Tex Talks History: The Greatest Con in early Aviation - The Dr. Christmas Story

Summary notes created by Deciphr AI

Summary Notes


In the inaugural episode of "Tex Talks History," the host delves into the early 20th-century pioneers of aviation, starting with the Wright brothers' landmark flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Their success, born from humble beginnings as bicycle mechanics, opened the skies to other daring individuals and small startups, proving that great achievements in aviation were within reach. The episode highlights figures like Sir Hiram Maxim, a steam enthusiast who attempted to build a flying machine, and Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, whose Aerial Experiment Association funded and fostered early aircraft development. The narrative also introduces William E. Boeing, Glenn Curtiss, and the tale of Dr. William Whitney Christmas, a controversial figure whose ambition and claims outstripped his actual contributions to aviation, leading to tragic failures with his Christmas Bullet aircraft. The episode underscores the spirit of innovation and the sometimes thin line between genius and folly in the quest to conquer the skies.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Early Aviation

  • Turn of the 20th century saw the combination of handmade engines and gliders.
  • The goal was to determine viable flight methods and what designs were prone to failure.

"At the turn of the 20th century, some very bold pioneers combined the fun of handmade engines with the terror of handmade gliders to finally determine once and for all what actually flew and what just exploded in the process."

This quote sets the stage for the era of early aviation experimentation, highlighting the trial and error process that led to successful flight.

The Wright Brothers' Milestone

  • The Wright brothers achieved the first successful powered flight on December 17, 1903.
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics from Ohio with no formal engineering experience.
  • Their success at Kitty Hawk made them world-famous and proved that flight was achievable by amateurs.

"Eight days before Christmas 1903, the Wright brothers made history... before that day, they were crazy small business owners with grand ideas; after that day, the Wright brothers were world famous."

This quote emphasizes the transformative event of the Wright brothers' successful flight, marking their transition from obscure inventors to historical figures.

Hiram Stevens Maxim's Contributions

  • Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, known for the Maxim gun, also attempted to create a flying machine.
  • Maxim's approach was unconventional, using steam engines instead of gasoline engines for power.
  • His steam engines were revolutionary but too heavy for successful flight.

"Maxim was perhaps excessive... as aircraft design was significantly heavier than air and most cars of the time, and as Steam Engines go, they were revolutionary but far too heavy for something that should fly under its own power."

This quote describes Maxim's ambitious but ultimately impractical approach to early aircraft design, highlighting the challenges of weight and power in aviation.

Early Aviation Pioneers and Businesses

  • The success of the Wright brothers suggested that aviation favored small, independent startups.
  • William E. Boeing was a Yale-educated lumber entrepreneur who entered the aviation business in 1909.
  • Glenn Curtiss worked with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell's Aerial Experiment Association, producing successful aircraft from innovative ideas.

"Further, the Wright brothers' success story suggested that just about anybody could be a plane tycoon overnight."

The quote reflects the optimism and entrepreneurial spirit of the early aviation industry, where success seemed attainable for many.

Dr. Alexander Graham Bell's Influence

  • Dr. Bell supported various fields and innovations, including hydrofoils, the telephone, and the photophone.
  • His Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) advanced aeronautics, leading to the formation of the Curtiss Airplane Company.

"Dr. Bell fostered interests in a number of fields which paved the way for many future innovations."

This quote highlights Dr. Bell's role in nurturing the nascent field of aviation and his broader impact on technological development.

Dr. William Whitney Christmas's Controversy

  • Dr. Christmas, a legitimate medical doctor, ventured into aircraft design with questionable success.
  • Historical records judge him harshly, with descriptors like "liar," "con man," and "crazy person."
  • Despite his medical background, his foray into aviation is met with skepticism.

"Many historians, aviation experts, eyewitnesses, correspondents, and primary sources are swift to judge Dr. William Whitney Christmas... as a liar, con man, cheat, sheister, Pretender, Rogue, defrauder, quack, scammer, chisler, Rascal, imposter, Craig, Charlton, or wholesale crazy person."

This quote presents the overwhelmingly negative historical assessment of Dr. Christmas's aviation endeavors.

The Great War and Aviation

  • The First World War (1914-1918) saw the rapid evolution of aircraft from observation to combat roles.
  • Powered flight was only 11 years old at the start of the war but quickly became a critical military asset.
  • The war spurred unprecedented investment in aviation R&D, leading to significant technological advances.

