I will start this article off with a note. As you know, I try to write about interesting, and somewhat obscure, early aviators. The problem with that is when someone is obscure, it is hard to come up with a lot to write about. The name Lilly Todd came up. Is that a name you are familiar with? Unless you are a true aviation historian, I doubt it. Well, she is worth learning about, but this will necessarily be a short article. There is just not a lot written about her, but I will introduce her to you in this article.
Emma Lillian Todd was born in 1865, in Washington, D.C. I could find nothing about her father, but she grew up living with her mother, Mary Todd, and her sister, Cora. She must have been a tomboy and a bit of an anomaly in her day because this little girl loved mechanical things. There is some evidence that her grandfather nurtured her mechanical and inventive interests.
She taught herself typewriting in order to earn a living. She worked in the Patent Office for two years before being hired to work for the governor of Pennsylvania. She claimed to have been the first woman to receive an appointment in the executive department of Pennsylvania. After that job, she went back to New York to study law, and was a member of the first Women’s Law Class of New York University. She continued to be interested in inventing things, and came up with a ‘typewriter copy holder’ for which she received patent # 553292. She shared the invention with George W. Parker.
In 1903, she became interested in aeronautical toys. She saw airships in London and was fascinated with the idea of flying machines. In 1904, she was further inspired at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1906, she saw a sketch of an airplane in a Parisian newspaper, and decided she could also design an airplane. She exhibited her first airplane design in a Madison Square Garden Aero Show, IN 1906. Olivia Sage, a philanthropist, was interested in her design and became Lilly’s patron. Olivia was the widow of financier and politician, Russell Sage. She gave Lilly $7,000 to design and build an aircraft. With that money, Lilly was able to convince the Witterman Brothers, of Staten Island, to build her airplane. Construction began in the fall of 1908. In describing her design, she said, “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.”
Lilly wanted to fly her own airplane and applied for permission to the Richmond Borough Commission of Public Works. Her application was denied. However, her plane did fly on November 7, 1909. It was flown by Didier Masson.
The airplane was constructed of straight-grained spruce. It had two seats and was powered by a modified Rinek motor. I’m not sure, but I believe it only flew once.
Lilly Todd was sure there was a future in aviation and she started the first Junior Aero Club in 1908. She wanted the club to encourage and educate young people who could become future aviators. The club met in her living room, which was also her workshop. It was decorated by several aircraft models she had designed, and other mechanical toys and devices she designed.
It seems that Mrs. Sage’s interest in aviation was not as strong as Lilly’s. Her career as a designer of aircraft ended abruptly in 1911 when Mrs. Sage hired her. He work career was varied. At one point she worked as a secretary to the director-general to the Women’s National War Relief Association during the Spanish-American War.
Miss Todd moved to California after Mrs. Sage’s death. She passed away in 1936 at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. Her body was cremated and the remains sent to New York, but nothing is known of a burial site.
She was an interesting woman. I wish there were more to write about her, other inventions and designs, for instance. She was certainly ahead of her time and dedicated to her ideas. I would have liked to have known her!
Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer