand bags from cliffs nearby. The daring “Captain Tom” would be the one to attempt the first live jump. After this feat, Baldwin was ready to take his new act on the road.
In front of an audience at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 30th, 1885, Baldwin offered the park manager a deal-he would jump from a hot-air balloon for $1.00 per foot of height, with 2,000 feet being the maximum. The crowd, unknowingly, witnessed the first public descent from a balloon with a parachute. Baldwin was now dubbed “The Father of the Modern Parachute.” Baldwin’s parachute jumps were nothing like modern parachute jumps. While holding on to a ring fastened to his dangling parachute, he would ascend in a sitting position on a small seat beneath his balloon. When he reached the desired altitude, Baldwin would pull a rip panel in his balloon to release the hot air, causing the balloon to begin a rapid descent. With the momentum needed to fill the parachute with air, Baldwin would then jump from the seat. Neither he nor his brother ever patented their parachute design and construction. Baldwin later commented, “We never thought anyone else would care to try it.”
At the turn of the century the luster of Baldwin’s act faded and he set out to create an even greater, more daring act. Intrigued by the work of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the first man to make a successful dirigible flight in 1898; Baldwin traveled to France to study motor driven balloons. After struggling over four years to find just the right engine, he finally found a lightweight engine used for motorcycles and built by Glenn Curtiss. Baldwin immediately ordered one and waited hastily for his new engine to arrive. But he became exceedingly impatient and made the trek from San Francisco to Hammondsport, New York, to expedite his request. Once arriving in Hammondsport Baldwin was somewhat astonished by the modest factory and rather young Curtiss working alongside his employees. Finding Curtiss inundated with orders, and realizing he had not even begun the work on his engine, Baldwin asked for Curtiss to remove an engine from a motorcycle and send it immediately to San Francisco.
With the missing piece finally in hand, the dirigible was ready for construction. The non-rigid gasbag of varnished Japanese silk measured 52 feet in length and had a maximum diameter of 17 feet. Below the gasbag was a long triangular wooden framework that housed the 10 horsepower, 60-pound Curtiss engine. The operator, called an aeronaut, rode astride in this open framework, subjected to all the elements. The propeller in front, driven by a long shaft connected to the engine mounted in the middle of the framework, powered the airship. The propeller’s rotation could be reversed for backing and maneuvering into tight spaces, and it had a rudder mounted at the rear for steering. The aeronaut, however, would have to move forward or backward on the framework to make the dirigible ascend or descend.
Completed in July of 1904, Baldwin’s dirigible made its first trial flight on the 29th, and its first public flight on August 3rd, 1904. The dirigible caught the public’s attention and sparked Glenn Curtiss’ interest in aviation. The California Arrow, and more importantly the Curtiss Engine, ignited a new breed of man who valiantly (or perhaps foolishly) risked their lives for a show.
It would not only be the public who embraced the dirigible, but soon the Army would see its potential and enlist Curtiss and Baldwin to build the Army’s first dirigible. The Army dirigibles had to meet several guidelines including a more durable gasbag, greater load capacity, the ability to maintain altitude for longer periods, and improved flying capabilities. Curtiss, henceforth, designed a new 24-horsepower engine, 4-cyclinder, water-cooled engine, and the first of its kind. The airship was designated as Signal Corps. Airship No. 1, or rather, SC-1, making its first successful flight, completing all Army requirements on August 5th, 1908.
By 1910 Baldwin was searching for a new challenge and found it in the airplane. The Wright Brothers were stealing the show with their heavier-that-air plane, and Baldwin was determined to outdo them. In 1911, Baldwin designed his own pusher biplane, one of the first to have a framework with interplane struts of mild steel tubing and wooded frame wings. Baldwin named his invention the “Red Devil” and soon he abandoned his dirigibles in favor of the airplane. But not for long.
In 1914, just before the First Great War, his interest turned to dirigibles again and he designed the Navy’s first successful dirigible, the DN-I. Recognizing the need to train fliers, he managed the Curtiss School at Newport News, where one of his students was General “Billy” Mitchell. When the U.S. went to war, Baldwin volunteered his services became Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production and personally inspected every balloon and airship used by the Army in the war; he was now 62 years old. His final employment, however, was with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, continuing to design and manufacture airships.
Few men in the aeronautical community were better loved than “Captain Tom.” Inventor of the flexible parachute, builder of the first practical dirigible in America, pioneer designer, builder and flyer of airplanes, his life was unrivaled as a showman, innovator and inventor for his nearly 50 years in aeronautics.
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