Thomas Foster Hamilton (July 28, 1894 – August 12, 1969) was a pioneering aviator and the founder of the Hamilton Standard Company.
Since 1930, Hamilton Standard (now Hamilton Sundstrand) was involved with revolutionizing propulsion technology of propeller-driven aircraft, prior to World War II. The introduction of Frank Caldwell’s variable-pitch propeller made Hamilton Standard one of the leading aerospace companies of today. But, there is little known about the first name sake of this company – Thomas Foster Hamilton. Hamilton contributed a great deal in shaping the aviation industry into what it is today. He was involved in the early beginnings of aviation inventions and development. Hamilton was gifted at an early age in the understanding of technical concepts and their application into aircraft designs and manufacturing. He was also a very good businessman and marketer, known in social and political settings, and a devoted family man.
1.1 Early aircraft designs
1.2 Military interest
1.3 Propeller manufacturing
1.4 All-metal aircraft
1.5 Hamilton Metalplane H-18
1.6 Hamilton Metalplane H-18 Helicopter Experiment
1.7 Hamilton Metalplane H-45 and H-47
1.9 Build-up to war
1.10 Return to the US
Hamilton was born on July 28, 1894. He spent most of his childhood in Seattle, Washington. He was the older of two boys (his brother, Edgar Charles Hamilton, born later) to his parents (Thomas Luther and Henrietta Hamilton). Hamilton’s early interests in aviation began when he was around 10 years old. His mother had taken a trip to see the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, where there was a display of gliders organized by Octave Chanute and, somehow on her return, Hamilton became more focused on aeronautics. Mrs. Hamilton may have made a connection with Chanute at the fair since the young Tom Hamilton did not make the long trip with her. Because, some years later, Hamilton indicated that he often wrote to Chanute concerning technical matters related to his early aircraft. However, currently, no record has been found mentioning the young Hamilton in Chanute’s letter collection currently located at the Library of Congress and more research is being conducted since the collection is so vast.
During the 1909 Alaskan-Yukon Exposition, held in Seattle (held on the site of the present-day University of Washington), the young Hamilton, now at the age of 14, had a job of repairing hot-air balloons. This job would also allow him to ride what he repaired (possibly a type of insurance policy to insure the balloons were fixed properly) which helped fuel his continuing interest in aviation. Also, during this time, Hamilton and a school friend, Paul J. Palmer established a partnership and called their company “Hamilton and Palmer”. Their office and factory were located in their respective parents’ garage and kitchen tables. The two built and experimented with various biplane glider designs of the time. The two quickly gained a better understanding of the principles of how aircraft worked and were put together. Three gliders were actually built and flown around the steep hills around their neighborhood in Seattle called Leschi which was on the west shores of Lake Washington. There was only one mishap. The second glider jerked out of the hands of Palmer and soared away and crashing into pieces blocks away. Many years later, Hamilton would recall that even though he got a scar on his left hand from one of the flights, he had learned how to fly from those tests.
In 1910, after finishing their experiments with the gliders they moved on to building propeller-driven aircraft. At this point, there was a disagreement between Palmer and Hamilton and the former was no longer involved with the company and was totally removed from the partnership. It seems this split was so severe that Hamilton changed the name of the company to the “Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Co”.
Early aircraft designs
In 1911, he teamed up with Ted Geary a young yacht designer to create a number of unique seaplane designs that were seen around Seattle’s Lake Washington and various aerial demonstrations of the day. The total number of known aircraft built by Hamilton’s Seattle Company is estimated to be around 10 to 25 aircraft. Yet more research is required to get a more accurate account of his aircraft built during the 1909 to 1914 period. His designs were a combination of other designs of the era and his own unique ideas incorporated into the aircraft. Those early years for Hamilton were very much building years for this remarkable individual. Even at an early age he was able to comprehend and build complicated flying machines. Although he dropped out of high school, and did not have any formal education after that, he was able to manufacture and sell these aircraft all before he was 16 years old. This was done prior to William E. Boeing taking his first flight and setting up his operation in Seattle, which is the Boeing Company of today. Incidentally, Hamilton and Boeing became friends during this time and their friendship lasted throughout the years both professionally and personally. It has been recorded that in 1914, Hamilton introduced Bill Boeing to Conrad Westervelt (a young Navy lieutenant commander) at a club in Seattle that was the start of the Boeing Company.
