Catcalls followed him whenever he walked the streets of Victoria. People would flap their arms and cluck like chickens to ridicule one of the city's most intrepid inventors - William Wallace Gibson. But he was never deterred by insults and, ultimately, Gibson became the first man in Canada to invent and successfully fly his own airplane on September 8, 1910.
He was born in the coal-mining region of Dalmellington, Ayrshire in Scotland in 1874 on the banks of the "the Bonnie Doon" river. It is one of the oldest villages in the country. While still a small child, his family moved to a farm at Moffat in Canada's Northwest Territories in 1883, to a region that later became the province of Saskatchewan.
William was infatuated by flight. He started with kites of every shape and size imaginable. Once he produced a kite that measured seven feet (2.1 metres) to which he attached a basket where he placed nine passengers - all gophers. The flight was remarkably successful and for at least an hour, his passengers enjoyed breathtaking views of the Prairies. Unfortunately, a sudden change of wind brought the kite crashing to ground. There were no survivors.
When he was 13, his parents took him out of school to work on the farm. In 1900, he became a blacksmith and moved to Wolseley. Then he opened a hardware store in Balgonie and became the first automobile owner in Saskatchewan in 1902. He then began experimenting with more challenging flying contraptions and, in 1904, he made a model plane powered by the spring from a window blind.
The lure of gold eventually brought William to Vancouver Island. He bought a claim near Campbell River for $500 then sold it a few years later for $10,000 and used this capital to finance his forays into the area of serious aeronautics. His father, who had secured a position with the Forestry Division of British Columbia's Department of Agriculture, prompted his move to Victoria.
Young William bought a large house, 146 Clarence Street in Victoria's James Bay, and set up his workshop in the coach house, while still pursuing his daily job in real estate. He was 35 years old with no formal training, but had passion and dogged determination, coupled with an innate genius.
Everything he did was unconventional and he made creative use of existing materials. He began by flying elaborate model aircraft from Beacon Hill, but being in such a public place, he found himself the butt of every cruel joke. Consequently, he determined that all his future experiments would be conducted, as far as possible, in secret and often under cover of darkness.
Finally, he achieved success with a model that was to become the prototype of the full-scale plane he had always dreamed of producing - a four-cylinder, two-cycle, 50-horsepower flying machine.
In 1903, the Wright brothers had paved the way with their first flight and William was determined to do better. He enlisted the aid of the Hutchinson Brothers to build the engine, weighing 210 pounds (95.3 kg) that drove two propellers. Tom Plimley, who had just begun to move from his trade in bicycles to automobiles, built the under-carriage from four bicycle wheels. The rest of the plane William constructed himself of spruce, using blue silk purchased from Fred Jeune of Jeune Brothers on Johnson Street to cover the 20-foot (6.1-metre) wings. The pilot's seat was simply a western saddle installed just in front of the engine.
When his "Twinplane" was ready to test, William hauled it in segments by horse and cart to Mount Tolmie and, during the night, put it through a series of short tests.
On September 24, 1910, with the sun shining brightly and before a crowd of skeptical onlookers, William powered up his machine, shot it down the improvised runway and lifted it into the air. Then one engine cut out. He fought with the controls and brought the plane to an abrupt halt into a large oak tree. The "Twinplane" was a wreck, but he had proved his point. He had made a plane that could fly.
Very few were impressed and the newspaper carried only the smallest column reporting what was undoubtedly an amazing feat. "His flight this week was seen by several people who wondered what the enormous moving thing in the air could be as they saw it sailing across the fields towards Mount Tolmie." And that was it!
But it had been a costly proposition and William was broke. So, he sold his house for $14,000 and invested the money to start constructing his next plane - the "Multiplane." The wings were constructed of strips and fir, resembling venetian blinds, to give the machine more lift.
Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Paterson was impressed with William's evident genius and offered the use of his farm in Ladner for future tests, where no intruding oak trees would impede his progress. He was then persuaded by an unscrupulous promoter to hold the test flight in Kamloops, but the promoter so irritated William that he cancelled the flight and moved to Calgary.
William's wife, Jessie, put her foot down. The risks and dangers were too much and she made him promise to make no more test flights, which is why his friend and cohort, Alex Japp, was the pilot of the Multiplane when it flew for almost a mile on August 12, 1911. But while he was trying to land, Alex saw that the field was covered with badger holes, so he veered off course and crash landed in a swamp. Few seemed to care, so the disillusioned William, now near bankruptcy, gave up his flying ambitions and moved to California.
His creative genius would not be stilled, however, so he directed his energies into the invention of new machines for the mining industry, which were enormously successful and in use worldwide. In 1965, he died a wealthy man at the age of 91.
Astounding as it may seem, William Wallace Gibson, Canada's pioneer aviator, inventor, builder and pilot of the country's first power-driven aircraft has still not received due recognition by the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
British Columbia has honoured him, however, and a full-scale replica of his remarkable "Twinplane," built by local students, can be seen on display in the B.C. Aviation Museum near Victoria, a fitting tribute to Canada's first "Birdman," who took to the air exactly 100 years ago.
DECEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
Norman Archer is an historical city tour guide in Victoria and the author of Tales of Old Victoria. Contact him at 250-655-1594 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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