"The Great War featured all sorts of wonderful new man-made horrors and on a scale never before seen... Aviation R&D was for the first time fully fueled by the war chests of global empires."

This quote contextualizes the explosive growth of military aviation during World War I, driven by the demands and resources of a global conflict.

Development of Military Aircraft

  • Early aircraft were used for observation and were typically unarmed.
  • The escalation of aerial combat led to the development of armed fighter planes.
  • Anthony Fokker's invention of the synchronization gear allowed machine guns to fire through propellers.

"Soon became a contest of speed, skill, guts, glory, and Mayhem and as such, Pilots of this era would become known through their daring actions... as Knights of the sky."

The quote captures the romanticized view of early combat pilots and the intense innovation in aircraft design during wartime.

Cultural Impact of WWI Aircraft

  • The SPAD XIII, designed by Louis Béchereau, was a highly successful French fighter used by many nations.
  • American pilot Edward Vernon Rickenbacker became a celebrated ace, demonstrating the SPAD's capabilities.
  • Rene Fonck, another SPAD pilot, was recognized for his extraordinary combat record.

"The SPAD XIII... was pretty much what you wanted in a Great War fighter... American pilot Edward Vernon Rickenbacker... scored 26 air-to-air kills during his brief time at war."

This quote highlights the SPAD XIII's role in shaping the public perception of fighter aircraft and the heroics of their pilots during World War I.

Early Aviation and Aircraft Development

  • Allied aviators often started their careers with the SPAD series of aircraft, which were reliable and effective in combat.
  • The public became aware of aircraft like the SPAD and Sopwith Camel, produced in large numbers and recognized for their quality.
  • Canadian Ace Arthur Roy Brown flew a Sopwith Camel when he was credited with shooting down Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.
  • Historians later attributed the Red Baron's death to ground fire, illustrating the tension between popular narratives and historical accuracy.

"Canadian Ace Arthur Roy Brown was flying one of these things when he blasted Manfred Von Richtoven out of the air."

This quote emphasizes the role of the Sopwith Camel in the hands of a skilled pilot like Arthur Roy Brown, who was initially credited with the Red Baron's death.

  • Donald Roderick McLaren became the Sopwith Camel's highest-scoring ace with 54 aerial victories in only nine months.
  • The Sopwith Camel became a cultural icon and a symbol of successful aircraft during the war.

"In only nine months of actual combat flying and with no combat experience... he became the Sopwith Camel's highest scoring Ace with 54 aerial victories."

The quote highlights Donald Roderick McLaren's rapid and impressive success as a fighter pilot during World War I.

The Great War's Impact on Aviation

  • Before WWI, the world's major powers had a combined total of at most 750 aircraft, many of which were unarmed and primarily used for training.
  • The war led to a rapid increase in the number of aircraft desired and used, sparking a global arms race and a new market for aviation.
  • Notable aircraft like the SPAD 13, Sopwith Camel, Fokker D7, and Dr1 became famous and were widely recognized.

"Just four years earlier the world was vastly different on the eve of the Great War the six greatest powers of the world combined had at most 750 aircraft with few of those actually armed in any capacity."

This quote describes the state of the world's air forces before WWI, highlighting the rapid development in aviation that occurred during the war.

The Curious Case of Dr. William Whitney Christmas

  • Dr. Christmas claimed to have designed a lost aircraft in 1908 and had to burn its documentation to protect its secrets.
  • He founded the Christmas Airplane Company in 1909 but lacked qualifications in aircraft design.
  • Investors were initially intrigued but grew skeptical after Dr. Christmas failed to provide evidence of his early designs.

"Dr. Christmas claimed to be the first person to fly an aircraft after the Wright brothers."

This quote illustrates Dr. Christmas's bold and likely false claims about his contributions to aviation history.

  • Dr. Christmas's Red Bird aircraft was an improbable copy of the AEA Red Wing, raising questions about his legitimacy as an aircraft designer.
  • A lawsuit by investor Creed Fulton revealed Dr. Christmas's questionable business practices.

"The suit suggested that Dr. Christmas was pretty much a crook who sold empty promises to unwise investors using a variety of aircraft-shaped, if not aircraft-themed props."

The quote summarizes the legal allegations against Dr. Christmas, painting him as a fraudulent entrepreneur.

