The Early Years

The Wright Brother's achievement of manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight in 1903 and their later successes, described in 1908 issues of Scientific American,1,2 provided the spark to ignite enthusiasm for aeronautics in faculty members and students of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API). Located in the small town of Auburn, Alabama, API would soon be intimately connected with flight and flying machines. Even before the Wright Brothers' great accomplishments, some independent researchers in Alabama were serious about the subject of aeronautics. In 1874, Lewis Archer Boswell, a physician from Eastaboga, near Talladega, Alabama, patented an "Improvement in the Aerial Propeller-Wheels." Boswell continued to be actively interested in aeronautics until his death in 1909.

At least one Scientific American article about the Wright Brothers' historic flight was reprinted in the API student newspaper, the Orange and Blue, and a paper on aeronautics was presented at a meeting of the Engineering Society in 1908. In an interview some eighty years later, Robert Knapp, an API alumnus and later a U. S. Air Force General, (See Fig. 1.) claimed that the Wright Brothers had visited Auburn in 1907, stayed in his home (he was very young at the time), and met with engineering professors John J. Wilmore and M. Thomas Fullan. Knapp said the professors worked with the Wrights to redesign their aircraft so that it could be disassembled and transported in a wagon.

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Knapp's memories could not be verified. However, it is well documented that the Wright Brothers visited Alabama in 1910 in search of a site for a winter flying school. They found one near Montgomery, went back to get their airplane and returned to conduct instruction for three months later that year. In the fall of 1910, the Opelika Daily News (Opelika is a town adjoining Auburn) contained an announcement of instruction at API on "aeronautic construction and the principals [sic] of aviation," as part of a class in kinematics of machinery. Professor Fullan gave lectures on aviation around the state, and there were many "air minded" students and faculty on campus.

Just prior to the United States' involvement in World War I, a Reserve Officers Training Corps was formed at API. Service in World War I interrupted the studies of many API students and the lives of many alumni. According to Ref. 4, at least fifty students served in the army or navy air corps. During the war and for a while thereafter, a unit of the Student Army Training Corps provided training for around 1,700 students and funds for a shop and laboratory. After the war, the land used by the Wright Brothers for their flying school was the site for Maxwell Field. Robert Knapp, then a Lieutenant in the U. S. Army stationed at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, helped encourage the interest of students in aeronautics. Knapp flew to and from Auburn to visit his brother and landed in a pasture owned by W. W. Webb, a veterinarian who had built two runways for his own airplane. Capt. Asa Duncan and Lt. Knapp flew sections of the first airmail route through Alabama in 1925. The student newspaper, the Auburn Plainsman, the alumni association's Auburn Alumnews and The Auburn Engineer, a School of Engineering publication, contain many articles on aeronautics during the period 1925-30. A visit by Charles Lindbergh to Birmingham in 1927 added to the considerable interest in aeronautics at API.

Last Updated: Feb 09, 2011