Thomas Scott Baldwin – Major, United States Army

An early aviator, often associated with the lines of the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, Glenn Curtiss and Thomas E. Selfridge, he was appointed by the United States Government to superintend the building of all spherical, dirigible and kite balloons.  He built the first Government airship in 1908 (U.S. Signal Corps Dirigible Number One).

He as born on June 30, 1860 and died on May 17, 1923.  He was buried with military honors in Section 1 (Grave 1284) of Arlington National Cemetery.


Courtesy of the National Aviation Hall of Fame


ENSHRINEMENT BIO: Born in Missouri in 1854, his was the Horatio Alger story of success through hard work and good deeds. Orphaned at an early age, he became an acrobat at fourteen with a traveling circus and then progressed, step by step, to prominence in aviation.

Beginning with balloon ascents were the star attraction at county fairs all over the country, he made his first balloon ascent in 1875. After ten years and thousands of shows the novelty began to fade. Searching for a daring new exhibition specialty, he rediscovered the rigid parachute invented a century before. He redesigned it and made it flexible so it could be packed. Now the daring deed took shape. He offered to parachute from his balloon, at the rate of a dollar a foot. His services were eagerly bought, a thousand feet worth, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The date was January 30, 1885, one of the first times in history that man had descended from a balloon in a parachute.

Ascending in a sitting position, perched on a small seat, with his feet swinging in space beneath him, he would rip open his balloon and start to plunge. When enough momentum was reached to fill the chute, he would jump from the seat and float down through space. So thrilled were those who watched, that medals, and trophies, and jeweled orders from countries around the world were his. He can be called “The Father of the Modern Parachute.”

But again the luster faded and he set out in 1900 to devise an act of greater daring. Intrigued by the work of others, he began to investigate motor driven balloons. After struggling over four years, he found a lightweight engine to power his elongated airship. By this action he set in motion one of the greatest forces aviation was ever to know, Glenn Hammond Curtiss. For it was Curtiss’ motorcycle engine that powered his first dirigible, the “California Arrow” on August 3, 1904 in the first circuitous flight in America. The Army Signal Corps became impressed and offered to pay $10,000 for a practical means of dirigible aerial navigation and awarded him the contract. Ninety-five feet in length and powered by a Curtiss engine of novel design, it was accepted and designated the SC-I, the Signal Corps’ first dirigible, which set the design for all the dirigibles of the time. Thus he can be called “The Father of the American Dirigible.”

By now another craft had claimed the promise for the future and interest faded in all but the Wright Brothers’ airplane. In 1911, Baldwin built the first plane with steel framework and called it the “Red Devil.” Again the showman that he was knew that people around the world wanted to see the airplane fly and convinced Glenn Curtiss to form a troupe of aerial performers. He too formed a team and in 1913 his troupe toured the Philippines, Japan, and China, the first time in most cases where an airplane had ever flown.

In 1914, just before the First Great War, his interest turned to dirigibles again and he designed the Navy’s first successful dirigible, the DN-I. But training fliers was now the need and he managed the Curtiss School at Newport News. One of his students was to later become the unsung champion of the air, General “Billy” Mitchell. When the U.S. went to war, Baldwin volunteered his services, although 62 years of age. He became Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production and personally inspected every balloon and airship used by the Army in the war. His final employment was with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, continuing the design and manufacture of airships.

Few men in the aeronautical community were better loved than “Captain Tom” by the countless friends he made. Inventor of the flexible parachute, builder of the first practical dirigible in America, pioneer designer, builder and flyer of airplanes, his life was unrivaled as a showman, as an innovator and inventor in nearly 50 years in aeronautics.

Thomas Scott Baldwin, one of the oldest and best loved pioneers of American ballooning and flying died in the Deaconness’s Hospital at Buffalo, New York, on May 17, 1923, at the age of sixty-eight. He was born in Marion, Missouri, on June 30, 1854, the son of Samuel Yates Baldwin and Jane Baldwin. He married Cary Poole, 1878.

Few men in the aeronautical community enjoyed a greater popularity than “Captain Tom”, as he was affectionately known to the countless friends he had made in the course of forty-eight years entirely devoted to aeronautics. His earliest connection with aeronautics dates back to that now ancient period when free balloon ascents coupled with parachute drops were the star attraction of county fairs all over the country. His first balloon ascent took place in 1875, and in the twenty-five years which followed, Captain Baldwin made several thousand ascents and countless parachute drops in the U.S., Canada and Far East. He had numerous close escapes but his proverbial luck and great skill always enabled him to extricate himself from the most dangerous situations. He was the first man in the U.S. to descend from a balloon in a parachute, on Jan. 30, 1885, at San Francisco, using a parachute of his own design which was the first modern type of this appliance. Previous parachutes, derived from those invented a century earlier by Garnerin, were very crude affairs, and it remained for Captain Baldwin to perfect them as the result of intensive experimentation from balloons.

