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Alfred W. Lawson, Aviation Pioneer Print E-mail

By Lyell D. Henry, Jr.

Three weeks after Alfred William Lawson's birth in London on March 24, 1869, the Lawson family set sail for Canada and, several years later, crossed the border to settle in Detroit. There young Al grew up and trained to be a coat-maker. But a more glamorous life opened when, at the age of 18, he signed on to pitch for a semi-pro baseball club in Frankfort, Ind. Pitching engagements with several Midwestern minor league teams followed in 1888 and 1889.

Although Lawson's early record is not fully documented, it apparently was good enough to give him a chance in the National League in 1890. But there he was found wanting. In his May 13 debut with Boston, he matched pitches with Mickey Welch of New York and lost 7-2. In two games pitched for Pittsburgh, the results were even unhappier - on May 28, a 12-10 loss to Philadelphia, followed by a 14-1 loss (and three errors by Lawson) in a June 2 contest with Cap Anson's Chicago team. Thus, within a three-week span in 1890, Lawson's major league career began and ended.

Lawson was with Atlanta in 1892 and Albany in 1894, but playing soon yielded to managing clubs and organizing leagues, sometimes within organized baseball, more often outside. In that heyday of smalltown eagerness to have a ball club, Lawson seized the opportunities; he claimed to have organized 16 leagues. A 1915 newspaper article hailed him as "the magic man of baseball" who "makes dead territory come to life" and credited Sporting Life for the accolade of "King of League Promoters." But several of the leagues folded shortly after they were organized and it is necessary to sort fact from press agentry in Lawson's promotional work in baseball.

Among the documented Lawson claims is the "bringing out" of John McGraw. In 1890 Lawson secured the 17-year-old McGraw for the Wellsville, N.Y., club which Lawson managed and then signed him up with "Al Lawson's American All-Stars" for one of the earliest exhibition tours to Cuba. In Gainesville, Fla., the team played a game with the Cleveland Indians in which McGraw's performance drew attention. Soon McGraw was on his way to Baltimore via a brief stop in Cedar Rapids. McGraw dated the real start of his career from his Wellsville days. Lawson later took full credit for teaching McGraw the fine points of playing and managing.

Lawson was also a very early user, for promotional purposes, of electric lights for night games. He claimed to have rigged up portable lighting equipment which was moved by railroad flatcar in 1901 among the parks of the Pennsylvania State League (which Lawson organized). It is certain, at least, that in 1902 the Scranton club, which Lawson managed, played exhibition games under the lights on Wednesday nights.

In 1906-07, Lawson organized the outlaw Atlantic League and managed the Reading club to the league title in 1907. In 1907-08 he essayed the outlaw Union League, which he billed as a third major league. But after this effort's collapse in the spring of 1908, Lawson abandoned baseball.

That same year in Philadelphia, in a remarkably rapid transition, he began to publish and edit Fly, the National Aeronautic Magazine, the first popular American journal devoted mainly to promoting flight in heavier-than-air machines. Two years later, in New York, he launched Aircraft (a word coined by Lawson), which journal he edited until 1914 and built into an authoritative voice of early aviation. Through these ventures Lawson secured a place as an aviation industry pioneer.

The audacity of Lawson's entry into aviation journalism was breathtaking. What, after all, were the market prospects? By 1908, only three Americans had ever gone aloft in airplanes. Moreover, Lawson had no editorial experience, and his only background in writing was an unpromising Utopian fantasy, Born Again, published in 1904. A school drop-out at age 12, he presumably knew very little about aviation or engineering. But Lawson had two things going for him: a farseeing vision (rare in 1908) of the future commercial possibilities of aviation and a considerable entrepreneurial ability. Where he got the former remains a mystery, but that his entrepreneurship was honed during this baseball years is clear enough.

Lawson took his first flight in 1910 and in 1913 became New York's first air commuter by flying his plane from the North New Jersey beach area to 75th Street in Manhattan. He used his journals to beat the drums for commercial and military development of aviation. In 1913 he sent a message to Congress asking for $10 million for the development of American aviation. When the U.S. entered World War I, he negotiated the financial backing to form his own company in Green Bay, Wis. The Lawson Aircraft Co. designed and built excellent military trainer-plane prototypes, but the war was nearly over before the firm got contracts for large-scale production.

At war's end, Lawson embarked on his most ambitious and estimable enterprise - the attempted founding of the first nationwide air passenger service. He was many years ahead of the field (and probably of the market and available technology) with this idea. Losing his financing in Green Bay, he reorganized his company in Milwaukee. In 1919 he had finished his first plane – a 16-passenger craft having many novel features (some of which became standard in passenger planes) - and flew it without mishap on a triumphal 2000-mile odyssey as far as New York and Washington, D.C., and then back to Milwaukee.

This flight was well publicized, particularly in Washington, where, on September 21, he displayed his "airliner" (a neologism that stuck) to a large number of dignitaries. In fact, he took more than a dozen of them on a flight around Washington. Included were six U.S. Senators, the former President of Notre Dame University, and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and his wife.

But this flight was only the prelude to the projected creation of the national passenger service, a dream which now seemed within Lawson's grasp. The U.S. Post Office enhanced his prospects by awarding him its first large airmail contracts, totalling $685,000. When Lawson's second plane crashed on take-off in 1921, however, his financial backers, already made jittery by production delays and the deepening 1921 depression, withdrew support. Soon the Lawson Aircraft Co. and the Lawson Airline Co. were no more.

A dispiriting blow, but it didn't shake Lawson's faith in the merit of the air passenger idea and in himself as the man needed to bring it into being. He gamely made one more try in the late 1920's, this time pinning his hopes for an airline network on a conception fantastic for its time - a fleet of huge, 12-engine planes, each capable of carrying 125 passengers in a two-tiered compartment (an idea, incidentally, which Lawson patented and licensed profitably to bus and train companies). But the first plane was still under construction when, again, Lawson lost his financing, this time in the Great Depression. With considerable bitterness, he abandoned aviation work forever.

Fittingly, in the 1930's Lawson struck back at "the financiers" by organizing and leading the multi-million-member Direct Credits Society to agitate for his own plan for national financial reform. At the same time, he continued to develop in many books his unorthodox scientific and religious ideas, which he called "Lawsonomy." Eventually, he founded Lawsonian Religion (six churches operate today) and, in Des Moines, the "University of Lawsonomy," an institution (now located in Sturtevant, Wis.) from which he hoped would come the seed for a "new species" of humanity, perfected by the study and practice of Lawsonomy.

Lawson died in San Antonio, Texas at age 85 on November 29, 1954, bringing to a close an amazing life, to which these few pages can't do justice. He had come a long way from coat-making and those three major league appearances of his nonage. Although his contribution to early American aviation has not been sufficiently recognized, he is still remembered by a devoted band of Lawsonomists as the best and wisest man they ever knew.