Also in 1914, a number of wealthy businessmen from Vancouver, British Columbia, approached Hamilton. They were looking for someone to build airplanes for the non-profit and private “BC Aviation School Ltd.” that would teach their Canadian sons to fly in the Great War being fought over in Europe. Hamilton accepted the invitation and immediately moved his whole operation up to Vancouver and established the “Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Ltd.”. The contract was to build four planes to be used in training purposes for the school. However, only one airplane was ever completed. It was a biplane patterned after a Curtiss tractor design, with two seats, a six-cylinder engine, and a tricycle landing gear. Unfortunately, the aircraft was not successful because it crashed in a muddy field out side of Vancouver. Out of the 12 students, two were able to graduate and went on to fight in the War with the RFC (Royal Flying Corps – the precursor to the RAF). The rest were integrated into other aviation training programs and transferred to the war. In the mean time, Hamilton had become very interested in the physics of propellers and had started making inquires about his possible involvement in the war effort for the United States. This was around 1917; at this point the U.S. just entered the war and needed experienced people, especially in aviation to help the country establish an aviation industry in support of the war overseas in Europe.
The US military was very interested in Hamilton’s background and requested that he come out east. The military leaders at the time wanted to keep most of their aviation resources closer to Washington D.C., and not in the remote Pacific Northwest. A Milwaukee woodworking firm, the Matthews Brothers Furniture Company, needed an experienced person to run their new aviation division since a large military contract was signed to produce wood propellers for the Navy and Army. Hamilton became their director of aviation in 1918. However, once the war ended Hamilton bought their entire inventory of wood propellers and again started his own company called the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company in Milwaukee. Around this time, Hamilton met and married Ethel Inez Hughes, from Milwaukee. The Hamiltons spent ten years in Milwaukee, where it was established as one of the nation’s major aviation hubs in the 1920s.
Propellers were the first to be manufactured by the “Hamilton Manufacturing Company” in Milwaukee. Hamilton and his company (as well as others) were aware of specific limitations using wood as a material for aircraft propellers. As the propeller revolutions increased, the wood and laminate would lose their bond at a certain speed and cause the propeller to disintegrate. Pontoons were the second product to be manufactured by the company. Again, wood was also used in the manufacturing of pontoons and again there were specific limitations to this material being used in pontoons as with propellers. The problem with wood and water is that it disintegrates faster even though it floats. Even with all preservatives used to cover and protect the pontoon. It still had a tendency to rot because it attracted worms that would burrow into the wood, especially in the South American and Caribbean climates, and allowed the material to decay faster. It was understood throughout the industry and the scientific community that metal would soon be the choice for these devices. In the mid-1920s, metal was introduced into the manufacturing processes because the material was stronger but not yet lighter. This changed with the introduction of aluminum. Specifically, an aluminum alloy called Duralumin, which allowed for the material to be lighter and stronger. Duralumin was the biggest technological advantage of the time because it is a high strength aluminum forging alloy with 3.5% copper, 1.25% Iron, 1.25% silicon, and 1.25% manganese, which gave it high strength and a low weight ratio than aluminum. It was also able to take the centrifugal forces a propeller would generate, withstand the strong impacts with landing on water and flying, and would be able to resist some of nature’s pests which could destroy a wood float quickly.
New processes and manufacturing techniques were devised at the factory for these new materials. For in the mid-1920s, the German company, Junkers Transport Company founded by Hugo Junkers, was the first to manufacture an all metal, mono wing, airplane called the Junkers F.13. In turn, William Bushnell Stout’s (a pioneer builder of all-metal aircraft) company was bought by the Ford Motor Corporation, and developed a similar aircraft called the Ford tri-motor or as it was affectionately called the “Tin Goose”. Like the Junkers aircraft, it too had the same cantilevered high wing and corrugated metal skin design built with the focus of hauling mail and passengers. In response, Hamilton and a number of shareholders in the Milwaukee community decided to build an aircraft out of metal, too. The result was a new company called the “Hamilton Metalplane Company”.
