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Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Here's a story of another U.S. aviation pioneer - rather unlucky one. But he was probably the first man on Earth who used a dirigible to advertise beer.

I took a liberty to reproduce here an article from the aviationearth.com website. It's full of important detail and has an emotional touch that is perfectly in place when we speak about the first years of aviation.

Charles Hamilton was one of the most enigmatic figures of the golden age of aviation. The Connecticut-born inventor, flyer and businessman, had a relatively brief but remarkable life as an aviation trailblazer. Before his time was through, Hamilton would become a parachutist, balloonist, dirigible driver and heavier-than-air pilot. His unusual ability to master such a wide range of machinery, placed him atop of a very distinguish list of fliers that includes the names of Curtiss, Wring and Bleriot. Very few can see their name related to such aviation giants.

Charles Kenney Hamilton was born in New Britain, Connecticut on the morning of May 30th 1885. When he was eighteen years old, the young pioneer decided to emigrate to the US southwest where he made a living as a balloonist and parachute jumper. His first recorded stunt was in July 1905 when he appeared in Israel Ludlow’s man-carrying kite experiments on Manhattan’s south side, in New York City. Ludlow, a successful New York City lawyer and amateur inventor, was putting his unorthodox aeronautical theories into practice with several tandem biplane box-kite configurations when he met the twenty year old. It is believed that at some point during the month-long experiments, Hamilton approached Ludlow and offered his service as a kite pilot. The lawyer quickly accepted the offer, thus ushering a life-long relationship that would revolutionize the face of the east coast aviation establishment for ever.
On August 19th 1905, Hamilton and Ludlow moved their operations to Brighton Beach, on the southern tip of New York’s Brooklyn region. There the duo began to assemble the refurbished California Arrow, a dirigible that was flown earlier in the year by A. Leo Stevens. The Arrow, built by Tom Baldwin, was the first American-built successful airship. The huge ship was develop on July of 1904, just in time for the St. Louis World Fair in October. The Arrow’s first pilot and a key figure in the incredible life of Hamilton, Roy Knabenshue, was also in New York by the summer of 1905 to demostrate to a group of rail road entrepreneurs, the advantages of the airship in cargo ferrying.
At the same time, the venerable dirigible’s new owner, US Army Captain R. Lewis, wanted to make a name for himself using the Arrow as a crowd attracting mechanism. In the summer of 1905, flying machines were a big hit in many quarters along the eastern seaborne region. Jam packed stadiums were the norm every time a dirigible was present. This is the crowd Lewis wanted to reach. For this, he needed a pilot. His first choice was Stevens. But the former pilot was making so much money in the Manhattan area that he did not even consider the proposal. Enter Hamilton, the young and eager aviator promptly took on the challenge thet would usher his life into the spotlight. On a clear afternoon of September (around the 18th of the month) the Arrow took off from Coney Island’s old horse race track with Hamilton at the controls. It was the first of four short test flights that would culminate on his first true fly-by at the Trenton State Fair on the 29th.
On early October, Ludlow and Hamilton were back at work on their beloved ‘kites’. This time, utilizing a tugboat in the North River for propulsion. The experimentation phase lasted until the middle of November with no clear result. Afterwhich, both men parted ways for a brief period. Hamilton’s whereabouts after the 15th are a mystery. There were rumors he went back to Connecticut to do some parachuting. But no one can account for this. For his part, Ludlow was mostly involved in his law career and was not seen with Hamilton until the following year. What is known is that sometime around early January, the pair reunited and went hard at work on, what else, kites. By March, a more refined kite platform began to emerge. Unfortunately, Ludlow crash landed his kite on April 14th, badly hurting himself. He would never walk again, thus ending his direct involvement in the life of his young partner.
In June 1906, Knabenshue was looking to replace Lincoln Beachey as a pilot. Hamilton’s name came up on several answered conversations prompting Knabenshue to call him. Hamilton was thrilled with the idea of flying airships and quickly accepted without hesitation. The two and a half year association proved highly successful for both men. Among the many achievements Hamilton had while working for Knabenshue, was becoming the first person to make a powered flight into Canada (July). He also performed the first aerial operation in Iowa as well as in Oklahoma (May), where thousands of citizens showed up to see, for the first time, a man-made flying machine.
By the middle 1908, Hamilton had accumulated enough experience and financial resources to go track his own path. In May he bought a Lincoln Beachey-built airship. By June, the new platform was ready for performing. He did that with a series of flights along the Connecticut and New York shorelines between June 15th and July 21st. He did a couple of shows in October before embarking on to Japan.

