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The Flying Scot

The Flying Scot

William Somerville was born at Harthill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on April 12, 1879. He was trained as an electrician and came to the United States in 1892. Somerville came to Coal City, Illinois, to attend the funeral of his brother in 1895 and never left. He accepted an offer to become the electrical engineer of the city and five years later became the superintendent of the Macomber Whyte Company which made wire rope. In the same year he was elected mayor.

In 1908, Somerville began experimenting with scale model aeroplanes and in 1910 he made a biplane with the engine acting as a pusher. The plane also contained a new feature using wing warping. The ends of the wings were upturned to give greater stability in flight. He would later design and fly four different types of aircraft. The Kankakee Daily Republican reported the following story on October 1, 1910. "Hundreds of people watched the attempted flight of William Somerville, Mayor of Coal City and superintendent of the wire rope factory, in the airship invented by him.

The first flight was not successful because of the breaking of an axle on one of the wheels, due to the rough ground. Repairs are being made and the mayor will attempt another flight as soon as the repairs are finished." The paper reports that the craft was forty-eight feet in length and was "superb in workmanship." The frame was made of ash and hemlock "split and tied together to prevent any give." Each joint was set with an aluminum socket. "The frames are covered with balloon silk instead of muslin, like other aeroplanes. There is not a nail or a screw in the aircraft." The paper indicates that Somerville had spent two years studying aeroplanes and had "probably the most complete library of any who soar the air."

In 1911, Somerville received patents for his design and then resigned from his job. He leased a large tract of land and built a hangar and work shop. Three months later he took in partners and formed the Illinois Aero Construction Company. In a few months they had built a "load-carrying tractor biplane." It was powered by an 80-horsepower engine and carried two people. Somerville is "the first and only mayor in the United States to build and fly a plane." (1910) In the spring of 1914, Somerville sold his monoplane to Earl Daugherty and gave up his interest in flying.

He spent his "remaining years perfecting wire rope machinery that revolutionized that industry." Somerville was also an accomplished musician. "He founded and directed the Coal City Marine Band; as a member of the Pullman Marine Band, Somerville appeared several times as a guest clarinet soloist with John Philip Sousa's band." Coal City is located off I-55, south of Joliet. It was once an area rich in coal mines and many Scottish people lived there. Following the mines, Scottish immigrants first came to Braidwood, then Coal City, Gillespie and Scottsboro near Marion, Illinois. My thanks to Vic Johnson of Bradley, Illinois for sharing this information. Vic is a member of the St. Andrew Society and is a feature writer with the Kankakee Sunday Journal. He has written extensively about the early days of flight.

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