How Men (and Women) Fly: Gertrude Bacon & Early Aviation

August 19, 2015

How Men (and Women) Fly: Gertrude Bacon & Early Aviation
'Have you ever seen a man fly?' A few years ago this question was too ridiculous to be worth answering seriously. A very few years hence it will be equally pointless. As well ask, 'Have you ever seen a man drive a motor-car, or ride a bicycle, or push a wheelbarrow?'

So wrote the inimitable Gertrude Bacon, the first Englishwoman to fly in a plane, in the opening lines of How Men Fly, a significant early work on aviation. Bacon's career in STEM started early. She was the daughter of the scientist and balloonist John Maczenzie Bacon, and accompanied him on most of his expeditions, including a balloon ascent to view a meteor shower (in which the party was nearly blown out to sea) and trips to Norway, India, and the United States to observe and photograph solar eclipses. She was a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and had numerous scientific interests, including astronomy, photography, and botany. But it was flying that made her famous.

Bacon "became fascinated by flying and as a journalist reported on the various airships and planes being built." In August 1904 she was the first woman to fly in an airship, being a passenger in the near-disastrous first flight of an 84-foot-long airship designed by Stanley Spencer. "From 22 to 29 August, 1909, the world's first aviation meeting was held at Rheims, France. Bacon was determined to go for a ride in one of the new machines. On the last day she was taken up in a Farman plane, squeezed between the radiator and the pilot. She described the takeoff: 'The motion was wonderfully smooth - smoother yet - and then - ! Suddenly there had come into it a new indescribable quality - a lift - a lightness - a life!' Thus she became the first Englishwoman to fly" (International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary, p. 15).

Bacon flew on several other occasions, and became the first ever hydroplane passenger at Lake Windermere in 1912. She wrote several books on aviation and ballooning, including memoirs of her experiences as an aeroplane guinea pig. In this charming volume designed for the non-specialist she describes the whole state of aviation in 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers' initial success. The book includes a description of her first flight and the experience of being a spectator at an airshow, as well as the science and engineering of airplane flight, the history of attempts at flight, and the different types of planes then available. It's illustrated with seven wonderful photographic plates depicting early planes in action.

The book was issued in two bindings, one of cloth and the other, as here, in stiff card wrappers decorated with an illustration of Bacon during her 1909 flight, with famed aviator Roger Sommer at the controls. It's been suggested that this may be the earliest illustration of a woman in a plane. The back cover is printed with a delightful ad for The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company (later the Bristol Aeroplane Company), which had only been founded the year before and would become one of the heavyweights in the aviation industry, making important contributions during the First and Second World Wars and doing much of the preliminary work for the Concorde. This book, with its unique author, charming cover illustration, photos of early planes, and historic ad, is an evocative artifact of the earliest days of aviation.