Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 84:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 84.

Today, we meet the oldest airplane designer. 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.

The airplane that finally brought down von Richtofen -- the Red Baron -- was an English biplane called the Sopwith Camel. The Camel was a maneuverable little airplane, and my father -- who flew them in France -- told me they were tricky to fly. But with a good pilot, they were deadly in combat. In 1916, the Germans controlled the air over the Western front. The Sopwith Camel changed all that in 1917.

It was called the Camel because someone thought the pilot's windscreen and headrest looked like a camel's hump on the fuselage. And Thomas Sopwith manufactured them.

Sopwith was 15 when the Wright brothers flew. He learned to fly in 1910 when he was 22. By then he'd raced automobiles and speedboats; and he'd done daredevil ballooning. In no time he won flying prizes, and he used the prize money to start making airplanes. He was now 24, and WW-I was brewing. His first planes were used early in the war, and when the Sopwith Camel gave the air back to the allies in July, 1917, Sopwith was still under thirty.

He stayed with airplane manufacturing after the war. In 1935 he was made chairman of the Hawker-Siddley group, and there he did a most remarkable thing. In 1936 he decided to produce a thousand Hawker Hurricanes on his own -- without a government contract. War was brewing again, and if the British government wasn't ready, he at least was. Without his Hawker Hurricanes, England would have been laid bare against Nazi bombers during the Battle of Britain.

But that was far from the last of Sopwith. After WW-II, he was involved in developing the Hawker Harrier -- the first jet airplane that could take off and land vertically. You heard a lot about it during the recent Falklands war.

Sopwith finally celebrated his hundredth birthday on January 18th, 1988. The RAF sent flights of his own airplanes past his home near London. What a history lesson that was -- from early flying machines to modern jets! -- a parade that spelled out the whole history of powered flight in the life of this remarkable man with his uncanny ability to read the future.

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

(Theme music)

This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1510.

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

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