The Genius from Seattle

According to newspaper accounts, Evans’ first plane was a Santos Dumont Demoiselle model manufactured in Seattle by the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company.

Any early type of aeroplane was unusual, but this one was especially so, as the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company consisted of a sixteen-year-old kid named Thomas F. Hamilton and his assistant – his mother.  Young Hamilton had started experimenting with flying machines at the age of fourteen, and by age sixteen he had built and sold eight working airplanes, including one to a customer in St. Joseph, Missouri and one to Kansas City’s William Evans.

According to the Seattle Times, Hamilton started by working with gliders, “proved to himself that he was on the right track and went into the business in earnest.”  Hamilton advertised in aeronautics magazines and booked his first order.  When he had four orders in the queue, he dropped out of high school to “take up seriously the manufacturing of aerial craft.”  Hamilton, reported the Times in 1910, had employed a few other men at various points in his company’s history but found them far less competent and helpful than his mother, who sewed canvas and helped with the assembly process. [1. Seattle Daily Times, 29 June 1910, p. 9.]

The Times reported that Evans’ machine was “a miniature compared to other machines used for aerial navigation, but, nevertheless, young Hamilton claims to have received reports that its owner flew four miles with it in the teeth of a gale between Kansas City and Topeka.”  So far, I’ve found no local reports of Evans and the plane in any type of weather, but it’s possible that reporters took his request for privacy seriously.

Hamilton built gliders and Curtiss biplanes in addition to the Santos Dumont models.  According to the Times, “The main planes are of tested fiber cloth, the supporting braces of spruce, while oak and other hard woods are used in the longitudinal supports.”  Propellers were made of “thin strips of oak and spruce joined together in such a manner as to make them extremely durable” or were carved from single pieces of fir. [2. Seattle Daily Times, 28 May 1911, p. 18.]

While other teenagers might complain of curfews or restrictions when driving the family car, Hamilton reported that his ability to spread his wings in a more literal sense was controlled by limits his parents had placed on the height and duration of his flights.  He also occasionally had to chase away neighborhood children who used his makeshift aviation field for baseball games.

Thomas F. Hamilton later took his company to Milwaukee and became one of the major providers of propellers used on military aircraft in both World Wars.  His company eventually became part of Boeing.  He must have married a kindred spirit, because in 1919, Hamilton’s wife became the first female member of the Aero Club of Wisconsin.  Hamilton retired to Lake Arrowhead, California and passed away in 1969. [3. Seattle Times, 27 August 1969, p. 76.]