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Henry Ford's Attempt to Make Us All Pilots

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Image of a Flivver reproduction via WikiMedia uploader FlugKerl2

"Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come."

Auto magnate Henry Ford earned his fair share of ridicule in 1940 when he made that boisterous proclamation. The flying car may still be coming, but it's certainly taking its sweet time. Seven decades later, there's still no sign of it.

What makes Ford's confidence so mystifying is that the mogul had already spearheaded one attempt to put the common man in the sky, and that project had failed miserably. This is the story of that plane, the Ford Flivver.

In 1924, Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company and began working on various designs for civilian aircraft. Ford's aircraft division had some successes, like the Ford Tri-Motor transport plane that rolled out in 1926 and earned worldwide acclaim when Admiral Richard Byrd flew it over the South Pole in 1929.

Henry Ford had bigger goals for the division, though. He had already put automobile ownership within the average American's reach, so why not put a plane in every garage, too? The idea sounds ridiculous now – just as it probably did then – but Ford threw himself into the project. With engineer Otto Koppen at the helm, Ford's aircraft division went to work building "the Model T of the air."

Ford knew that successfully marketing a civilian plane would be tricky, so he charged Koppen with designing a small, light craft. (Koppen later said that Ford wanted a plane that would fit in his office.) By the summer of 1926, Koppen had come up with an aircraft that fit the bill. The Ford Flivver was a small single-seat plane that was just over 15 feet long and had a wingspan of just a hair under 23 feet. It ran on a 3-cylinder, 35-horsepower engine made by the Ford company Anzani, and it weighed just 350 pounds when empty.

As unlikely as the task initially sounded, Ford now had a prototype of his everyman's plane. Now he just needed to work out the kinks, show it to the world, and get every American in his own plane. Ford unveiled the Flivver on his 63rd birthday, July 30, 1926, with the company's trusty test pilot, Harry J. Brooks, at the controls.

When Brooks took that initial public flight in the Flivver, it looked like Ford had hit another home run. As Popular Science reported at the time, several novel features of the plane made it seem feasible that your average Joe could get behind the controls. The plane's flaps were arranged to give it maximum upward lift in small spaces, and a rear wheel made it possible to drive from one's home to a makeshift runway.

For the next year and a half, Brooks flew the original Flivver and two other prototypes as the company refined the design. Brooks loved the little plane so much that he actually used it to commute from his home to work. Brooks would tell the press, "Flying a plane like this is no more difficult than flying a large plane, except in this plane the pilot has to think a little faster."

Brooks was one of just two men ever to fly a Flivver. The other was Charles Lindbergh, and Lucky Lindy didn't share Brooks' enthusiasm for the design. Lindbergh later called the Flivver one of the worst planes he'd ever piloted.

Brooks even attempted to fly one of the Flivvers from Michigan all the way down to Miami on a single tank of gas in January 1928. Although rough weather forced a landing in Asheville, NC, the flight still set an American distance record for light planes. Brooks reported that the efficient little plane still had plenty of fuel to finish the trip; when the storm passed, he continued on to Florida.

Brooks' trip to Florida turned out to be the tragic end for the Flivver project. In late February 1928, Brooks was cruising over the ocean just south of Melbourne, FL, when the Flivver's engine locked up, smashing both plane and pilot into the water. The wreckage of the plane eventually washed ashore, but searchers never found Brooks' body.

Although Henry Ford moved quickly to announce that Brooks' death wouldn't alter the company's planes for the Flivver, the project quickly went south. Ford and the young test pilot had become friends, and reports surfaced that the mogul was distraught over Brooks' death. As Ford's guilt grew, he decided to end the Flivver project and get out of the light plane business entirely.

Ford's company later got back into the small aircraft business with projects like 1931's Stout Skycar series, but Ford was never able to put the common man in the air.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Hamilton Broadway
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.


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