The First Woman To Design A Plane Was Not Allowed To Fly It

The First Woman To Design A Plane Was Not Allowed To Fly It

For the first couple years after Wright Brothers managed their pioneering flight in 1903, they were the some of the only people tinkering with airplanes. Other people experimented with airships, balloons, and human kites, but planes were pretty much just the domain or Orville and Wilbur. In the last few years of the decade, though, people all over the world were designing and building their own planes. 

In 1906, inventor and ex-patent clerk E. Lilian Todd put together a design for a plane and showed it off at a New York exhibition. She found a backer in Olivia Sage, a widow who’d inherited $63 million (that’s over $2 billion in today’s dollars) that year when her financier husband died. With Sage’s money, some piano wire, and aeronautics knowledge that she just made up since no one was teaching it yet, she now built the Todd Biplane. 

Four years later, she exhibited the plane publicly. As a crowd watched, a French pilot she'd hired got into the plane and took off. It made it 20 feet, then he turned the plane around and landed it. This was a success. Sure, by this point, the record for flight distance was over 100 miles, but when any newcomer put together their own plane, they stood a good shot at never getting off the ground or at smashing their vehicle into toothpicks.

Todd had been flying her experimental plane privately during these last years while testing. She now wanted to fly long-distance, showing the biplane off, and the government had already set up a system whereby you need a license for such adventures. Todd applied for a license, and Todd was rejected. We don’t have any formally recorded reason for the rejection, but sources say it had to be because she was a woman. 

And so Todd abandoned her entire engineering career. She took up a job as a private secretary to Olivia Sage. Biographers speculate that there was something up with these two women, something that went bad toward the end. Todd worked for Sage for 26 years, but when the widow died, she just listed Todd in the “servants” section of her will. Every servant received $3,000. Except for Todd, whose name she listed first. Todd received $2,500

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Top image: Library of Congress

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