June 30, 1911. Boston. As he himself will soon tell the story, Harry Atwood, an aviator with but a few weeks’ experience, wakes up one morning and decides he wants to see the Harvard-Yale crew race in New London, Connecticut. No seats are available on the special observation train that is the only practical way to watch the race, so in less than three hours Atwood flies himself and a mechanic more than a hundred miles to New London, establishing a new passenger-carrying distance record. The next day, again evidently on the spur of the moment, Atwood continues onward and completes the first flight between Boston and New York. Buoyed by his success, he presses on toward Washington. After ten days of mishaps he lands on the White House lawn and is greeted by President Taft.
Harry Nelson Atwood was born in 1883 in Boston. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but never graduated. Like Augustus Herring, he was unable to convince the faculty of his school that flying machines had any practical application, or that a sane person would spend time on the problem of powered flight.
When he was twenty-two and employed as an electrical engineer, Atwood married a bank clerk nine years his senior. At a time when he worked operating an automotive garage, with a young daughter and a failing marriage, he was granted two patents associated with an electric meter. In 1911 he assigned the patents to General Electric and took the proceeds to Dayton, Ohio, where he enrolled in a course of flying lessons from the Wright brothers.
Fellow students, including two Army officers and Cal Rodgers, enjoyed playing pranks on the eager and supremely confident Atwood, such as insisting that each student had to paint his own landing stripe on the field to practice flying in a straight line. Atwood, a quick study, graduated within two weeks.
He returned to Boston at the end of May 1911 and took a job as chief instructor at a flying school recently opened by W. Starling Burgess, a Massachusetts yacht designer who had survived a brief business partnership with Herring in late 1909 and learned to fly a Wright machine over the winter of 1910-1911. Burgess, building biplanes under license from the Wright brothers, was the first licensed airplane manufacturer in the United States. Every time Atwood appeared in the sky, Burgess registered a marketing success.
Atwood’s chief role as “instructor” was to give passenger rides, including several that he provided to Charles K. Hamilton, the former Curtiss and Moisant team member who had purchased the first Burgess Model F machine and was trying to master its Wright-style control system. On June 19, Atwood took six news reporters serially from Boston to Concord, New Hampshire. Ten days later he began his impromptu trip from Boston to Washington.
The idea of multi-day point-to-point air travel had fascinated the public ever since the summer of 1910, when two newspapers sponsored a Chicago-to-New York race in which the first aviator to complete the trip within a week would win $25,000. Ultimately, Eugene Ely was the only contestant to start; mechanical issues plagued him, however, and he abandoned the attempt after covering barely twenty miles.
Although Walter Brookins and Arch Hoxsey were making one-day cross-country flights at roughly the same time (from Chicago to Springfield and Springfield to St. Louis, respectively), the Wrights refused to go after the prizes dangled for truly long-distance flights. “The man w[ho] tries the flight which Eugene Ely has just abandoned,” predicted their manager, Roy Knabenshue, “will lose money.”
Wright-style aeroplanes therefore had no history of multi-day distance flights when Atwood set out from Boston to New York and Washington. Motivated by a new $10,000 prize, he then proposed to travel from St. Louis via Chicago to New York in August 1911. Just where he obtained the funds to purchase his machine (if he did) is a mystery; it’s possible Burgess offered him a substantial discount in return for the publicity.
Atwood succeeded in reaching New York for the second time. He took eleven days to cover 1265 air miles, a mark rightly hailed at the time as “the greatest cross-country flight in the history of aviation.” (Three weeks later, Cal Rodgers and his Vin Fiz Flyer began the transcontinental journey that would shatter Atwood’s record.) In fulfillment of Knabenshue’s prophecy, however, Atwood revealed that the $10,000 prize barely covered his expenses. He was quoted as saying he thereafter planned to go into “the business end of flying.”
Atwood announced that he intended to cross the Atlantic in April 1912, tracing the route customarily used by ocean liners. Not until 1913 would the London Daily Mail offer a £10,000 prize for the crossing, but Atwood already understood that, so long as he remained in the public eye, investors would back his ventures. Figuring he could reach England in under thirty hours while subsisting on “condensed food tablets,” he converted his Wright-Burgess to a hydroplane and began to make practice flights over water. After suffering numerous crashes, he postponed his transatlantic flight to the summer while he sought to persuade the Secretary of the Navy to provide him with a cruiser or torpedo boat escort.
To fund his venture, Atwood formed the General Aviation Corporation, bought a racetrack near Boston and converted it to an airfield he named after himself, and proposed to give flight instruction. He flew from Atwood Field to make the first air mail delivery in New England, but he never liked the job of teaching. After a dispute with his business partner and fellow instructor, he quit the enterprise a few months later.
In June 1913, spurred on by the Daily Mail prize, Atwood spoke of having flown two hundred miles over Lake Erie. He had run out of gasoline, effected a water landing, and had to be rescued. He subsequently made other unsuccessful attempts to cross the lake. Even if he had succeeded, it wouldn’t have mattered. Orville Wright was quoted as saying that, unless an aviator proposed to carry literally a ton of gasoline (a weight that no airplane of the time could lift), it would be necessary to make a refueling stop. It’s unclear how Atwood proposed to solve that problem on the open ocean.
Atwood, who experimented with wood veneer as an aviation construction material, next had a brief and unhappy association with the du Pont family, during which he ran an aviation school for them that he seems to have used mostly to generate funds for his overwater flight. He had yet to work out a viable crossing plan when World War I rendered his proposed flight impossible as a practical matter, since he would be flying to a combatant country.
During and after the war Atwood gave lectures on aviation. In 1919, two Britons claimed the Daily Mail prize when they made the first Atlantic flight. Atwood, undeterred, was said to be working on a “very big” plane for crossing the ocean. He failed to deliver on a contract to build a seaplane for the Navy and thereafter abandoned his work on overwater flights.
Atwood continued to experiment with various materials, patenting a successful wood-rubber combination that led him to incorporate Rubwood, a company that manufactured automobile tires and other products. Rubwood had a promising future, but Atwood’s appalling business sense drove it into bankruptcy.
During the Great Depression, Atwood began experimenting with thermoplastics. In the mid-1930s he claimed to have designed a four-passenger “flivver” airplane, which he foresaw as “the automobile of the skyways.” Although no such machine ever came into existence, he did invent Duply, a kind of plastic (otherwise described as pressed “paperized wood”), named in a nod to the contributions of the du Pont family.
Atwood went on to build a working monoplane that was supposedly capable of flying 120 mph. During World War II he designed a remote-controlled anti-aircraft missile, which he named “the Weasel.” The Canadian government reportedly contracted with him to build a sample of his all-plastic airplane. But nothing ever came of any of those inventions.
A veteran reporter who had known him for years, alluding at the time to Atwood’s many eccentricities, said: “He had more ideas to make millions than the average person could dream up in that number of years.” But Atwood was a man destined never to realize his dreams. Constantly tinkering, he reinforced his home with concrete and heated it with steam, causing the wallpaper to peel. In 1953 he was jailed “in some unpleasantness over an automobile.” He died in 1967 at the age of 83, having never once flown across the Atlantic, not even as a passenger.
The sole published biography of Atwood is Skylark: The Life, Lies and Inventions of Harry Atwood, by Howard Mansfield. My thanks to John Sippel at the University of Massachusetts for assistance with this post.