THE LIFE, LIES, AND INVENTIONS OF HARRY ATWOOD
by Howard Mansfield
In 1911 Harry Nelson Atwood was twenty-four. He was a college dropout who had made two attempts to get a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but had failed. He had patented two designs for electric meters and sold the patents to General Electric. He decided to use the money to learn how to fly. In May 1911 Harry arrived at the Wright brothers flying school in Dayton, Ohio. After two weeks of training, walking, and flying, Harry graduated. He had completed eighteen lessons and flown for a total of one hour and fifty-five minutes. He was now qualified for his new job:chief instructor at a new aviation school south of Boston. The Burgess School of Aviation opened on May 30, 1911, with an instructor -- Harry Atwood. He didn't care much for teaching all he wanted to do was fly. The fist day he flew 104 miles and the following week 385 miles. Harry had been the first to fly from Boston to New York and flew the length of New York City amazing the citizens. Atwood was becoming the "Undisputed Air King." On August 14, 1911 he took of on a new long-distant flight, an attempt to reach New York from St. Louis. Thus far in Harry's ten-week career he had flown nearly sixteen hundred miles. And after ten weeks he was still alive. Twelve days later he arrived in New York after flying 1,265 miles. In four months, Atwood had gone from being a college dropout to being one of the world's leading aviators. Thanks to Harry Atwood the country had caught biplane fever. His life had become a newspaper life and all wanted to know what he was doing. In 1912 Harry was nearing thirty and was flying in exhibitions to raise money toward his planned ocean flight. But the flight across the Atlantic was never to be. Atwood wanted to be an inventor and in 1913 he designed and built a flying boat aeroplane with which he set a record flight, two hundred miles over Lake Erie. But the plan for a factory building Atwood's flying boat aeroplanes fell apart. So Harry was back to flying exhibitions and test aeroplanes for the Wright Company. For the next two years he retreated from the public as he was working in secret on a new aeroplane motor and a large new flying boat. In May 1916 the Atwood Aeronautic Company, Inc. opened. It received a large order for engines from an unnamed country for ten engines a month for six months. But his flying boat was rejected by the navy as being too heavy. In 1922 the factory burned to ground and harry went onto a new project. His next invention was the Rubwood wheels for which he received orders for kiddie car wheels, shoe heels, wheels for Dupont company powder mills, and baby carriage wheels. By 1927 the Rubwood Manufacturing Company went bankrupt. Atwood had milked the company dry. In 1930, at the age of forty-six, he had to declare bankruptcy. He went from being a hero to being considered a con man by those who dealt with him. His comeback was to build a small plane out of birch veneer strips bonded with plastic called duply. The "Airmobile" would be cheaper to make and safer to fly, the Model T of the air. In 1932 he convinced a failing furniture company to take the gamble. In June 1935 the first Airmobile flew and was declared by the newspapers as "the plane for the multitudes." but financial problems plagued the furniture company and it was declared insolvent. As for Harry he was broke and fighting for his invention, the Airmobile. but nothing came of the plane. In 1939 he designed a robot-guided missile that he tried to get the U. S. government interested in. But the government was not interested. Atwood sold his duply patent for ten thousand dollars which made millions for others. In 1943 Harry focused on plastics and found a supporter in Andrew Jackson Higgins. Atwood's woven-plastic-plywood was to be used to make the Higgins Air Freighter, a 150-ton flying wing. But the Higgins Air Freighter was a disaster. another aviation dream had failed. By 1953 Harry was working on a "milk purifier" but couldn't get anybody to invest in his idea. At eighty-three Harry Atwood moved to North Carolina. He had no money or no social security. He was having to be supported by others. Even in his eighties he was working on inventions that would "revolutionize" the world. On July 14, 1967, Harry Atwood died. He was among the most flamboyant of the celebrated pioneers of American aviation. He was a daredevil, inventor, entrepreneur, and con artist. A fascinating read.