Today, we meet the first women pilots. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
New technologies make good
ports of entry for disenfranchised people. Black
technologists started making their mark in
telegraphy and electric lighting during the 1880's.
The peer structures weren't established. There was
no one to wall them out.
So it was for women in the new technologies of
flight. Women took up ballooning right from its
origins in the 1780s. And the hobble skirt was
invented in 1908 when a French fashion designer saw
the mincing steps of a Mrs. Hart Berg leaving
Wilbur Wright's airplane in France. She was the
first American woman to take to the air, and she'd
tied a rope around the bottom of her skirt to keep
it from blowing in the wind.
The first American woman piloted a plane two years
later. Blanche Scott had managed to get into Glen
Curtiss's new flying school. Curtiss didn't like
the idea of women flying, and he'd blocked the
throttle on her plane so it would only taxi.
Blanche somehow managed to override the block and
get herself 40 feet into the air. Two weeks later,
one Bessica Raiche really soloed, but she
eventually gave up flying to become a doctor.
Julia Clark was the first woman to die in a crash.
She learned to fly in 1911 and died practicing for
an exhibition two years later. Harriet Quimby was the first
American woman licensed to fly, in 1912. A year
later she was the first woman to fly the English
Channel. She was a stunning beauty and a natural
public figure. But that same year she was flying an
overweight passenger in Boston. He lurched in his
seat, and the airplane went out of control. They
both fell out and were killed, while the airplane
somehow righted itself and landed safely.
Women were amassing firsts and setting records as
the clouds of WW-I gathered. Flight was helping to
redefine the role of women. Now women wanted a
piece of the action as it became clear that
airplanes would play a role in the war. Then the
wall went up.
The military was violently opposed to involving
women in war. The woman who got closest to combat
was Katherine Stinson --
sister of the famous airplane builder Eddie
Stinson. First she trained Allied pilots at her own
flying school. Then she went to France as an
ambulance driver, where she did some flying for the
Red Cross. She was a superb pilot who'd already set
several flight endurance records before she went to
But war reasserts the male principle. By 1918 women
had lost much of the ground they'd gained -- and
not only in flight. Yet women had been right there,
on the ground floor of flight, with remarkable
courage, determination, inventiveness, and, of
course -- natural ability.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds