In 1885, five-year-old William Stout stood on the beach with his father watching seagulls sweep over the water. “Some day men will fly like that,” his father observed. “And can I?” the boy asked. “You might,” his father said. “You might even become the first man to do it.”
William Stout never forgot the occasion. He later claimed it gave him “purpose.”
Stout did not become the first man to fly. However, he did become one of America’s most brilliant inventors, and his many inventions included America’s first all-metal airplane.
By the time Stout was in his 30s, he had moved to Detroit where he worked as an engineer designing automobiles. At night, he made airplane models. At the time, most planes were bi-planes, but Stout believed planes with one set of wings would fly better.
In the early 1920s, Stout founded the Stout Metal Airplane Company and began raising money to build airplanes. In a letter to Detroit businessmen asking them for $1,000 each, he made an unusual promise with no guarantees. He said, “For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise. You will never get your money back.”
Many businessmen sent Stout money, including Henry and Edsel Ford, the world’s leading automobile manufacturer. In a few years, the Ford Motor Company purchased Stout’s company. The Fords hoped to build airplanes to carry goods and passengers.
The entrance of the Fords into the airplane business was big news. The New York Times wrote, “The man who revolutionized the automobile industry has assigned himself the task of popularizing the flying machine.”
On April 13, 1925, Stout’s single-wing plane, called the 2-AT (for Air Transport), carried a load of automobile parts from the new airport at Dearborn to Chicago. The flight was a success. More flights were added, demanding a bigger plane. The 3-AT was an engineering disaster and Stout was replaced as the plane’s architect. However, the 4-AT, introduced in June 1926, was a success. The 4-AT’s three engines (a new innovation) earned it the nickname the Tri-Motor, and its all-metal construction made it sturdier than other planes made of wood.
The Tri-Motor greatly influenced the growing American airline industry. Soon, more than 100 airlines all around the world were using Tri-Motors built by the Ford Motor Company. But as the Great Depression gripped the nation, the Ford Motor Company quit building planes. The last Tri-Motor was built in June 1933.
View a great photo of William Mayo, Bill Stout, Edsel and Henry Ford in front of a Trimotor from the Henry Ford Museum’s Heroes of the Sky online exhibit. Also check out this photo of a Ford Trimotor at the Henry Ford.
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.