Dr. Christmas's Continued Ventures and Claims

  • Despite legal and credibility issues, Dr. Christmas founded the Durham Christmas Airplane Sales and Exhibition Company.
  • He wrote in The New York Times about his plans for large, powerful warplanes, which attracted new investors.
  • In 1918, Dr. Christmas started the Cantilever Aero Company and proposed the Christmas Bullet, claiming it would be revolutionary.

"His warplanes would be the largest heavier-than-air aircrafts ever built, powered by 1600 horsepower motors capable of carrying bombs and ammunition while having a six-man Crew."

This quote shows Dr. Christmas's grandiose and unsubstantiated claims about his proposed warplanes.

The Christmas Bullet Project

  • Dr. Christmas convinced the Continental Aircraft Corporation to support the development of the Christmas Bullet.
  • Vincent Burnelli, the chief engineer at Continental, documented serious concerns with the aircraft's design but was overruled by management.

"Dr. Christmas wasn't just designing a plane; he was designing the best plane in the world or probably something very much like it."

The quote captures Dr. Christmas's pitch to Continental Aircraft Corporation, highlighting his audacious claims about the Christmas Bullet.

  • The Christmas Bullet was a strutless aircraft that promised unprecedented speed, range, and altitude.
  • Burnelli's concerns about the aircraft's feasibility and safety were ignored, as Dr. Christmas had convinced many influential people to support his project.

"The first prototype of the Christmas Bullet broke most of the common rules of Aviation as we understood them at the time."

This quote indicates the radical and potentially flawed nature of the Christmas Bullet's design, as perceived by contemporary aviation experts.

Aviation and the Perils of Early Innovation

  • Aviation in the early 20th century was a high-risk field, with frequent accidents.
  • Innovators who dismissed concerns as "impossible" often faced grim outcomes.
  • Gianni Caproni and Vincent Burnelli faced challenges when their safety concerns were ignored.

"I initially went along with this, I feel, is perhaps a result of realizing that aviation was frequently a grim business for those who said 'impossible' too early, even if the impossible was in fact impossible."

  • This quote highlights the risky nature of early aviation and the pressure to push boundaries, even when safety concerns were evident.

The "Dr. Christmas Effect"

  • Dr. William Whitney Christmas was known for mesmerizing audiences and dismissing practical concerns.
  • He would often use anecdotes to persuade others, despite lacking practical aviation knowledge.
  • His influence was so strong that even experts would agree with him, despite knowing his claims were false.

"Dr. Christmas would continue to get his way by mesmerizing the room until they all agreed with him, even in a room full of aviation experts."

  • This quote illustrates Dr. Christmas's persuasive ability to get his way, often leading to dangerous outcomes in aviation design.

Design Flaws and Ignored Warnings

  • Burnelli's input on the Christmas Bullet was limited to veneer cladding on the fuselage.
  • His serious concerns about the aircraft's design and construction were consistently overridden by Dr. Christmas.
  • Dr. Christmas insisted on wing flexibility without structural supports, leading to a lack of rigidity in flight.

"Burnelli would insist in the historical record supports that his input upon the Christmas Bullet was limited to the design of the veneer cladding on the fuselage."

  • This quote underscores that Burnelli's role was minimal and his safety concerns were ignored, leading to a flawed aircraft design.

The Liberty Six Engine and Misuse

  • The Christmas Bullet required a Liberty Six engine, which was scarce due to wartime production.
  • Dr. Christmas used his connections to obtain one for "ground tests only," but violated this agreement.
  • The Army's skepticism led to restrictions on the engine's use, which Dr. Christmas ignored.

"The engine needed for the Christmas Bullet was a Liberty Six, which looked like this. For early pursuit aircraft, Liberty Six was damn near ideal."

  • This quote indicates the importance of the Liberty Six engine for the aircraft's design, despite its limited availability and the restrictions placed on its use.

Vincent Burnelli's Ethical Stance

  • Burnelli resigned from Continental Aircraft Corporation in protest over the Christmas Bullet.
  • He refused to be associated with what he considered a dangerous and unethical project.
  • His resignation was a stand against the disregard for safety and practical engineering.

"Overridden by Dr. Christmas and Consolidated management at every turn, Burnelli did the honorable thing; he resigned from Continental aircraft in protest."

  • This quote shows Burnelli's ethical decision to distance himself from a project he believed was destined for failure and posed a risk to human life.