Then, at the beginning of the present century, the light weight gasoline engine was beginning to emerge from the experimental stage, Captain Baldwin was quick to see the promise it held in store for solving the dirigibility of balloons. From 1900 to 1908 he built a great number of small non-rigid airships of cigar shape which were driven by small gasoline engines and these he exhibited, as he had previously done with free balloons and parachutes, at various county fairs. Thus he was preparing the American public for the impending advent of motor air navigation, which then only existed in the minds of aeronautical enthusiasts and novelists.

In 1907, the U.S. Army became impressed with the military possibilities of the airship and the Signal Corps ordered from Captain Baldwin a non-rigid of 20,000 cu.ft. capacity. This craft, the SC-1, was delivered the following summer, when it was successfully flight tested for the Signal Corps by Captain Baldwin himself. The ship was 96 ft. long and 19 1/2/ ft. in diameter, with a cigar shaped envelope of rubberized fabric surrounded by a network, from which a long rectangular trellis girder was suspended by steel cables. This girder, or car, carried a 20 hp. Curtiss water-cooled engine which actuated through a shaft transmission a tractor propeller, and gave the ship a speed of 20 m.p.h. The pilot sat behind the engine, and in front there was mounted a biplane stabilizing and trimming plane, while on the stern of the girder a cruciform tail insured vertical and directional control. The total life of the SC-1 was 1360 lb. of which approximately 500 lb. was available as disposable lift. It was on this, the first American Army airship, that the early military aeronauts of the U.S. Army were trained.

For the next few new years Captain Baldwin temporarily deserted lighter-than-air craft in favor of the airplane which was then bursting in upon the world with leaps and bounds and which was beginning to overshadow the airship. Today, when so much interest attaches to metal airplane construction, it is of interest to record that Captain Baldwin, in 1911, produced to his own designs a pusher biplane which had a framework and interplane struts of mild steel buting with wooden frame wings and that this machine flew very successfully. Captain Baldwin used this type of machine, known as the “Red Devil”, for training pupils as well as for exhibition flights. The engines used were a Curtiss 8 cylinder and a Hall-Scott, both of which developed about 60 hp. In 1913, or thereabouts, Capt. Baldwin gathered a number of fliers most of whom he had personally trained after having himself learned to fly on the “Red Devil”, and conducted a highly successful exhibition tour in the Philippines, Japan and China, were the Baldwin fliers showed American wings for the first time and where in most cases no airplane had ever flown before.

In 1914, a few months before the outbreak of the Great War, Capt. Baldwin made an extensive tour of Europe for the purpose of familiarizing himself with the latest foreign development in aeronautics, and particularly with airships, which once more attracted his attention. The writer, who had the privilege of taking him around to the French airship factories, well remembers in this connection the meeting of Baldwin and Maurice Mallet, the builder of  Zodiac airships, himself one of the earliest French balloon pioneers. The two grizzled veterans of countless serial adventures had apparently read a lot about one another, but they had never  met before. When the door opened, and Baldwin and Mallet stood face to face, they took one good long look at each other, their keen eyes sizing up the other fellow, and then they vigorously clasped hands. “Mallet”, said Baldwin; “Baldwin”, said Mallet. Neither knew the other man’s language, but they understood one another without so many words.

Shortly after Capt. Baldwin returned to the U.S. war broke out in Europe. Before many months had passed, airplanes and airships had overwhelmingly demonstrated their importance in war operations, and our military and naval authorities began feeling a certain anxiety on account of our total unpreparedness in the air. Small orders for airplanes were let by the Army and the Navy, and the latter decided also to acquire its first airship. This ship, the DN-1, was built by the Connecticut Aircraft Corp. largely to the designs of Capt. Baldwin whose unique experience in lighter-than-air craft, together with his recent knowledge of European airship practice, particularly qualified him for this work. Owing to various circumstances, the DN-1 was only completed two years later, Capt. Baldwin having in the meantime become manager of the Curtiss Flying Station at Newport News, VA., where students were trained in land and water flying.

When the U.S. entered the war against Germany, Baldwin, who was then 62 years old,  immediately volunteered for active service, and was commissioned a Captain in the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, on April 25, 1917. He was assigned to be Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production, which post he held until October, 1919, when he was honorably discharged from active service. During his war time service Capt. Baldwin, who was promoted to Major on June 18, 1918, not only personally inspected every type of lighter-than-air craft produced in the U.S., but also contributed much valuable knowledge with respect to construction and maintenance of balloons and airships.

Capt. Baldwin held three pilot certificates: Balloon Pilot Certificate No. 1, Airship Pilot Certificate No. 9 and Airplane Pilot Certificate No. 7, all issued by the Aero Club of America.


  • United States Army
  • DATE OF DEATH: 05/17/1923
  • DATE OF INTERMENT: 05/17/1923


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