Saturday, April 23, 2016

T is for E. Lillian Todd - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

E. (Emma) Lillian Todd 1865-1937
E. Lillian Todd remembered that she loved discovering how things worked as a child. She would disassemble toys, use scissors as a tool, tinker with weather vanes, typewriters, telescopes, and even her walking dolls. As she grew older, she learned to build airship models and other aeronautic toys with motors.

Lillian was born in Washington D.C. in 1865. From a census taken in 1870, it appears her father had either died or left the home. Lillian was living with her mother and sister alone, but later mentioned she inherited her "mechanical and inventive talent" from a grandfather.

Lillian's education is somewhat vague, but she was bright enough to learn how to type and land a job at the Patent Office (NY). Another job opened in the governor's office in Pennsylvania, where she was the first woman to receive an appointment in that state's executive department. Returning to New York in 1890, she studied law at New York University and was a member of the school's first Woman's Law Class. Still a tinkerer at heart, she managed to invent a typewriter copy-holder, sharing a patent with a colleague in 1896. During the Spanish-American War, she also worked for the Director-General of the Women's National War Relief Association as a secretary in 1898. She was 33.

After 1903, Lillian returned to her ongoing fascination with "mechanical and aeronautical toys." Not since the model-making days of her childhood had she ever seen more than a model, but witnessing live airships flying over London and at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis gave her ideas. When she saw a sketch of an airplane in a 1906 Parisian newspaper, Lillian knew it was time to build a new model.
1904 Louisiana Purchase World's Fair
In December 1906, Lillian proudly displayed her first airplane design as part of the Aero Club of America exhibit at New York's Grand Central Palace. Lillian was the first woman in the world to build and design a heavier-than-air aircraft. Lillian drew national attention as Miss E. Lillian Todd. Her display received the most visitors according to newspapers. Evening World (Dec. 4, 1906) reported that Andrew Carnegie (a wealthy philanthropist) had spent hours discussing the model with "Miss Todd." Whether he had considered becoming her patron is unclear. Indeed, money would be a factor building a full scale biplane. Olivia Russell Sage, a wealthy widow who had inherited millions and also admired the exhibit, became Lillian's patron, donating $7000 for the project.

1906. Miss E. Lillian Todd (2nd on left) and Aero Club of America exhibit
In fall of 1908 Lillian hired two aeronautical engineers, Charles and Adolph Wittemann to begin construction. The plane would be built according to her design in Mineola, NY (inside a large shed). Meanwhile, Lillian pursued another interest, the mentoring and education of boys in the field of aviation. She formed the first Junior Aero Club of America in 1908. The club met in her living room, amidst all her inventions and models, where the group learned about flight and how to make models themselves. Clubs spread elsewhere and model making became quite the rage for awhile. The club also led to the formation of the Junior Wireless Club, which was a precursor to the Radio Club of America. 

"In Miss Todd's Living Room"

November 8, 1910 was the big day. Lillian's biplane had been rebuilt several times and finding the right engine was a fiasco, but the "Todd biplane" was finally ready. A crowd showed up at the Garden City Aviation Field to watch Didier Masson, a French pilot, fly Lillian's machine. The plane performed well. Masson flew for 20 feet, turned the plane around, returned and landed to everyone shouts of praise.

The top wing was modeled after wings of an albatross. Lillian spent hours studying  this bird at the museum. The frame was made of spruce, covered in bleached muslin and army duck, and held together with piano wire. Plane was 36 feet long.


Lillian sitting in her plane. 
She had invented, patented, and 
installed a device to control equilibrium. 

Lillian had planned to fly the biplane herself and wanted to travel around the United States, but the City of New York had denied her application for a permit to fly the previous year (Sept. 2009). Lillian was the first woman to apply for a pilot's license in the world.  

Interesting, the New York Times then reported two months later (Nov. 2009) that: "She intends to operate the machine herself as soon as her hands, which have given out, due to overstrained muscles and nerves, will allow of her managing the steering gear." 

Another newspaper several months later (Daily Journal and Tribune, Knoxville, TN, Jul 10, 1910) reported Lillian had signed up for several long-distance flights and that her mechanics were working on three designs. It appears that Lillian fully intended to fly the Todd biplane on her own, but something happened. Perhaps the City of New York intervened

No one knows for sure if Lillian ever flew her biplane. It's not likely she did. In 1911, she accepted a position with her benefactor Olivia Sage, and in 1912 arranged to have the biplane donated to the state of New York (the first person to do so). The Junior Aero Club thrived without her for many years to come and Lillian eventually settled in California in 1936. No one knows if she continued her experiments in aviation.  

Other Patents filed:
--cabinet with folding table
--cannon fired at noon by sun power
--sun dial
--aeolian harp device played by the wind

A delightful short film based on Lillian Todd. It 
won the 2013 Academy Awards Gold Medal for foreign films.  

Stars of the Sky, Legends All by Ann Lewis Cooper, Sharon Rajnus;;;;;



  1. I wonder why she stopped. Maybe the deal with her hands giving out. And while I support education of children of both sexes, I wonder why her flying club was for boys and that apparently no girls were involved? It's a puzzle.

    1. Hello LuAnn! I spent a lot of time looking for more information, but saw nothing as to why girls were not included. But thinking about the traditional roles of women back then, I wonder how many parents would have supported sending their girls to a club to build things, airplane models in particular. At the time, airplanes were a guy thing. Also, boys clubs and girls clubs were always separate then, and were for many years to come.

  2. Parents have traditionally encouraged boys to be the ones to play with toys that teach them how to put things together. This is proof that when you let a girl take her natural course and follow her interests, she can do great things.

    1. Ha-ha. Very much agree. I sometimes laugh at my own mechanical ability. I work well with my hands and applied this to my sewing and also had a job repairing telephones many years back. In school a test (SAT?)said I'd make a good mechanic. Of course at the time I was thoroughly insulted!

  3. What a wonderful woman! we have some awful letters soon I hope you found one fopr "X". that's a letter I'm having problems with.

    1. Oh, I hear you. I was looking at my final choices (I had briefly researched in beginning), and realized that my U, V and Y wouldn't work (long story, but I recovered over the weekend). So yeah, a real problem! Good luck figuring out your X. That one I've known for awhile now :)

  4. Another fascinating woman--so many skills, talents, interests! Our daughters and granddaughters need to hear more about amazing women like her...

    1. Oh, that makes me feel good :) I was just thinking about this earlier....of a way to print the series for my grand-daughter. I think there are programs to print a blog, but wonder if I can pick the posts. Not sure how that works. I may have to do it the hard way with self publishing.

  5. This is another amazing woman who created an airplane using piano wore! I wish more people knew about these amazing women. I read just above what was written and I thought, if you could print off a picture of the woman and make a scrapbook for your granddaughter, that would be a wonderful gift of learning.

    1. That's really a great idea and I wouldn't have to mess with figuring out software or some weird app I've downloaded. I could try my hand at scrap booking too. I have a pretty good printer. Thanks!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.