The Adventurous Spirit of the Era

  • The early 1900s were a time of high-risk activities and lower life expectancies.
  • Cuthbert Mills, the test pilot for the Christmas Bullet, was eager to fly the innovative aircraft.
  • Mills's pride and bravery were evident as he invited his mother to watch the ill-fated test flight.

"Life expectancy was far lower for a variety of reasons... it was an adventurous time for those who learned to turn off the fear."

  • This quote reflects the zeitgeist of the era, where people were more willing to take risks, including testing unproven aircraft designs.

The Tragic Fate of Cuthbert Mills

  • The Christmas Bullet's maiden flight in January 1919 ended in disaster, with the wings detaching mid-flight.
  • Test pilot Cuthbert Mills died in the crash, but Dr. Christmas suppressed the incident.
  • Despite the tragedy, Dr. Christmas falsely advertised the aircraft's speed and safety in Flying Magazine.

"The Christmas Bullet's maiden flight was January 1919, and a few hundred feet into the air, the wings peeled right off the aircraft."

  • This quote details the catastrophic failure of the Christmas Bullet during its first test flight, resulting in the death of the pilot.

Dr. Christmas's Unsubstantiated Claims

  • Dr. Christmas made bold and unfounded claims about the Christmas Bullet's capabilities and potential interest from foreign nations.
  • He also falsely claimed to have invented the aileron and to have received a lucrative offer from Germany post-war.
  • His claims were a mix of exaggeration and deception, with little regard for the truth or the consequences of his actions.

"Dr. Christmas claimed Germany had offered him one million dollars in gold to rebuild the entire aviation industry."

  • This quote exemplifies Dr. Christmas's tendency to make grandiose and unsubstantiated claims to enhance his reputation and attract attention.

The Second Christmas Bullet and Continued Deception

  • Despite the first disaster, Dr. Christmas managed to produce a second Christmas Bullet.
  • The second aircraft was paraded but not flown, and Dr. Christmas claimed a "safety factor of seven."
  • His claims were vague and unverifiable, yet they were accepted by the aviation world at the time.

"Not content to give us a single bullet, Dr. Christmas doubled down and, at other people's expense and influence, he produced another in the near same fashion."

  • This quote reveals that Dr. Christmas continued his dangerous pursuit of aviation innovation, disregarding the fatal outcome of the first aircraft.

The Downfall of Dr. Christmas's Aviation Ambitions

  • Ellington Joyce, a decorated WWI pilot, died flying the second Christmas Bullet.
  • Dr. Christmas attempted to control the narrative by touting the plane's "Flawless safety record" in Vanity Fair, omitting the deaths of the test pilots.
  • The government's disinterest in the missing engine and the chaos of post-war transition allowed Dr. Christmas to avoid accountability.

"The second bullet took to the air, and the controls was decorated World War One Pilot... he'd been decorated by the French government and earned the rank of Captain in the French air force during the conflict."

  • This quote highlights the credentials of the second test pilot, whose death further demonstrated the lethal flaws of the Christmas Bullet.

Dr. Christmas's Testimony and Misrepresentations

  • Dr. Christmas testified before a House subcommittee, where he misrepresented his qualifications and the capabilities of his aircraft.
  • His testimony was filled with inaccuracies and grandiose claims about his company's technological advancements.
  • The testimony serves as a historical record of Dr. Christmas's deceptive practices and his impact on the early aviation industry.

"I am the President of the cantilever Aero company... my profession is out of a scientist, pure."

  • This quote from Dr. Christmas's testimony illustrates his self-portrayal as a scientific expert and leader in the aviation industry, despite the evidence to the contrary.

Development and Stability of the Christmas Bullet

  • The Christmas Bullet was noted for its extraordinary steadiness in a storm, while other planes struggled.
  • Colonel Harpen and other officers remarked on the plane's steadiness.

"Colonel Harpen and the other officers in looking at the plane remarked at its extraordinary steadiness while these other machines were being roughly handled."

This quote highlights the observation of the Christmas Bullet's stability compared to other aircraft during adverse weather conditions.

Design Philosophy of Dr. Christmas's Flying Machines

  • All machines designed by Dr. Christmas followed the same principle: a close mechanical simulation of true bird flight.
  • The Christmas Bullet was the only type of machine produced by Dr. Christmas's company at that time.
  • Other machines under design included the Streak, the Hawk, and the Eagle.

"The principle involved in all my machines designs are the same, that is to say, as close mechanical simulation of true bird flight as it is possible to give it."

