Starling Burgess designed a three-wheeled car with Buckminster Fuller. He married five times. He drove to Princeton to get Einstein’s help on a math problem. He designed three winning America’s Cup defenders, just as his father had. He built the first airplane to carry Tom Sopwith’s name. One of his aircraft landed on the White House lawn. Another was wrecked in Plymouth Harbor by Hap Arnold. He built swept-wing, tailless seaplanes so stable they could take off without the pilot touching the controls—in 1914.
Burgess was endowed with a bold, creative nature and mathematical and engineering skills to match. For nearly a decade, starting in 1909, he devoted his skills to aviation. However, “he was a terrible businessman,” says Llewellyn Howland III, author of No Ordinary Being: W. Starling Burgess (to be released this year by David R. Gordine Publishers). “He wasn’t dishonest, and he wasn’t stupid about money, but he always assumed the best about everyone. That was his fatal flaw.”
Burgess was born into wealth and high Boston society on Christmas Day, 1878, the first child of Edward and Caroline Burgess. Edward’s passion and avocation was yachting. Starling excelled in a blend of his parents’ formidable aptitudes, which they encouraged: mathematics, mechanics, poetry, and, of course, sailing.
In 1883, his idyllic life was upended when the family’s sugar import business collapsed. Edward opened a small naval architecture practice and soon scored a commission to design an America’s Cup defender. His Puritan won handily in 1885. Over the next two years, Edward created two more boats that repeated the feat.
Commissions poured in. The idyll was briefly restored. But Caroline began suffering from “hysterical” maladies, treated with increasing doses of morphine and arsenic, and Edward died of typhoid fever in 1891, at age 43. That November, Caroline collapsed in the snow in front of Boston’s Trinity Church. She died only nine days before Starling’s 13th birthday.
Starling attended the Milton Academy and Harvard, where his mathematical and engineering genius blossomed; enlisted in the Spanish-American War and designed a machine gun; opened his own naval architecture firm; married and then suffered his wife’s suicide; published the first of several volumes of poetry; and courted and then married one of his best friends’ wives, the painter Rosamond Tudor. He was 26.
The new couple set up in the Massachusetts coastal village of Marblehead. Burgess opened a shipyard and assembled a crack team of shipwrights. Every ship they produced, from steam launches to trainers to yachts, was elegant in design and superbly crafted. His powered speedboats were the fastest in the world, and through them Burgess learned much about the gasoline engine.
“Like a Little Dancing Girl”
In September 1908, Burgess was invited by his friend and Harvard physics professor Wallace Clement Sabine to Washington, D.C., to see Orville Wright fly. Everything about the 1908 Wright Military Flyer was a revelation. “The flying machine herself seemed of fairy-like proportions; quite too unsubstantial to accomplish what was expected of her,” he later wrote in his unpublished autobiography. As the airplane was launched and sailed over Burgess’ head, “[t]ears came unbidden to my eyes. Shall I ever forget that moment!” The next day, Orville Wright crashed, and his passenger, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, was killed—the first to die in a powered airplane.
Despite the tragedy, Burgess turned from his promising maritime career to pursue powered flight. His first foray was a partnership with a man about whom Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, the Wright brothers, and even Glenn Curtiss could agree: They had all worked with—and despised—Augustus Herring.