Hamilton Metalplane H-18
And the first all-metal aircraft built by this company was the Hamilton Metalplane H-18 christened the “Maiden Milwaukee” in 1927. Its design came from the chief designer of the “Metalplane Company” of the time – James McDonnell. McDonnell had worked for Stout and Ford and incorporated similar features and new ideas into the construction of the metal “Maiden”. The Hamilton H-18 used a tubular frame with corrugated skin, a thick mono wing projecting out of the fuselage underneath the open cockpit, at the front was the 200 HP J-4 Wright Radial engine, and using a Hamilton propeller (metal) as a means of propulsion. The “Maiden Milwaukee” was the first plane produced by the Hamilton Metalplane Company and it achieved a number of awards. It first came in second during the Ford Air Tour of 1927 and it won the Spokane Air Races of the same year. It was also given the distinction of being the first US air certificate for an all-metal airplane in the United States. Specifically, it was a plane designed to haul mail with the passengers as an extra revenue bonus for the airline. The design reflects this for the wing root came right out of the center of the fuselage and hardly any passengers could fit.
Hamilton Metalplane H-18 Helicopter Experiment
One of the interesting concepts, was when the designers took the H-18 and fitted two large downward facing propellers (i.e. on under each wing at midpoint) driven by a small engine mounted in the fuselage. It was claimed that this conversion resulted in an aircraft that could take off in a very short distance. Very little else is known about the conversion of an H.18 to this mode.
Hamilton Metalplane H-45 and H-47
The aircraft was redesigned and these modifications were introduced in the sequential new models of the Metalplane called the H-45 and H-47. The aircraft now could accommodate passengers and mail. But to do this, they had to specifically change the aircraft such as: moving the wing above the fuselage so six seats could be added; enclosing the cockpit and adding windows and leather padding the interior of the aircraft for the passengers’ comfort. Offering different type of radial engines that could be incorporated per the customers’ request (both Wright and Pratt & Whitney) and different types of landing gear that could be fitted too (such as skis, wheels and pontoons). Since most of the Hamilton Metalplanes used most of the products generated from the other Hamilton factory it was a cheaper than the Ford Tri-Motor. The Hamilton Metalplane was definitely a plane of its time, for it was the era when airlines were being developed with cargo/mail in mind instead of passengers. Both the Hamilton Metalplane and the Ford tri-motors started to change this trend. Northwest Airlines started by purchasing a number of Hamiltons to be used in their first passenger run throughout their routes in the Northwest. Ralph Sexton bought a number of Hamiltons to be used for his Panamanian airline called Isthmian Airways. And a few went to Alaska and Canada for use in the Arctic. As with Hamilton’s earlier aircraft in Seattle, it is not known the exact figure of how many Hamiltons were built but it is estimated to be between 27 to 40 aircraft. More research is currently being conducted to get an accurate count and history of each Hamilton Metalplane. Unfortunately, the Hamilton Metalplanes were not as successful as the Ford Tri-Motors. For Ford was successful at their marketing strategy of stating it is safer to fly on three engines than on one. For this reason, the Hamilton Metal plane struggled in the market, for it was a good airplane developed ahead of time and introduced too soon.
In 1929, a holding company called the “United Aircraft and Transport Company” incorporated a number of aviation companies under one control. This resulted in the “Metalplane Company” becoming part of the “Boeing Company” as a separate division for a short time. Eventually, it was absorbed into the “Boeing Company” with all its patents and other assets becoming a part of the Boeing enterprise. It has been suggested that Boeing used these items from the “Hamilton Metalplane Company” in the development of their Boeing 247 (Boeing’s first all metal monoplane) but more research needs to be conducted on this subject.
