E. Lilian Todd
E. Lilian Todd (1865–1937), originally from Washington, D.C and later New York City, was a self-taught inventor who grew up with a love for mechanical devices. The New York Times issue of November 28, 1909, identifies her as the first woman in the world to design airplanes, which she started in 1906 or earlier. In 1910, her latest design flew, test-piloted by Didier Masson.
E. Lilian Todd (E. stands for Emma) was born Washington, D.C. in 1865. The 1870 U.S. census lists her as "Lily," living with her mother Mary Todd and her sister Cora in the U.S. capital. Her father is not mentioned in the census, however. In the November 1909 issue of Woman's Home Companion, an autobiographical article mentions her grandfather (probably on her mother's side), from whom she inherited her mechanical and inventive talent.
Todd received her education in Washington, D.C. and taught herself typewriting to earn a living. Her first job was at the Patent Office, but left two years later to work in the office of the governor of Pennsylvania (she claims in her article that she became the first woman to receive an appointment in the executive department of that state). Then she went back to New York to continue her work with patents, began to study law, and became a member of the first Woman's Law Class of New York University (circa 1890). In 1896, she was issued a patent for a typewriter copy-holder (number 553292) which she shared with George W. Parker. Todd later worked as a secretary to the director-general of the Women's National War Relief Association during the Spanish-American War.
After about 1903, Todd turned her attention to "mechanical and aeronautic toys." She was further inspired after seeing airships in London and at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, as well as a sketch of an airplane in a 1906 Parisian newspaper. Later that year, Todd attracted national attention when she exhibited her first design at Madison Square Garden in an aero show. Philanthropist Olivia Sage, the widow of financier and politician Russell Sage, was among those interested in Todd's work. Mrs. Sage became Todd's patron and gave her $7,000 to design and build her aircraft. Todd's first full-sized biplane began construction as early as the fall of 1908 by the Wittemann Brothers of Staten Island.
- "The outline of the machine […] is based on a minute study of the wings of the albatross in the Museum of Natural History. The wings or planes of my machine are curved both lengthwise and crosswise, in order to deflect the air when it strikes the planes."
The framework was constructed out of straight-grained spruce, the upper coverings of the wings were muslin, the lower covering was seven-ounce army duck. Piano wire held the wings together. The airplane had a two-people seat arrangement. The completed machine was thirty-six feet in length, plus two small “flexing” planes extending two feet further on each side. A steering wheel controlled these two small planes and the twelve-foot double horizontal plane in front, which allowed for the plane to turn right or left, and up or down. Another “temporary” plane was added between the two main surfaces for additional sustaining surface because, as Todd pointed out, there was a lack of suitable American-made light motors. For the flight, a modified Rinek motor was used.
Realizing the importance of future aviation, she started the first Junior Aero Club in 1908 to foster the education of future aviators. The club met at Todd's residence in New York, where her living room had become her workshop and was decorated by aircraft models of her own design and other mechanical toys. Todd was also credited with inventing and patenting "a cabinet with a folding table, a cannon to be fired at noon by sun power, a unique sundial, and an aeolian harp device to be fastened in a tree where it would be played by the wind."
As she mentions in the 1909 article, Todd wanted to pilot her own airplane and applied for permission at the Richmond Borough Commissioner of Public Works. She also considered applying for a permit to fly it anywhere in the United States. Her permit was denied, however. Nevertheless, her plane took flight on November 7, 1910, and flew twenty feet over the Garden City aviation field with Didier Masson as the pilot.
Todd's career in airplane design ended abruptly after she was hired by Mrs. Sage in January 1911, despite Mrs. Sage's interest in aviation and the financing of Todd's biplane.
After the death of Mrs. Sage, Todd moved to Pasadena, California, during the first half of the 1920s, as noted in the Voter Registrations of 1924 and onward. She moved to Corona Del Mar, California, in 1936. Todd died on September 26, 1937, at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. Her body was cremated and her remains were sent to New York, but her burial site remains unknown.
- Crocker, Ruth, Mrs. Russell Sage: Women's Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2006, ISBN 0-253-34712-2
- Crocker, R., Op.Cit.