Enabling Aeronautics and Commercial Aviation

  • Prosperity
  • 1925

Harry Guggenheim served as one of America’s first naval pilots in the First World War. By 1925 he had interested his father, Daniel—the multimillionaire mining industrialist and philanthropist—in donating a half-million dollars to New York University to establish the nation’s earliest school of aeronautics. The family later established additional schools of aeronautical engineering at MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, the universities of Michigan and Washington, and other campuses.

Before commercial air travel existed, Harry Guggenheim established a Safe Aircraft Competition with $150,000 in prizes to spur innovation in ways of flying through fog, snow, rain and other adverse conditions. As a result, Jimmy Doolittle flew the first instrument-only flight in 1929, taking off, cruising, and landing a plane from a cockpit with its glass completely covered. The Guggenheims also bankrolled weather tracking and reporting services essential to flyers, and development of the first gyroscope compass. They made the equipment loans that allowed the first regularly scheduled commercial airline to set up operations in the U.S. They popularized air travel by touring famous aviators like Charles Lindbergh and the pilot who flew Commodore Byrd to the North Pole to scores of cities across the U.S.

The Guggenheims funded Theodore von Kármán, who invented the wind tunnel and designed an early helicopter and the DC-3. Right up into the 1960s, by which time nearly all of America’s senior aerospace engineers were graduates of Guggenheim-sponsored schools, they continued to endow professorships and establish additional research and development centers to make flying safer, more efficient, and more widespread. Aeronautics became a huge element in the U.S. economy and national defense.