In the meantime, Hamilton became president of United Airports (a division of UA&T) and he was in charge of building the new Burbank airport in California. He also moved some of his propeller operations out west and established a West Coast propeller factory at that Burbank site. Even his whole family moved to Beverly Hills and eventually built a house out at Lake Arrowhead, California, where he established a permanent residence. Meanwhile, the UA&T Company decided to merge the “Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company” with the Pittsburgh propeller firm “Standard Steel Propeller Company” and the entire Milwaukee operation was moved to that location. Both Hamilton and the owner of Standard Steel had been intense business rivals. According to Eugene Wilson (who took over the propeller operation for UA&T) the “Standard Steel Company” had the patent rights to the Reed propeller design and there was concern about a lawsuit. As a compromise, it was decided to move the propeller operation to Pittsburgh and combined the names of the companies to be called the Hamilton Standard Company. A year later, the propeller operation moved again to Connecticut and as been there since. Incidentally, Hamilton did not receive the news of the merger right away, which was a little unsettling to him. As a compromise, Hamilton agreed to the merger only if his name took precedence in the new trademark and was called Hamilton Standard.
Build-up to war
After the Burbank Airport opened with a big fanfare in 1930, Hamilton then became a foreign representative for the “United Aircraft Export Company” in Europe of which he would be come a leading individual for the survival of several aviation companies. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies started actively working on an anti-monopoly campaign against the aviation industry. This legislation resulted in the UA&T being reorganized into new companies: United Aircraft (later to be called United Technologies), United Airlines, and the Boeing Company. The timing of this governmental legislation was poor at best for most of the United States and the World was under the black cloud of the Great Depression. United Aircraft had to rely on foreign sales to survive as a company for the domestic market in the US was depressed. Hamilton started with the “United Aircraft Export Company” as a sales representative and was very successful and by 1936 he was president of that corporation. Eugene Wilson described Hamilton as the “Yankee Peddler” and felt that he was a man that was full of “ salesmanship” and was a “master-entertainer”. It was this kind of man they needed for the moment to help with the financial situation of the time. Hamilton had set up his headquarters in Paris’ The George V Hotel and he represented companies like Hamilton Standard, Sikorsky Aviation, Chance Vought Aircraft, and Pratt & Whitney. During the time from 1936–1940, Hamilton was successful in getting licensing rights for foreign countries to build “Pratt & Whitney” engines and “Hamilton Standard” variable pitch propellers. According to Wilson, it was a fight for survival as an American company. He also mentioned there was a kind of naivete when it came to dealing with countries like Germany, Japan and Russia. For example, a deal was set up with BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) to license them to build a number of Pratt & Whitney engines and it was approved by the United States Congress. This was granted because neither the US businessmen nor governmental officials expect any war in Europe. Because of this thinking, Hamilton was able to successfully sell these wanted aviation goods at the high levels of business because no one expected war. Hamilton knew what was going on, as Wilson stated, “thanks to Mr. Thomas F. Hamilton moving around through these different ministries, could appraise this situation more clearly than most people. And he came back from one trip and in a meeting of the executive committee of our company he said, ‘Don’t discount this fellow Hitler.’ ‘To you, he’s got a Charlie Chaplin mustache, but whatever he may look on the outside, either he or somebody behind him has a strategic insight and a political foresight that is not available anywhere else in the world that I know of’ ”. It has also been suggested that Hamilton also tried to convince the US congress of the seriousness of doing business with countries like Germany, Japan and Russia. More research is needed to verify some these suggestions. However, at the time business interests came first and Hamilton was asked to continue in his position until the fall of France in 1940. At which time, Hamilton and his staff had to make an unorthodox route out of Europe through Spain.
Return to the US
Once back in the United States, Hamilton found a different sort of career in the hotel and entertaining business. He started developing a resort on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, at the entrance of Princess Louisa Inlet, called the Malibu Club in Canada (named after his yacht that had been designed by Ted Geary). It officially opened in July 1941 and catered to yachters, the wealthy, and the Hollywood crowd. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed Hamilton’s plans and he again went back into the aviation industry to run Hardman aircraft (which made nacelles for the B-17 bombers) in Southern California during World War 2 for only a dollar a year. After the War, he reopened Malibu and also started an airline in support of the resort called “Malibu SeaAero” with a single war-surplus Grumman Goose. After a few years, the resort did not become a financial success. And Malibu was abandoned and sold. During his final years, he was involved with the Early Bird Organization where he would attend every function until his death. Hamilton also loved to paint and spent many years in Paris working on his craft. He was also the technical assistant to the 1966 movie “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines”.
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