Today, the death of Lincoln Beachey. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Richard Reinhardt describes
a scene on the shores of San Francisco Bay in 1915.
Fifty thousand people watch a diver from the
Battleship Oregon going down into the water. Then
they wait -- and wait. An hour later, the ship's
winch begins to turn. Out of the water comes a
primitive airplane with its wings torn away. Still
seated at the controls is the drowned body of
Lincoln Beachey, 28 -- the first great daredevil of
Beachey was San Francisco's native son. He was
arrogant, uncouth, and made of pure brass. Eleven
years before, and only one year after the Wright
Brothers flew, he'd made his first flight. He'd
been one of several teenagers who rode across the
Mississippi River on primitive balloons at the
Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Flight
was on everyone's mind in St. Louis that year and
Beachey was drawn to it like a moth toward flame.
At first Beachey flew the small dirigibles that
were becoming regular state fair entertainment in
the Midwest. Then, in 1910, he joined Glen
Curtiss's flying school. He was a disaster --
crashing, breaking up equipment. But Curtiss
recognized the fine madness of a daredevil and
hired him to fly in his exhibition team.
There Beachey perfected every kind of stunt: flying
down into the mists of Niagara Falls, flying to an
altitude record of over two miles, nose-diving from
3000 feet with his engine off while onlookers
screamed, fainted, and vomited. He did one of the
first loops in the air and he did it hair-raisingly
close to the ground. Prize money amply repaid his
costs to the Curtiss flying school.
Lincoln Beachey and racecar driver Barney Oldfield
had the same agent. Like Oldfield, Beachey was a PR
person's dream. He told reporters he was consumed
with remorse over deaths among pilots trying to
outfly him. "Only one thing [drew audiences] to my
exhibitions," he wrote. "It was the desire to see
... my death."
In that age of flying box-kites, nine out of ten
exhibition fliers died. It was only a matter of
time, and Beachey flew constantly. In 1913, his
notices said, he'd entertained 17 million people in
126 cities. Each routine was closer to the edge
than the last. He finally laid off for a year. Then
he came back to San Francisco with a new plane for
the Panama-Pacific Exhibition.
There he did a series of loops for the crowd, then
climbed and dove far faster than he'd ever dived
before. When he tried to pull out the wings tore
off with a sickening crunch. The mayor was a
pallbearer and school children made up a song for
Bust 'em green,
Tryin' to go to Heaven,
In a green machine.
So he made his last headline and then we forgot
him. But he'd done the first thing that had to be
done if we were to take to the air. He made such
theater of flight that we all had to join in.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds