'Shorty' and the Gnome

Rudolph William Schroeder (1885-1952)


In 1910, a recent graduate of the Curtiss Flying School, Otto Brodie, needed a mechanician to keep his Curtiss pusher in one piece while he made exhibition flights in the Midwest. Based at Chicago’s Cicero Field, he was fortunate enough to meet Rudolph William Schroeder. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Schroeder was already known for his mechanical skills. He was otherwise described as a “serious, sad looking man who played a fine accordion.” Brodie is said to have nicknamed him “Shorty.”

Born in Chicago on Aug. 14, 1885, Rudolph William (“Shorty”) Schroeder was a gifted student who progressed through educational training at Crane Technical School. He was experimenting with his own glider designs in 1909, just prior to meeting Brodie.

Although of different backgrounds, they were a good match. Schroeder’s mechanical skills kept Brodie flying, but the Curtiss did not last long, and in 1911 Brodie acquired a used Farman aircraft with a 50-hp Gnome engine from wealthy New York aviator, Clifford Harmon. The Farman carried with it a legacy of fame worthy of its own distinction in aviation history. Schroeder added metric tools to his trade and got his hands greasy on the Gnome, aviation’s first air-cooled, rotary engine. Brodie made hundreds of exhibition flights in the Midwest, and used the Farman at his aviation school in both Florida and Illinois. Along with him was “Shorty” Schroeder, mechanician.

Touched by fame
Today, the unmistakable sound of a rotary engine elicits nostalgic affection from a vintage aviation enthusiast. However, the Gnome’s inner beauty may not have been immediately obvious to Schroeder in 1911. “In this type of engine, the crankshaft is mounted on the airplane, while the crankcase and cylinders rotate with the propeller,” writes engine historian Matt Keveney. When he initially learned how they worked Keveney’s reaction was, “the only person crazier than the engine designer was the one who paid money for it. At first glance it seems ridiculously backwards.”

Driven by France’s great passion for aviation, siblings Louis and Laurent Sequin created the first practical challenge to water-cooled engines based upon their automobile and marine power plants manufactured near Paris. They named it the “Gnome,” after a hard working, small mythical creature which guarded underground treasure. By 1909, they convinced their country’s most famous aviator, Louis Paulhan, to affix Gnome Omega #1 to his Farman aircraft. During 1909 and 1910 Paulhan thrilled spectators at air meets in Europe and the United States. He flew his Farman (with a new Gnome engine) in the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Hills, CA. It was this Farman and the unique and perplexing Gnome engine which eventually came under the care of Schroeder for three years.

According to Keveney, the Gnome’s advantages over water-cooled engines were less weight (under 170 pounds), better balance, and no flywheel. In the air, aviators dealt with the disadvantage of a gyroscopic effect making the plane more difficult to maneuver; the total loss of oil (mixed with gasoline) also limited the length of time it could run. Castor oil was often used, which flew back toward the open cockpit, covering the face of the aviator. The early aviator’s white neck scarf which flowed in the wind was used to wipe off the caster oil which had not already been swallowed. Added to the stress of a flight in a noisy machine made of wood and fabric, aviators had to contend with the inevitable unwelcome laxative. Used on several other types of aircraft, the Gnome Omega “gracefully bowed out in 1911,” according to Marina Dal Sogilio, an archivist at Snecma Moteurs, leaving behind a legacy as the “mythical Omega, an engine that revolutionized international aviation in its time.”

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