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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 05:20 pm

Grandson of Free Frank, an early inventor with Springfield roots

Did John McWorter ever get his helicopter off the ground?

John McWorter’s “flying machine” was patented Oct. 20, 1914.

Many of us have heard about New Philadelphia, the racially integrated town in west central Illinois established by former slave “Free Frank” McWorter in 1836. Free Frank was an enterprising man who bought his own freedom and that of several family members, and developed this town where blacks and whites lived in equality.

But few have heard of Frank’s grandson, John E. McWorter, who shared Frank’s enterprising traits. John is interesting, not only for what he accomplished, but also for his roots, which trailed through New Philadelphia (where he was born and grew up) and Springfield.

John was an inventor, like his father Solomon (Free Frank’s son). According to the Illinois State Library Patent and Trademark Depository Library (established in 1984), Solomon McWorter was the first black man in Illinois to receive a patent; he got one in 1867 for an improvement to machines that evaporated sorghum and other syrups.

John, born in 1864, was a dreamer, according to his daughter Helen McWorter Simpson’s book, Makers of History (1981, Laddie B. Warren, publisher). He read every math and science book he could find and spent hours watching birds fly. His parents made sure he received a good education at a time when few whites, much less blacks, got any education.

After finishing eighth grade at a school in New Philadelphia, John came to Springfield to attend high school. Simpson writes that John finished two years’ schoolwork in one year, and then had to quit because of lack of money for tuition (which, according to a receipt in her book, cost $4.65 for one month in 1887).

A year later, John was in St. Louis working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. But his heart was elsewhere, as evidenced by the trail of experiments he left throughout his house.

“Wires were stretched everywhere and all kinds of material was on the floor,” wrote Simpson. “You walked gingerly. . . the living room, kitchen and one bedroom were the only places where you were completely safe.”

Inspiration often struck in the middle of the night, when John could be found at his drawing board, sometimes for hours.

The basement of the house contained an invention related to his work — a “letter distribution setup,” according to Simpson. But John’s pride and joy was located in the dining room, which had been cleared to make room for a model based on his design of a new “flying machine.”

In 1911, eight years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made U.S. history by getting one of their flying machines to work, John submitted a patent application for an improved “aeroplane” design. It was granted in 1914, the same year he received another patent for improvements in “flying machines.” He got his third in 1922.

His patents were for helicopters, though that name didn’t exist at the time. John had designed a “flying machine” that “may ascend vertically from the ground. . . (and) maintain its lateral and also its longitudinal equilibrium automatically,” according to his first patent.

John had good company. Thomas Edison was also experimenting with helicopter designs and patented one in 1910, but his designs weren‘t successful, according to George Dow’s article, “Flops of famous inventors,” in the December 1930 issue of Popular Science.

John may have gotten a little further than Edison. He not only built his designs, but it appears he got the War Department to look at them. In 1919, he received a letter from the Engineering Division of the War Department’s Air Service telling him that a representative was coming to St. Louis on July 31 to review a “trial flight” of his “auto plane” model.

It’s not known what, if anything, resulted from that trial flight. However, he contacted St. Louis aviator, Albert. B. Lambert, afterwards, asking for help with his invention. Simpson’s book contains a copy of Lambert’s 1920 reply, in which Lambert tells John he doesn’t have the time or resources to help John see the “materialization” of his craft, but Lambert thinks the War Department “should be sufficiently interested to develop a life-size model.”

Lambert adds that he’s just leased 180 acres of land near Bridgeton which “is at (John’s) disposal at any time.” That area, called Kinloch Field, was a popular spot for hot air balloonists. Lambert cleared it and turned it into an airfield.

Today we know it as Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where Charles Lindbergh departed seven years later for his famous solo flight to Paris. Did Free Frank’s grandson try out his own aviation dreams on the same land? Sadly, neither Simpson’s book, nor the book Free Frank by Free Frank descendant Juliet E.K. Walker says. It’s nice to think he did, though.

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