Some citizens of Talladega County, Alabama claim that Dr. Lewis Archer Boswell, a physician and the owner of Red Hill, a plantation located in Eastaboga, was the first man to attain sustained flight, preceding the Wright Brothers' Kitty Hawk experiment by several years. Dr Boswell was a talented inventor, but a very poor businessman, although he had several patents on different parts of his flying machine. Some Talladega County residents say he had a servant push his machine off the roof of the barn at Red Hill in 1893 or 1894, and completed a short, but successful flight. Others say the Wright Brothers offered fifty thousand dollars for the plans Boswell had developed.
Lewis Archer Boswell was not a native Alabamian. He was born May 9, 1834 at the Boswell family home, Aspen Hill, near Wattsbro, Lunenburg County, Virginia. He was the youngest child of John Iverson Boswell, Jr. and Nancy D. Coleman. His mother died just short of three weeks after his birth, so his sister cared him for until he was twelve. John Boswell died at this point in Lewis' life and a Mr. Winn became his guardian. Lewis Boswell inherited sufficient funds that allowed him to attend the University of Virginia, Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In addition to his medical studies, he was a classical scholar, able to repeat from memory long passages of Shakespeare.
After Boswell graduated from Johns Hopkins University, he practiced medicine in Greenwood, Mississippi until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was sent to Richmond, Virginia, as a surgeon at the Wynder Hospital. After the war he returned to Greenwood and boarded with a Colonel Roades until 1868, when he married Miss Bettie Liddell.
While living in the Rhodes' home, he read an article on bird flight in The Edinburgh Review written by the Duke of Argyle, and commented to the colonel that "It can be done". The colonel asked what he meant, and Boswell said, "Why people can fly through the air, with proper adjustments, like birds!" In spite the colonel's judgment that he was crazy, the doctor began working on a model of a machine that would indeed allow a person to fly. The first rough model demonstrating the feasibility of his idea was completed and then destroyed in 1868, shortly before his marriage.
The model was put in a sack and thrown in the Yazoo River by its maker shortly after its completion. Whether the motivation for its destruction was the ridicule Boswell received from his friends and neighbors, or the desire to prevent anyone using what he convinced was his unique idea, or his frustration with its crudeness, we have no way of knowing.
When the Boswells had been married a year, they moved to Red Hill, a plantation Mrs. Boswell had inherited from her mother in Eastaboga, Talladega County, Alabama. Boswell continued working on his invention.
Before applying for a patent, Boswell had a jeweler in Talladega, named Lowry, build a second model airplane about twelve inches long, propelled by a clock spring mechanism. It could be placed on a table, and when released, fly across the room. Years later, in 1926, Mrs. Boswell and her sons John and Frank remembered seeing this demonstration. Col. Boynton, J. A. Savery and Bernard Schmidt also witnessed flights of this model according to Mrs. Boswell, who called it an "aerial boat".
Boswell submitted this model with the patent application prepared by Munn and Company, patent lawyers and February 7, 1874, he received a patent on an "Improvement in Wind Wheels." On April 4, 1874, he filed an application with the United States Patent Office for "Improvements in Aerial Propeller Wheels" which was granted for a seventeen year term dating from September 22, 1874. Munn and Company again prepared this application, but seemed not to realize the importance of the doctor's idea.
Dr. Boswell did not save copies of much of his correspondence, so it is difficult to follow the development of his idea. He evidently neglected his medical practice to the point where he didn't have the $1000 it would cost to purchase equipment to make a motor with a gasoline engine for his airplane. The banks turned down his applications for a loan. However there is a letter in existence that was written by Boswell in June of 1900 to the Secretary of War telling him, "You need a flying machine," and asking for a thousand dollar loan to get Duryea Power Company of Reading, Pennsylvania, to make a Triple Cylinder Gasoline Engine for him, and promising to have the plane completed in sixty days. He offered to secure the loan with his property in Alabama and said, "I have contrived all needful devices to ascend and descend at will, with ease and safety, and to guide right and left as readily as one does a canoe on a still lake." His offer was turned down.
The third patent granted to Dr. Boswell was for "New and Useful Improvement in Steering Mechanism of Dirigible Air Ships". R.S and A.B. Lacy, patent lawyers of Washington, D.C., filed the application in September of 1901, but the patent was not granted until May 26, 1903. Boswell made another model for this application. His nephew, Garland Boswell of Wattsboro, Virginia, prepared drawings and specifications. A copy of these plans was sent to Glenn Curtiss who later became the owner of Curtiss Airplane, of Hammondsport, New York.
On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright, on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, demonstrated that their flying machine could actually fly.
When Dr. Lewis Archer Boswell died at Red Hill on November 26, 1909, he had instituted a lawsuit against the Wright Brothers. His family did not pursue the suit after his death.
The former Talladega Municipal Airport, located on the land at one time owned by Dr. Boswell, has been renamed to remember and honor him.
Randy Bullock was born in Eastaboga, AL near the Boswell family home. He enjoys historic preservation and now lives in Pensacola, FL.