On April 1909, he flew his beloved dirigible over the Ueno Park in downtown Tokyo (with an advertisement for Ebisu Sapporo beer) . A remarkable feat that was soon overshadowed by Bleriot’s crossing of the English Channel. The amazing accomplishment marked the end of Hamilton’s exhibition days. From now on, the pursue of heavier-than-air machines would dominate his life. After arriving back in the States, the now 24-year old seeked the advice of the legendary Glenn Curtiss. When the two met in Chicago, Hamilton begged the more knowledgeable Curtiss to teach him the intricacies of man powered flight. That’s another story.

The last time we saw Charles Hamilton he was tracking down American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss with the hopes of learning the difficult art of flying from one of the masters. Although the pair did not met until October 1909, it was rumored that Curtiss kept a close eye on the flying prodigy, probably because of his association with the New York aviation scene. In November 1909, the duo made its way to Hammondsport where Curtiss gave Hamilton a crash curse into the integrancies of powered aviation utilizing a Hudson-Fulton flying machine. After just a few, broad pointers in steering and propulsion, Hamilton took off from a rudimentary baseball field in Hammondsport, New York. For the first time in his life, the eager daredevil was piloting a heavier-then-air machine all by himself. By the end of the month, Curtiss, now fully aware of his pupil abilities, placed him under contract as a stunt aviator.

Hamilton’s first show was in Saint Joseph, Kansas, after which he move to Kansas City, Missouri for a series of more complex shows before being drafted by Curtiss to participate in the ground breaking air fair at the Dominguez Field, outside Los Angeles. From January 10 through the 20th, he competed against the best pilots in the world. “The guy can really fly!”, commented Curtiss in a 1915 interview after seeing Hamilton effortless cruising by the white California skyline. The sight must had really made an impression on the entrepreneur because on the 25th he entrusted in his former student with his company’s prize possession, a Rheims Racer, the aircraft on which he won the prestigious Gordon Bennett Trophy at an air contest in Rheims, France.

With the Rheims in tow, Hamilton went on an eleven cities, two months tour starting in Phoenix, Arizona. The circuit took him to San Antonio, El Paso, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles before ending in San Diego. The tour ended abruptly in July due to a monetary dispute between him and Curtiss, who promptly moved to repossess the airplane. This left Hamilton without a flying machine for a moment. In the mean time, he went whereever a stunt pilot was needed.

His passion for flying took him north, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. A month later he found his way once again to his beloved New York, more precisely, Ithaca. There he hooked up with Tom Baldwin and his nascent air carnival. While flying seven hours a day for Baldwin, Hamilton was quietly developing his own aircraft. Finished on the 31st of August 1910, he named the flying machine ‘the Hamiltonian’. The ‘machine’, as Baldwin called it, was constructed in the auto factory of an old friend, Walter Christie, and it was basically a Curtiss clone. Its most remarkable feature was a 120hp Christie engine, at the time the most powerful motor ever attached to a heavier-than-air machine.

