Since his college days Crawford had a desire to be Number One sometime in his life. He thought he might have reached this goal when he attended a Harvard commencement in 1991 at age 100. There he was recognized as the oldest alumnus to arrive on his own power. But he realized he only received this distinction because he had outlived his college mates. In 1993, however, he finally realized his desire when he was elected to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He had previously been elected to the Business Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame and was the only living American to enjoy membership in all three. “(I) must tell some story and convey some distinction,” he said. “I accept it as the fulfillment of my college dream to be Number One at least once. So now, as I enjoy my 102nd birthday, I can relax, retire, and turn to hobbies.”
- In 1933, Crawford became president of Thompson Products which developed a valve that could run 300 hours in an aircraft engine without overheating and was used on the famous Spirit of St. Louis.
- Crawford helped organize the National Air Race Corporation in 1929 and convinced Thompson Products to sponsor the Thompson Trophy, the most sought after aviation trophy.
- Dedicated to the preservation of aviation history and opened the Thompson Auto Album and Aviation Museum in Cleveland.
- Under his leadership, Thompson Products were able to solve many aviation problems during World War II and the Korean War.
Frederick Coolidge Crawford was the second son of lawyer Fred E. Crawford and artist Mattie Coolidge Crawford. He was born on March 19th, 1891 in Watertown, Massachusetts, a town that his ancestors founded. A bright student, Crawford earned his undergraduate degree magna cum laude from Harvard in 1913. He then pursued his graduate degree in the Harvard School of Applied Sciences.
After graduate school, he supported himself by tutoring and teaching. Anxious to begin his business career, Crawford looked at the steel industry as a likely prospect for employment. He learned that the president of the U.S. Steel Company was interviewing young men for jobs. He told Crawford to look for a job in a small company in the growing, new automobile industry. Following that advice, Crawford took a position with the Steel Products Company in Cleveland, Ohio. The company was to change its name in 1926 to Thompson Products and was one of the leading manufacturers and suppliers of valves for automobiles in the United States.
During World War I, Crawford enlisted in the U.S. Navy Aviation Corps and was studying at the ground school in aviation when the armistice that ended the war was signed. Upon completion of the course, he received an honorable discharge and returned to his job at the Steel Products Company, becoming a sales engineer. In 1929, Crawford became the first Vice President and General Manager of Thompson Products. In 1933 he became president of the company, succeeding the late Charles Thompson. Under Crawford’s leadership, the company contributed greatly to aviation. He knew that without technological improvements aviation’s soaring progress of the 1920′s would be grounded.
One of the innovations to originate with Thompson Products was the use of silchrome steel in aviation. This new steel was used to create a valve that could run for three hundred hours in an aircraft engine without overheating. Another innovation was the introduction of sodium cooled valves, which were later used in Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis during Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Always an active advocate of aviation, Crawford helped organize the National Air Race Corporation in 1929 and then served as vice president and then president of the Cleveland National Air Races for many years. He wanted to have a “free-for-all” air race during the air shows and convinced Thompson Products to sponsor the Thompson Trophy Air Races – soon to become the most sought after prize by pilots from all over the world. For automobiles the grand prize was winning the Indianapolis 500, for pilots it was Cleveland and the Thompson Trophy.
The Cleveland National Air Races were the premier aviation events of the flying world. Everyone connected with aviation attended these events. Senators, military leaders, barnstormers, wing walkers, parachutists, and famous aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Doolittle, Roscoe Turner, and “Tex” Johnston participated or attended over the years. Also, famous foreign fliers took part, such as Colonel Ernst Udet, and Hannah Reitsch of Germany, Air Vice Marshall Richard Atcherley from England, and Michel Detroyat from France. Most of these great fliers became personal friends.
The Thompson Trophy race was broadcast all across the country and the Thompson Trophy became the symbol for aviation and speed records. Crawford was well aware the Thompson Trophy Race would result in aviation innovations resulting in greater speeds and aircraft maneuverability. Some of aviation’s most important innovations between the world wars can be traced to flights of the Thompson Trophy Races. Without these races, the United States would have entered World War II without some of the important advances in aircraft speed, construction, and maneuverability that helped to win the air war.
During World War II, Thompson Products and Crawford did their patriotic duty by manufacturing auto and aviation components critical to the allied war effort. For example, during the war, U.S. bombers had a problem with fuel vapors that prevented them from reaching high altitudes. The aviation fuel tended to vaporize as the sun shone on and heated the fuel tanks. The pressure in the tanks was thus reduced when the planes climbed to high altitudes, resulting in vapor lock. Thompson Products was able to solve the problem of vapor lock with booster pumps and Allied planes were able to fly safely at higher altitudes. During the Korean War, Thompson Products continued to aid aviation and the war effort by building and improving jet engine components.
Perhaps some of Frederick Crawford’s most significant contributions to aviation were in his dedication to preserving aviation history. He wanted to preserve some of our aviation heritage for future generations and consequently founded the Thompson Auto Album and Aviation Museum in Cleveland. In 1963, he passed ownership of the museum to the Western Reserve Historical Society which today displays the exhibits under his name. The complete collection of original aircraft paintings by Charles E. Hubbel is one of the outstanding displays in the museum. Thompson Products used these as early as 1934 for a calendar painting series that became known as “the Panorama of Flight.”
In the 1950s, Crawford followed the old advice of the president of U.S. Steel by continuing to look for growing new industries. He initiated long range planning for his company which included electronics and aerospace engineering. Thompson invested in a California aerospace company and when the two companies merged, Thompson Products and Ramo & Wooldridge became TRW in 1958.
In 1959, Frederick Crawford retired after building his company into one of the giant corporations in the nation. Through his efforts, vision, and leadership, TRW was able to continue technical advances in aviation, such as the engineering of the Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to leave the solar system. Since his retirement, Crawford served several years as a consultant to TRW and as Honorary Chairman of their Board of Directors. He has received many honorary degrees and other honors and served his country with his civic and educational affiliations.
Frederick Coolidge Crawford died on December 9th, 1994.
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