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The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives
The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Those Magnificent Ladies in Their Flying Machines

The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives
The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

In the early days of human flight, a new word entered our lexicon: "aviatrix," the female version of "aviator." These women were true pioneers, although if you asked them, they would probably tell you they were just adventurous and loved flying -same as the men who took to the air in those days. Or even today, for that matter. But for a woman to drive one of the newfangled flying machines in the early 20th century took a can-do attitude that wasn't normally encouraged in women.

Baroness Raymonde de Laroche

Elise Raymonde Deroche was the first woman to receive a pilot's license. She was not a baroness, but a French plumber's daughter who became a stage actress under the name Raymonde de Laroche. In 1908, she was smitten with the idea of flying when she saw an exhibition by the Wright Brothers. Immediately, de Laroche began taking flying lessons from airplane builder Charles Voisin. His plane could only hold one person, so her first actual flying lesson was a solo flight, on October 22, 1909. There is some evidence that she was not the first female to fly solo, but she is definitely the first to earn a license. The newsletter of the Royal Aero Club referred to her as a "Baroness" in its report of her feat. Raymonde de Laroche never objected to the title, which stuck to her for life.

Raymonde de Laroche flew in exhibitions and races, but was denied the opportunity to fly in World War I. After the war, she was determined to become a test pilot. She got the job in 1919. In her first test flight, in which she was co-pilot, the plane took a nose dive and both Raymonde de Laroche and the pilot were killed instantly.

Blanche Stuart Scott

Born in 1885, Blanche Scott was an adventurer before she became a pilot. Scott was the second woman ever to drive an automobile coast to coat, from California to New York, in 1910. At the end of her stunt, she took her first flying lesson from pilot Jerome Fanciulli.

To prevent her aircraft from gaining enough speed to become airborne while taxiing on her own, Curtiss inserted block of wood behind the throttle pedal. However, "something happened" on September 2, and Scott managed to fly to an altitude of forty feet in the air.

The Aeronautical Society of America denied Scott the title of "first U.S. female aviator" because her solo flight was not intentional. However, Scott went on to become an accomplished pilot. She joined an exhibition team and performed daredevil stunts, and also went on to work as a test pilot for Glenn Martin aircraft (which eventually became Lockheed-Martin). Scott retired from professional flying in 1916, and became a Hollywood script writer.

Bessica Raiche

Bessica Raiche stood out from the crowd. Born in 1875, she entered the 20th century driving an automobile, wearing bloomers, and eventually practicing medicine as both a dentist and an obstetrician. She and her husband, Frenchman Francois Raiche, were fascinated by aviation and decided to build their own airplane in their backyard in Mineola, New York. They designated Bessica to be the test pilot, because she weighed less than Francois. With no training or experience, she took off for the plane's first short flight on September 16, 1910. In fact, Raiche made five flights that day -and would have flown more, if the plane hadn't crashed. Since she is the first documented woman to fly solo deliberately, Raiche was certified by the Aeronautical Society of America as the first U.S. female aviator. She and Francois went on to build more airplanes, making improvements on each one.

Hélène Dutrieu

Hélène Dutrieu was born in 1877 in Belgium, and by age 20 she was a professional stunt cyclist and champion racer on both automobiles and motorcycles. But that wasn't enough- Dutrieu also learned to fly, and was the fourth woman in the world to earn a license, in 1910. She became one of the first female professional pilots, breaking records and performing in air shows. To put her accomplishment in perspective, she caused a bit of a scandal when it became known that she did not wear a corset while flying. But that still wasn't enough. During World War I, Dutrieu drove an ambulance and worked her way up to director of a military hospital. After the war, she went into journalism and worked to promote the role of women in aviation.

Ruth Law

Born in 1887, Ruth Bancroft Law received her pilot's license in 1912 and began a career as a stunt pilot. Law was very competitive, always trying to outrace, outfly, or do a more dangerous stunt than the next pilot. In 1916, she announced her intention to break the distance record by flying from Chicago to the New York state line, a distance of 590 miles. Few took her seriously. When she tried to buy a plane large enough to carry the necessary fuel, the manufacturer refused, saying a woman couldn't do it (and besides, they were busy building planes for the war). So Law had to make do with a smaller, older Curtis biplane. She outfitted it with an extra gas tank, but she still had to use both her hands for controls, which meant juggling navigation maps as best as she could.

On November 19, 1916, Law took off from Chicago in very cold weather, fighting high winds. There were a couple of close calls along the way, as she encountered fog and high mountains. Law ran out of gas before reaching New York state, and glided in powerless for the last few miles. But she made it, and set a new world non-stop distance record.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers in the tiny town of Atlanta, Texas. She had to move away from the family to attend high school, but could only afford one year of tuition. At 23, she went to Chicago and became a manicurist. But as she followed the progress of World War I, she dreamed of flying an airplane. No one would teach a black woman to fly, so she went to France in 1920 to take an aviation course at the Somme, sponsored by the Chicago weekly newspaper The Defender. She was the only woman in her class to receive a pilot's license, but even more, she was the first black American woman to gain a license, and the first person of African American descent to hold an international pilot's license.

Coleman's dream was to open her own school for aviators, but first she had to establish her own flying career. Back in the U.S., she still could not find anyone to train her in the skills she would need for barnstorming shows, the most lucrative of civilian aviation careers at the time. So she returned to Europe for more training in 1922. When she began headlining air shows with her daredevil maneuvers, she gained the respect of men and women, black and white. Coleman became know as "Queen Bess." In addition to flying, she gave lectures on aviation and performed educational exhibition flights. And she saved her money for her school. But it was not to be. On April 30, 1926, she was testing out a plane she had recently purchased, with mechanic William Wills piloting. Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt, as she wanted to check out the vantage point from which she was scheduled to parachute the next day. The engine jammed, the plane shook, and Coleman fell out, plummeting to her death. She was 34 years old.

Pancho Barnes


Photograph: The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Florence Leontine Lowe was born in 1901 to a wealthy family who raised her in high society. She took riding and ballet lessons, but she was particularly drawn to the interests of her grandfather, legendary Civil War balloonist Thaddeus Lowe. He took Florence to her first aviation show in 1910, and told her one day she would have her own flying machine.

Florence's family arranged her marriage to minister C. Ranken Barnes in 1921. She had a son, but was never happy as a housewife, and felt that she had to compete for the minister's attention. She and the minister separated and were divorced a few years later. This freed Florence, nicknamed "Pancho" by her friends, for the adventures she craved. In 1928, Pancho took flying lessons and passed her solo test after only six hours of instruction. Very few women achieved pilot's licenses at the time, and Pancho's was signed by Orville Wright. She immediately took to barnstorming, performing in air shows and competing in air races. In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart's world women's speed record by flying at over 196 miles per hour! Pancho then turned to Hollywood, where she became a stunt pilot in several movies. She also founded a union for stunt pilots, the Associated Motion Picture Pilots

In 1935, Barnes bought 180 acres of land in the Mojave Desert, near Muroc Field, now a part of Edwards Air Force Base. She opened The Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch with a hotel, restaurant, nightclub, and a working farm. Barnes arranged for the expanding air base to give her leftover food which she fed to her pigs, which she would then sell to the Air Force. The nightclub became a favorite hangout for pilots, including Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, and the test pilots who went on to become the Mercury astronauts. You might recall Pancho and her nightclub as it was portrayed in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. She was also the subject of a 2009 PBS documentary, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Pancho Barnes died of breast cancer in 1975.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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