Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 507:
IGOR SIKORSKY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 507.

Today, Rachmaninoff becomes vice president of an airplane company. 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.

Igor Sikorsky was born in Russia in 1889. He was only 20 when he built his first airplane. It was a helicopter and it was a failure. So he turned to fixed wing airplanes. By 1917, he'd built 75 of them for the Czar of Russia. He helped arm Russia against the Germans in WW-I. He amassed considerable wealth. He also built the world's first four engine plane.

Then he fled the Russian Revolution to America. He arrived flat broke and ready to begin again. Six years later he used his new savings -- $800 -- to form the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation. He began with a twin-engine, all metal, fourteen-passen- ger plane. He called it his 29A. It was his 29th design. The A simply stood for America. That plane finally wound up in Howard Hughes' hands. Hughes trimmed it to look like a German bomber, and crashed it in the movie Hell's Angels.

The 29A owed a great debt to Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff put $5000, along with his name and his enthusiasm, behind Sikorsky. For that, Sikorsky made Rachmaninoff the Vice President of his company. And how do you suppose the 29A made its first profit. Fittingly enough, it carried two pianos from New York to Washington.

Sikorsky's first real successes in America were his passenger amphibians and seaplanes. By the early 1930's Sikorsky had made the first of the famous Pan American "Clippers."

Yet the helicopter continued to tease his mind. He kept playing with the idea. He filed a new helicopter patent in 1935. But he needed a lighter and more powerful engine. One finally turned up, and Sikorsky gave the world its first successful helicopter in 1939. A 30 year old failure was set right at last.

So Sikorsky's seaplanes became our primary antisubmarine weapon. The first military choppers began service in 1944. And Sikorsky? Well he lived until 1972. He was still serving as consultant when he died.

But I go back to Sergei Rachmaninoff, airplane company executive, pianist, and composer of music. Earlier, Rachmaninoff had woven a haunting melody around the words of Pushkin:

Oh, cease thy singing maiden fair
Those songs of Georgian land, I pray thee;
What e'er recall our life to me on foreign strand
I fain would banish.
Maybe the helicopter was Sikorsky's flicker of a backward glance at happier times in Georgian lands. Yet both these great Americans really did banish the old life, and put a new kind of energy into this adopted land.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Siuru, B., Igor Sikorsky: Aviation Pioneer and Engineering Entrepeneur. Mechanical Engineering, August, 1990, pp. 60-63.

Rachmaninoff, S., Oh Cease Thy Singing, Maiden Fair. Carl Fischer. Inc., New, York, 1923

The full English text of the song is:

Oh, cease thy singing maiden fair
Those songs of Georgian land, I pray thee;
What e'er recall our life to me on foreign strand
I fain would banish.
And, ah! thy haunting lay brings back
remembrance of days, long, long departed,
I see the moon, the desert night
and her sad face and eyes imploring.
Ah! fond one, gently, ever near
A youth forever doth behold thee.
Yet when your face is always there
It will not waver, will not vanish.
Oh, cease thy singing maiden fair
Those songs of Georgian land, I pray thee;
What e'er recall our life to me on foreign strand
I fain would banish.
A. Pushkin


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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