Past Contact! Mechanics in Aviation History

William Bushnell Stout (1880-1956) Aircraft designer, artist, and poet

In the summer of 1910 Minneapolis hosted one of America’s earliest exhibition air meets. William Bushnell Stout, age 30, was there when aviator Eugene Ely’s Curtiss biplane made a low flight that crashed into a fence.

“I was hired as a mechanic by Ely, to help him build his machine into shape for the next day’s flight,” wrote Stout in his 1951 autobiography, So Away I Went! Stout’s masterful hands-on career with aircraft lasted decades. His projects connected him with the most influential men in transportation development — among them Henry Ford, Igor Sikorsky, and Octave Chanute.

“Bill” Stout was born in Illinois and was an unusual person from early childhood. Although his poor eyesight was nearly debilitating, he possessed curiosity, ambition, and passion for all things mechanical. He loved toys, and as a teen invented gadgets made from paper clips, kitchen spoons, newspapers, sewing thread, and soap, which he sold in magazines. One of his earliest designs was a paper airplane powered by a rubber band. In later years he founded a national model airplane club and always believed that if a person created something that flew with their own hands, they would become better design engineers, pilots, and mechanics. 

Stout graduated from Mechanical Arts High School in Minnesota then traveled to Europe with the bare necessities to expand his world view. He entered college but dropped out, embarking on his own learning path.

Few men were as naturally gifted with diverse talents as bespectacled Stout. He was an artist, able to sketch images of outdoor scenes for pleasure and technical drawings for engineering designs. He was a poet, publishing two booklets of his own words. He was a musician, enjoying an impromptu jam. He was a prolific journalist, hired by some of the most popular magazines and newspapers of his time. He was a frail and thin man but he worked long hours, and pushed himself physically to meet a promised deadline or test one of his machines. 

In 1906 Stout married Alma Raymond whom he later described as his “inspiration for everything.” They moved into a small shack in Minnesota where Stout built their first furniture. They raised a family and spent a lifetime together.

Stout’s hundreds of patented inventions range from simple children’s toys to the first major changes in motorcycles, cars, airplanes, trains, and even portable housing. Were he alive today, Stout might be designing spacecraft or developing “green” transportation. Modern technology is still catching up with the man who never stopped tinkering.

By 1907 Stout was chief engineer for a truck company and in 1912 the Chicago Tribune hired him to edit their automotive section. With friends he founded Aerial Age, one of the first magazines solely dedicated to aviation. Wild about motorcycles, Stout began designing his own in 1910 (the Bicar, the Cyclecar, the Victor) and progressed to automobiles (the Scripps-Booth). By 1916 he headed sales at Packard and became the chief engineer of its new aviation division. During the 1920s Stout was an outspoken advocate of building all-metal airplanes, facing ridicule and resistance from those who built aircraft made of wood. He also held strong convictions about the future of power plants. He once pointed out to an unimpressed Army officer that “It is just as silly to water-cool an airplane engine as it would be to air-cool a motorboat with all that water.”

Between 1918 and 1922, Stout formed Stout Engineeringanddeveloped the airworthy, all-wing (36-foot) Batwing and the Torpedo Plane constructed of Duraluminum, for the Navy.

Safety, reliability, and luxury
Between 1922 and 1923 Stout built America’s first all-metal commercial airplanes which evolved into the eight-passenger Stout Air Pullman(the 2-AT), powered by a Liberty engine. Radically different than anything previously flown, the exterior was corrugated metal and the cockpit (which was protected by a celluloid wind screen) was designed for a pilot and co-pilot. Inside, wallpaper, padded seats, and a bathroom created luxurious comfort. When the 2-AT was used to haul cargo Stout called it the Air Truck.

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