This quote summarizes Dr. Christmas's design philosophy, aiming to mimic bird flight in his aircraft designs.

Government Involvement and Photographs of the Aircraft

  • The government took negatives of the aircraft in flight, and Dr. Christmas's company had to request copies.
  • Dr. Christmas's company had difficulty obtaining these photographs from the government.

"These negatives were taken by the government, and when we asked for copies of these photographs we had to use permission to get them from the government."

This quote indicates the challenges Dr. Christmas faced in obtaining photographic evidence of his aircraft's flights, which were controlled by the government.

Dr. Christmas's Patriotic Intent and Struggles with the War Department

  • Dr. Christmas expressed his patriotic intent in letters sent to the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker.
  • He felt a strong personal connection to the struggles of the War Department and believed he was unfairly criticized.
  • Dr. Christmas claimed that the War Department only wanted to destroy his aircraft without proper evaluation.

"I do not believe any man can sympathize with you more than myself because if there is in this country a man has whom more lives of unlimited number have been spread broadcast about him than myself, I would like to know that man."

This quote reflects Dr. Christmas's sense of persecution and his belief that he faced undue criticism.

Types of Flying Machines and the War Department's Approach

  • Dr. Christmas stated there are only two types of machines: Pusher and Tractor, with variations in size and design.
  • He criticized the War Department for being fixated on a specific type of machine, disregarding other advancements.
  • Dr. Christmas laid the responsibility for the chaotic conditions at the War Department on Secretary Baker.

"The condition there is absolutely chaotic and who is responsible for the conditions up there of course I lay the responsibility on the last man, the man who was last higher up."

This quote assigns blame for the disorganized state of the War Department's aviation efforts to the leadership, specifically Secretary Baker.

Dr. Christmas's Manufacturing Capacity and Financial Opportunities

  • Dr. Christmas had limited manufacturing capacity but planned to expand production.
  • He had financial backing available during the war but faced challenges in getting a hearing due to the influx of designers and inventors.
  • Dr. Christmas flew in some of his earlier machines but not in the more recent designs like the Christmas Bullet.

"The productive capacity in my factory is not at the present time very great, but we shall in the near future about the first of September build a very large Plant and have a very large production."

This quote discusses Dr. Christmas's plans to increase his manufacturing capacity for aircraft.

German Offer to Dr. Christmas and His Patriotism

  • Germany offered Dr. Christmas a substantial salary to work for them, which he declined.
  • Dr. Christmas remained loyal to the United States despite the lucrative offer.

"Germany offered me one thousand dollars a day at all expenses and three-year salary in advance in gold in any Bank in New York City or anywhere in this country."

This quote reveals the significant financial offer made to Dr. Christmas by Germany, which he turned down.

Dr. Christmas's Legacy and Post-Bullet Career

  • Dr. Christmas is characterized as having an inflated sense of self and a disregard for morality in pursuit of his goals.
  • He continued to start new companies and seek new investors despite a lack of contribution to the aviation industry.
  • Dr. Christmas's post-bullet career included various ventures, such as airport design and real estate.
  • His ideas often lacked practicality and understanding of the principles he claimed to employ.
  • Dr. Christmas lived to the age of 94, maintaining a reputation in the public eye despite his questionable achievements.

"Dr. William Whitney Christmas never stopped getting away with it when his companies failed to deliver any promised product, technology, or measurable engineering achievement."

This quote summarizes Dr. Christmas's career as one marked by unfulfilled promises and a continuous pattern of deception.

Contrast with Vincent Justus Burnelli

  • Engineer Vincent Justus Burnelli is presented as a grounded and talented contrast to Dr. Christmas.
  • Burnelli went on to make actual contributions to aviation, including the development of the Lawson L4 and theories on space planes.
  • The narrative suggests that Burnelli's career was a response to the negative experience with Dr. Christmas and a determination to make meaningful advancements in aviation.

"Vincent Justus Burnelli...spent the rest of his life trying to forget the bullet, Dr. Christmas, and the once promising job at Consolidated aircraft."

This quote highlights Burnelli's desire to distance himself from the failures associated with Dr. Christmas and focus on his own legitimate contributions to aviation.

What others are sharing

Go To Library

Want to Deciphr in private?
- It's completely free

Deciphr Now
Footer background
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon

© 2024 Deciphr

Terms and ConditionsPrivacy Policy