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Posted 5/15/2007 Printable Fact Sheet
Thomas Baldwin
American Aerospace Pioneer, Thomas Scott Baldwin
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Thomas Scott Baldwin

Tom Baldwin, a former circus trapeze artist, made his first balloon ascent in 1875 and spent the next 10 years performing in balloons at thousands of shows and fairs across the country. To spice up his performance, on January 30, 1885 he made one of the first parachute jumps from a balloon in history. He made many more jumps, becoming known as "The Father of the Modern Parachute."

In 1900, Baldwin set out to create an act of greater daring and began investigating motorized balloons. Using a motorcycle engine built by Glenn Hammond Curtiss and an elongated balloon, Baldwin created the dirigible California Arrow, which flew the first circuitous flight in America on August 3, 1904.

The Army Signal Corps became interested in the airship idea and offered to pay him $10,000 for a practical means of dirigible aerial navigation. Baldwin created a dirigible that was 95 feet long and powered by a newly-designed Curtiss engine. The Army purchased it and designated its first dirigible "SC-I" (Signal Corps Dirigible Number 1). Thus, Baldwin became known as "The Father of the American Dirigible."

In 1910 Baldwin built his own airplane, the first to feature a all-steel framework rather than wood, and called it the "Red Devil." It was powered by a 60 horsepower Hall-Scott engine. He formed a troupe of aerial performers and toured several countries in the Far East, making the first airplane flights in many nations. In 1914 he returned temporarily to dirigible design and development, creating the US Navy's first successful dirigible, the DN-I. 

He then began training airplane pilots and managed the Curtiss School at Newport News, Virginia. One of his students was the young Billy Mitchell, later to become a great advocate and champion of American military airpower.

When the United States entered the First World War, Baldwin volunteered his services to the Army, even though he was 62 years old. He was commissioned a Captain in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps and appointed Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production. 

Consequently, he personally inspected every lighter-than-air craft built for and used by the Army during the war. He was promoted to the rank of Major during the war. After the war he joined the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, as a designer and manufacturer of airships.

Few in the fledgling brotherhood of early aviators was better loved than "Captain Tom" Baldwin. He was an unrivaled showman, aircraft designer, and inventor, making tremendous and lasting innovations in a career that spanned nearly 50 years. He died in 1923 at the age of 68 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.

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