The Engine Whisperer

Mary Heidenreich Solbrig, Mechanician (1869-1954)


“So well attuned to the roar of the two-cycle, four-cylinder [Roberts] engine had her ear become that the sound would tell her when the top power output had been attained.”
— George Shane, Des Moines Register

Mary Heidenreich Solbrig was a gardener, a cook, a church organist, a seamstress, a wife, and mother. She intuitively understood machinery and was good with hand tools. Her husband, Oscar, was a devoted family man and a skilled aviator. Their mutual interests in all things mechanical made them a remarkable team, trusting each other’s judgment as if their lives depended upon it. In fact, between 1911 and 1917, it did.

Oscar A. Solbrig immigrated to Davenport, IA, from Germany during the 1870s, set up a repair shop, and married Mary Heidenreich in 1894. Their cultural and religious heritages were similar, but what uniquely bound them together was a shared talent working with machines. They worked side by side, living in the back of his shop. They raised three children; Alfred, Hope, and Ruth. Fortunately, their private and professional lives have been chronicled in several newspaper interviews with the children as well as Mary’s personal journal. “Mama and dad . . . repaired guns, and bicycles,” recalls Ruth. “They often filed saws and sharpened blades and scissors. One time a man came in and he had a saw he wanted filed. Dad was ready to go back and file it but he said, ‘I want the woman to do it. She did such a good job.’ “

The lure of the air
The Solbrigs briefly lived in Washington, IA, during 1899, where Oscar helped Frank Brinton construct parts for his invention of a lighter-than-air ship to be exhibited at the local fair. The dirigible never made it off the ground, but Oscar’s mind soared. Mutually interested in the “new science of aviation,” the Solbrigs subscribed to aeronautical magazines to keep abreast of the latest technology, from balloons to aeroplanes. By 1910, the Solbrigs were both in their 40s, and their children were finishing high school. It was the Pioneer Aviation Exhibition Era (1908-1915) and the Solbrigs succumbed to the lure of the air.

Oscar’s goal was to fly professionally, earning $300-$500 a day while on tour in the exhibition flying circuit. A good season of “air-circus” flying easily surpassed the annual income from their shop. The risks of “cracking up” an aeroplane were well known to Oscar and Mary. They decided that they could diminish their chances for mechanical failures with Mary assigned as Oscar’s mechanician.

In 1911 Oscar took flying lessons from the Glenn Curtiss aviation school at Rockwell Field, San Diego. Mary was left to run the shop, and clear out the attic of their large home in Davenport where they planned to build a flying machine of their own. “The two of them always worked together on everything,” observed their daughter, Hope. Ruth concurred. “I don’t think [dad] would have been very much interested by himself.”

Hope remembered them “busy as bees” building the huge Curtiss biplane in the attic and in their living room. Oscar insisted upon a four-cylinder, two-cycle, 50-hp Roberts engine.

By the summer exhibition flying season of 1912, the Solbrigs’ Pusher was assembled, tested, and ready to fly. Mary, acting as manager and contract negotiator, had committed Oscar to appear in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. The couple locked up their shop and hit the rails traveling from town to town on the circuit.

A day at the air meet
The Solbrigs’ Curtiss was disassembled at the end of each air meet and packed in four crates custom made for the wings, outrigging, motor, and tools. The crates were shipped to the next location by train, wagon, or later, by truck. Mary and Oscar could re-assemble their aircraft in about four hours. If Oscar was unavailable to help her, Mary did the work alone except for lifting the engine. Once the machine was assembled, Mary and Oscar began testing the gear, with special attention to the piano wire and cables which were constantly stressed and subject to snapping apart mid-air. Once settled in for the air meet, Oscar slept while Mary remained awake all night to prevent theft and damage to their aeroplane. On the road they rested in tents, barns, and often inside their aeroplane shipping crates.

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