By the first of September 1910, Hamilton was flying his beloved aircraft all across California. A string of seven air shows in five weeks was planned but faith intervened. On the 15th, while flying a routing stunt demonstration outside Sacramento, his ‘Hamiltonian’ stalled before plummeting to the ground. Both the aircraft and its pilot, who escaped with minor injuries, survived the accident and continued to fly, but Hamilton would never be the same. He became paranoid about anyone and everything. It became common for him to carry a gun and cash on his trousers every time he went flying. To complicate matters, he took on drinking.
Still, he continued to fly until the middle of October when the decision was made that the Hamiltonian was too unpredictable to fly, so he dipped into his pocket and bought a genuine 50hp Bleriot XI. The new plane changed his life. On the 29th, he joined in with a new aviation group, the Moisant International Aviators Company out of Manhattan. The MIA was headed by John Moisant and performed several, big events across the East Coast. During his association with the MIA, Hamilton occasionally used his own machine, now fitted with a 14-cylinder Gnome engine. As with Curtiss, the partnership with MIA did not last. From the Moisant’s point of view, he was not performing up to the expected level. Even when John Moisant died and Hamilton was appointed lead pilot, MIA officials still believe he was underachieving, and purposely.
From November 23rd to December 30th, Hamilton spent a total of just 46 minutes airborne, a far cry from the 64 total flying hours enjoyed by the rest of MIA’s aviators. Something was wrong. His drinking became heavier and more visible, which forced MIA’s hands. After a weeklong quarrel during a show in Mexico, the two parties called it quits for good. The information is scratchy, but there were rumors that after his departure from MIA, Hamilton tried to steal a couple of old flying machines from the Moisant warehouse in New York. What is known for fact is that after his departure, Hamilton showed up in Mineola sometime around the middle of February 1911 with a refurbished Whipple Hall Curtiss.
As March began, the now 26-year old decided to make a trip to France in order to purchase a brand new Farman airplane. He was all set to depart when W. Starling Burgess arrived on the scene. The significance of Burgess to Hamilton’s journey rests on what the entrepreneur had that Hamilton covets: a brand new Burgess-Wright F. He knew this was the machine for him. He tracked down Burgess at his Manhattan hotel, demanded to know how much he wanted for it, and was told the amount was $ 5,000. Hamilton took off a shoe, reached out six $1,000 notes, gave five to Burgess and the other one on his wallet.
The aircraft was delivered to New Britain where Hamilton would have to cope with the complex Wright control mechanism for the first time in his life. He immediately took the machine up, but on its maiden flight, he crash landed, largely destroying it. The parts that survive were sent back to the Burgess factory in Marblehead for rebuilding. Hamilton will go on weekends to Marblehead to receive flying lessons from Burgess’ chief pilot, Harry Atwood, a man with a life story parallel to his. Hamilton finished his student’s days by June. He moved to West Hartford, Connecticut where he purchases an abandonede baseball field. From there, he went on to make several shows on his own.
July saw a new twist in Hamilton’s life. All began on the 4th, when Atwood sets off from upstate New York to make a record flight to the nation’s capital. For yet unknown reasons, he invited Hamilton to join in the endeavor. On the 14th, Atwood crashed his plane forcing Hamilton to lend his Burgess-Wright. The duo took off from Atlantic City on the early morning hours of the 17th, and landed in College Park, around ten in the evening. The events that follow his landing at Maryland are not well documented, but one thing is clear, he was back with Curtiss by the end of July. The association was based on the belief by Curtiss that Hamilton was the best pilot still unsigned for the New York-Philadelphia race. As things turned out, Hamilton withdrew from the race citing, oddly enough, a lack of current experience in a Curtiss aircraft.
He did not surface on the aviation scene again until January 1912 when he made a series of demonstrations in Galveston, Texas on behalf of the new Chicago Aviation School. The exhibition ended with a crash on the third of February. Unlike the crash of 1911, this time Hamilton suffered severe injuries, especially to his collar-bone. The injury apparently had little effect on Hamilton’s desire and by the 20th he was back at it again. In March he teamed up with Glenn Martin and Blanche Scott for a series of shows along the west coast. But time was running out for him. He does some flying early in 1913, but by spring things began to worsen. His wife left him in April, which makes him drink even more. He eventually ends up in a Connecticut sanatorium where he spends much of the year.
He emerges for the last time in November, flying a Boland’s tailless flying boat out of Hempsyead, Long Island. His last recorded flight was on the afternoon of January 7th 1914. He dies on the 22nd of an internal hemorrhage in his New York home. A tragic end to a fully spend life.

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Comment by Larry on July 27, 2010 at 7:49pm
I'm ashamed to admit that I wasn't and that I had to Google his name to learn about him after you asked. :(
Comment by lord_k on July 27, 2010 at 9:36am
Most of them are lost to history. Especially those who didn't die at the controls and/or in the Great War dogfights. Have you ever heard of George Lawrence?
Comment by Larry on July 26, 2010 at 8:07pm
What a fascinating man. It's a shame he's been largely lost to history. Especially when one considers he combined dirigibles with beer. Brilliant! :)

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