Wednesday, March 3, 2010

John M. Smith—An Inventor


Retired Mill-Man, Now 80, Says His Invention Was Stolen From Him

John M. Smith, 80 years old, retired mill-hand of West Belhaven, [Beaufort County, North Carolina], says he feels sure he is the true inventor of the airplane, and that he built such a plane before he was 18 years old, during the administration of President Cleveland in the 90's.

"At that time I was working around a sawmill," Mr. Smith said, "and I had very little money so I could not get anywhere with it. If I had had enough money to buy me a motor, even a little one like they now use on bicycles, I know I could have made it fly.

"But they got it away from me, some men from New York by the name of Curren and Houston. They came into Pantego [Beaufort Co.] and stopped at Walter Clark's house which he ran near the railroad station. They looked over my model, and they told me it wouldn't work because the propeller was on the front end. That is the way now with most all airplanes.

"Some of the folks around here told me later that they believed these men had been sent down by the Wright Brothers, but I do not say so. I have no reason to believe so.

"But somebody did get my plane from me. But I can prove by Jay Bishop and other good men in Belhaven that I had such a plane. Why I even wrote to President Cleveland about it, but he didn't answer my letter. However, a man named George Gaskins who used to run on a boat told me he had hung around the White House and heard President Cleveland laughing about it and calling we North Carolina folks crazy to think we could fly."

Mr. Smith is jolly and healthy-looking. He lives happily with his wife, who was the former Annie May Midgett of Engelhard [Hyde Co., NC]. They have three sons: Capt. Clyde Smith of Port Arthur, Texas, and Roland and Sherman Smith of Plymouth [Washington Co.] employed on a tugboat of the Atlas Plywood Co. He says he was born March 11, 1875, at what was known as Pantego Swamp, but now called Wilkinson Station.

President Cleveland was first inaugurated in 1885, serving four years and was defeated. He was elected in 1892 and again inaugurated for term in 1893.
NOTE: Daniel W. Barefoot, author of Touring the Backroads of North Carolina's Upper Coast, wrote that Smith, who had little education and no access to outside sources of information, built his model airplane on the family farm when he was 14 years old. George Gaskins worked at the Philadelphia Naval Yard and realized the potential of Smith's model. He carried it to Washington and showed it to President Cleveland who said, "There is one fool in North Carolina, I know, who wants to put a propeller on the front of a ship, and any fool knows that if you put a propeller on the front of a ship, it would push the ship backwards."

Smith was a man of big ideas as the next story shows:


John M. Smith of Belhaven now states that he has an idea that homes will be heated without fuel before the passage of many years. A gimmick on top of the house will draw electricity from the air and this will provide all the necessary heat, says Mr. Smith. "I've been thinking about it some," he says, "but I'm too old to try to figure it out completely, and anyway, I reckon it would take about a million dollars, and I haven't got much money."

Mr. Smith is known for his experiments with an airplane in the 1890's. "If I had just had an engine, I know it would have flown," he says, "but you know there were no gasoline engines in those days."

Coastland Times, Manteo, 9/23/1955
Touring the backroads of North Carolina's upper coast, by Daniel W. Barefoot, 1995
First in flight: the Wright brothers in North Carolina by Stephen Kirk, 1995

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