The United States Armed Forces and graduates of the Military Academy have always been on the forefront of technology integration. Thomas Etholen Selfridge, born February 2nd 1882 in San Francisco, California exemplifies this sense of wonder and adventure.
Upon graduation from the Academy in June 1903, Selfridge served with the coast and field artillery. Returning to West Point in 1906, Selfridge began a serious study of the new field of aeronautics and discovered his true vocation. Through the auspices of astronomer and librarian Edward Singleton Holden, Selfridge spent the summer of 1907 in Nova Scotia working with Alexander Graham Bell. Lt. Selfridge flew Bell’s tetrahedral kite the “Cygnet” as well as the “White Wings and “June Bug” aero planes. These experiments were so successful that Selfridge was sent to Hammondsport, NY to assist Professor Bell in continued experiments through the winters of 1907 and 1908.
Selfridge was then transferred to Fot Meyer, Virginia as part of the “Signal Corps for Aeronautical Work” unit. In Fort Meyer Selfridge worked with Captain Baldwin on the development of dirigibles and met Mr. Orville Wright, who with his brother had successfully flown a motor driven plane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903.
With dirigible experiments going so well the army selected Lieutenant Selfridge as one of the two officers to manage its new dirigible experimental station in Saint Joseph, Missouri. On September 17th, 1909, just prior to his planned departure, Thomas Selfridge realized one of his long held dreams—a heavier than air flight with Orville Wright. Selfridge and Wright took off at 6:14 p.m. into a four mile per hour wind. According to contemporary reports they circled the field four and one half times before a propeller blade detached. Wright and Selfridge were at an altitude of about 150 feet. Wright turned off the motor and glided the plane down to 75 feet; they fell the remaining 75 feet. During the precipitous fall Selfridge “sustained severe cuts about the face and a fracture at the base of the skull”. Lieutenant Selfridge died of his injuries at 8:10 on the evening of September 17th 1909, becoming the first air fatality of a mechanized flight.
A memorial to Thomas Selfridge, USMA 1903 stands in the West Point Cemetery as a monument to his tenacity, forward thinking and mankind’s everlasting dream of flight.
Contents contributed by Elaine McConnell, Rare Book Curator. Photo courtesy of USMA Library Special Collections and Archives.