Thomas Scott Baldwin was one of the more significant aviation figures of the pioneer era, even though his name is relatively unknown today. He was born in 1854, and after a stint as a brakeman on the Illinois railroad as a youth, he joined the circus as an acrobat. One of the circus attractions was a hot air balloon, with which Baldwin ascended, seated on a trapeze suspended beneath. He made his first trip aloft in 1875. Soon he enhanced the act by performing acrobatics on the trapeze at several hundred feet, which, by 1885, led to parachute jumps from the balloon. His successful daring quickly led to a world tour, including a special performance before the Prince of Wales in London. Baldwin's manager for the tour billed him as "Captain" Baldwin, a nickname by which he would be known from then on.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Baldwin's interest in aviation expanded from free balloons to dirigibles. Between 1900 and 1908, he built a number of non-rigid airships. Among the most famous was the California Arrow, powered by a small Curtiss engine and piloted by Roy Knabenshue at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. In 1905, the Baldwin Airship Company was incorporated, and Captain Baldwin soon became a
major name in the early American aviation circles. In
1907, the Baldwin company was commissioned by the U.S.
Army Signal Corps to build a 600 cu m (20,000 cu ft)
capacity airship. The 29 m (96 ft) long non-rigid was
powered by a 20-horsepower Curtiss engine, traveled at a
speed of 20 mph, and had a total lifting capability of
617 kg (1,360 lb). It was tested successfully for the
Army in August 1908 and was designated the
By 1909, Baldwin shifted his focus to heavier-than-air flight. During late 1909 and early 1910, Curtiss built an airplane of his design for him. It was a tractor biplane with a biplane tail similar to the well-known Farman design, and it had a large vertical surface mounted above the top wing for lateral steering. The original 25-horsepower, four-cylinder Curtiss engine was quickly replaced by a Curtiss V-8. By the summer of 1910, Baldwin was testing a second airplane at Mineola, Long Island. This aircraft was similar to the Curtiss biplanes of the day, featuring a centrally-mounted pusher engine and a forward elevator supported by booms ahead of the wings.
Baldwin flew at an air meet in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 7-8, 1910, as well as at the famous competition at Belmont Park, New York, later that month. In December 1910, he formed an exhibition team with J.C. "Bud" Mars and Tod Shriver and began a tour of the Pacific. They made flights in Honolulu during the week of December 31, 1910, en route to the Philippines, China, and Japan. One of the airplanes was sold to a school in Manila. The group returned to the United States in the spring of 1911.
Shortly after his return from the Pacific, Baldwin was testing a new airplane at Mineola. The new aircraft was again similar to the basic Curtiss pusher design that was becoming quite popular with builders by this time, but it was innovative in that it was constructed of steel tubing. Built for Baldwin by C. and A. Wittemann of Staten Island, New York, it was powered by a 60-horsepower, Hall-Scott V-8, and could fly at the then impressive speed of 60 mph. Baldwin called his new machine the Red Devil III, and thereafter each of his airplanes would be known as a Baldwin Red Devil. The origin of the name appears to stem from Baldwin's painting his aircraft bright crimson overall. There is also an unsubstantiated story that following an accident, Baldwin emerged from the wreckage of his airplane angrily voicing some choice phrases in the presence of a young girl who had witnessed the incident. The girl purportedly left the scene sneering at Baldwin, "old red devil." Whatever the truth of the origin of the name, Baldwin's distinctive red airplanes were collectively known as Red Devils.
Smithsoinian National Air and Space MuseumS