Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cromwell Dixon

I have this old Time-Life book about the house entitled rather unimaginatively "1900-1910". Like most books of its ilk, there are a number of interesting pictures coupled with rather undescriptive, overly simplistic captions. Still, if you should ever see it lying about in a used bookshop, I would encourage its purchase, if naught else but for the excerpts from lonely hearts columns of the Victorian Period (sample question: "Is there anything wrong with holding hands with a young man in public?")

Well away, the one picture that always captured my imagination was a 1908 picture of an airship the young (14!) Cromwell Dixon had made, piloted by his mother. The caption told me that he had lost his father at a young age, so his mother encouraged his interest in things aeronautical (presumably to keep him out of trouble). That and and a reference to his "SkyCycle" was about all I had to go on.

I am not unfamiliar with search engines, but for whatever reason, I only recently located more information on Cromwell. Indeed, he HAD made a Sky Cycle at age 14, the story having it that his mother sewed up the gasbag for him. As the name suggests, it was powered by a converted bicycle hooked up to a twin bladed airscrew.




He seems to have only flown that for a year at State Fairs, towing the American Flag behind him. Then he had caught enough attention to move onto powered aircraft such as the Dixon airship, here pictured piloted by his mother in that photo that caught my attention.



I suppose the story really caught my imagination in two ways. For one, isn't the SkyCycle just the sort of thing a child would think of? I mean, it is completely out of some children's adventure novel (the sort some seemed to think boys along would like--as if Carroll and Baum hadn't pointed out quite clearly that girls like that sort of thing too!). And secondly, as much as I love the story of the young Cromwell, the suffragette in me need point out that his mother had just as much a hand in his adventures as he did. She sewed the blessed thing together, and though he might have done the exhibitions, it is clear that she flew the craft as well. But, especially in that day, a child prodigy is much more saleable than a middle aged woman risking her neck.

And that brings us to the part of the story Time Life didn't cover, and I just found out a month ago. I suppose I ought have wondered why more people hadn't heard about Cromwell. Certainly, he was quite famous in his time, and he quickly realized all his boyhood dreams (and perhaps his mother's as well) by being invited to design new heavier than air flying machines. Here he is, looking rather dashing at the still callow age of 19:



Shortly thereafter, the boy genius died in a plane crash at a fair in Spokane, Washington.

How odd. Cromwell would have passed from this world by now, yet when I read that, I cried as if it had happened that morning to someone I knew. Perhaps I could not help but think of what Mrs. Nellie Dixon's thoughts were like. I didn't find anything more about her after her son's death. I don't imagine that she kept flying.

Make no mistake about it, in the day, flying was an extremely dangerous activity. The list of pioneers who perished pursuing the ancient dream is long--at a rough guess, I'd say half the pilots of the pre-Great War died in crashes. It was not always the pleasant frolic that it is in the virtual Steampunk world I spend so much time in.

But that doesn't mean that Cromwell and his mother were wrong to pursue that dream. And I won't let them pass from my memory, either. Shortly after reading all that, I went out and made my own, virtual SkyCycle--




And I don't think it is pretension to say that, if I could, I would happily hop aboard a real SkyCycle and go at it. Sadly, neither my RL craftsmanship, sewing nor funds will permit such and endeavor. But there are still some Cromwell Dixons out there, as this little airship I found out about on the Brass Goggles blog attests to
http://www.zeppy.org

Who knows, perhaps someday :) But in the meantime, should you be strolling about the virtual streets of Caledon, do look up. You might, perchance, see a madwoman pedaling as fast as she can, remembering the past and having more than a bit of fun doing it!


1 comment:

aerocrat said...

First solo-driver dirigeablewoman was Aida Acosta (see Wiki) - before Nellie Dixon, Cromwell' mother