Spring 1998

People of the Century

The Sky was No Limit

Karl Schmidt supervised the construction of the dirigible ZR-3, similar to the airship being built in this photo.

M ost WPI graduates know that Robert H. Goddard '08 was the father of space flight. But the history of aviation is also replete with the accomplishments of the University's alumni. Among the first to enter the field was George F. Myers, Class of 1888, who is credited with making one of the earliest attempts at vertical flight. A patent attorney and a prolific inventor, he held numerous aviation-related patents. His first application for a helicopter patent was denied, but the machine, dubbed the "Flying Doughnut," helped inspire later developments in vertical-horizontal flight. In 1904, Myers built a helicopter that rose six inches off the ground. In 1926, two years after the first free flight of a helicopter, he built a machine that traveled 1,000 feet at an altitude of 10 feet. Myers also built and flew his own airplane six years after the Wright brothers' historic flight.

An invention by Louis W. Rawson, Class of 1893, also has a place in the history of the helicopter. Rawson became superintendent of WPI's Washburn Shops in 1903 and retired 30 years later. In the late 1920s he invented what came to be known as the Rawson Coupling, which permitted a motor to come up to speed before a load was applied. The coupling found many applications over the years; in 1942, J. Adam Holbrook '38 modified it for use in helicopters made by Sikorsky Aircraft and Kaman Corp.

The initial design for such well-known helicopters as the Black Hawk, Super Stallion and S-76 was developed under the direction of Harry T. Jensen '33, who retired in 1978 as vice president for engineering at Sikorsky. He was a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society of Great Britain and an honorary fellow of the American Helicopter Society, which created the Harry T. Jensen Award to recognize outstanding advances in helicopter safety, reliability and maintainability.

George Smith helped design the NC-4, the first plane to cross the Atlantic.

Two alumni were associated with pioneering aircraft that made famous ocean crossings. Karl Schmidt '13 was a lieutenant in the Navy in 1924 when he supervised the construction of the ZR-3, one of the great dirigibles built for the United States by the Zeppelin Co. in Germany as part of the World War I reparations program. Once called "the noblest Zeppelin of them all," the airship was later christened the Los Angeles. Schmidt was one of six Americans aboard the craft for its initial flight and was also on board when it made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Lakehurst, N.J. George W. Smith Jr. '15 helped design the NC-4, the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean. In 1919, eight years before Charles Lindbergh's well-known solo flight, a three-man Navy crew flew the NC-4, a modified Curtiss flying boat, from Rockaway, N.Y., to Plymouth, England. The 3,925-mile trip took 57 hours. Smith, a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserve, worked on the NC-4 while he was chief of engineering at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia.

Making better and more efficient motors for airplanes was the passion of Arthur Nutt '16, a member of the Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame. Nutt joined Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Co. in Buffalo after graduation and in 1920 the company named him its chief motor engineer. He designed engines that powered the planes that won the coveted Pulitzer Trophy in 1921 and 1922, and his engines were on the planes that set every world speed record for more than a decade beginning in the 1920s. He later oversaw the development of the world-famous Whirlwind and Cyclone engines that at one time powered 90 percent of the world's commercial aircraft.

Arthur E. Smith '33 also made a name for himself in aircraft engine research. He joined the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Division of United Aircraft in 1935 as a test engineer. During World War II, as chief engineer at a Pratt & Whitney plant in Kansas City, Mo., he made numerous improvements in the design of Pratt & Whitney engines and did pioneering work on the use of water injection to increase engine power production. By 1949, he was chief engineer for Pratt & Whitney. A fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he would ultimately become president of Pratt & Whitney and president and chairman of United Aircraft (now United Technologies).

The field of aviation research is indebted to Henry J.E. Reid '19, who directed the Langley Research Center in Virginia, one of the world's best-known aeronautical research centers. Reid joined Langley in 1921, just a few years after the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, created the lab. He worked initially on the design and improvement of flight research instruments, and was co-inventor of the V-G recorder, used widely to obtain data on velocities and inertial loads. Under his direction, the lab grew considerably in size and reputation. Reid, himself, became a pioneer in wind tunnel design and operation and a leading authority on balances for measuring forces on wind tunnel models.

As chief of the equipment development section of Teleregister Corporation's engineering division, George L. Bush '27 developed a photoelectric transmitting typewriter, the Transmityper, that was used in air traffic control. It let radio operators and controllers transmit flight data for display on electronic flight boards. Bush was also instrumental in the development of the original display boards for the New York Stock Exchange and the tally boards used in the presidential election of 1954.

A naval aviator during World War I, Paul K. Guillow '20 developed a fascination for airplanes and aviation history that stayed with him after he left the service. That interest led him to making model airplanes, a hobby that became a business when he started manufacturing and selling model plane kits on a small scale. In time, his company, Nucraft Toys in Wakefield, Mass., became one of the largest and best-known model airplane makers in the country.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:53 EDT 1999