Black and white photograph of an airport
Boarding gates at Cleveland Municipal Airport, 1936 (Library of Congress)

Part of the fun of working through these papers is in the glimpses they provide of social and technological trends that we normally think of as processes in one-way motion, from the alien distant past through increasingly familiar passages to the present. The documents of individual experience at particular places and times give us snapshots, a view of a moment when the distant past was recent and the path to our own time still unknown and undetermined. Alongside the themes of information technology and scholarly communication which are the main focus of this blog, I’ve been gathering materials on a number of social themes that have struck me: contraception, feminism, attitudes to fascism and communism, prohibition, and the effects of the Depression on academic careers.

But first here’s one on flying, which was slowly becoming a common feature of American life in the 1930s. Binkley attempted to travel by air three times that I can document. The first two were flights from Cleveland to New York, the last a round trip from New York to San Francisco.

Binkley’s first opportunity came in March, 1931. On short notice he was invited to a meeting in New York which he very much wanted to attend. It was called by James T. Shotwell and included several members of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The purpose was to discuss plans for publishing the documentation of the conference, a subject to which Binkley had been devoting his research and promotional efforts since 1928. The opportunity to participate in a meeting of the holders of many of the most valuable collections of documents was not to be missed. The meeting was to be held at the Faculty Club at Columbia University on Saturday evening, March 7th. Unfortunately, Binkley was committed to a public event in Cleveland on that morning. Cleveland was a leader in municipal support for air travel, however, having opened the city-owned Cleveland Municipal Airport in 1925, and installed the world’s first radio traffic control system in 1930. The solution to Binkley’s difficulty was a 1:30 pm flight, which would land at 4:35 in Newark. 1 (A 1931 United Airlines schedule shows a daily flight from Chicago and Toledo stopping in Cleveland at 1:10 PM and reaching New York at 4:54 PM). He booked the ticket (at the Carnegie Foundation’s expense) and was looking forward to his first flight. He wrote to the inventor Miller Reese Hutchison, who was working on improving the resolution of photographic film, to arrange a meeting on Sunday.2 Unfortunately, a late winter storm blew through the north-east that day, and all flights out of Cleveland were cancelled.3 He had to wire Shotwell: “Planes not flying to-day on account weather. Deeply regret that I am unable to join you.”4 He followed up with a letter on Monday presenting the suggestion he no doubt wanted to make at the meeting, of using offset printing to publish the delegates’ papers in short runs.5

A year later, he had somewhat better luck. Again he needed to get to New York more quickly than the train or bus would allow, to meet with Shotwell and his assistant Carol Riegelman (who had been a student of Binkley’s during his year at Smith College in 1929-30) before Easter weekend. He booked an early flight. The weather was clear, the plane left Cleveland Airport on time, and Frances and 2-1/2-year-old Binks craned their necks out the window at home to see it pass overhead.6

That evening Frances received a telegram from Bob, safe in Albany. Curious, she wrote to him:

How come you are safe in Albany when you started for Newark? Are you making a tour? Thoughtful of you to send me the telegram – I felt better to know you were safe – even in Albany. Next morning the newspaper headline read: “Plane rescues society leader from wilderness” (But it proved to be an Alaskan adventure instead of New York.)7

A letter from Bob arrived a day or two later with the explanation:

The airplane trip was beautiful. I took out $5000 insurance for $2.00, and you will by now have received notice that this indemnity is payable, for loss of two eyes, two hands, two feet, one hand and one foot but presumably not one foot & one eye. I mailed this to you in the Airport & then got into the plane. The view of the country was very clear. I could see our house as we passed. We were the grey plane, the second one to start out, & flew very near Euclid Avenue. I watched the country, especially the Lake Shore region, & noted that there are no extensive unsettled tracts till one gets into the vicinity of Conneaut [about 70 miles east of Cleveland]. There one finally reaches long stretches where no summer cottage interest is evident – Farms run down to the Lake shore, & there are many little ravines.

It turned out that I had taken a seat on the slower & more cautious plane, which flies a relatively safe route via Buffalo & Albany instead of going straight over the mountains. In Rochester we received news that there was a squall in Albany, & therefore waited, till at last they decided to push on there, the squall having left Albany. Between Rochester & Albany we rode thru a snow storm, running under the clouds – at about 700 feet. In the earlier stages of the trip, before we got to Buffalo, we had gone over the clouds, at 5000 feet. A marvelous sight, to be above the sea of clouds, with chasms occasionally opening beneath one.

At Albany the flight was cancelled as I telegraphed, & I took the train, not getting into N.Y. till after midnight. They refunded more than my train fare, but altogether the flight did not save me time. On the other plane I should have been in N.Y. in the afternoon. But as it turned out, that wouldn’t have made any difference.8

It wouldn’t have made any difference because Shotwell and Riegelman had misunderstood Binkley’s plans and were out of town. Furthermore the libraries were all closed for Easter; the trip was a complete waste.

The third occasion was a round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco in 1938 with his brother Charles at the time of their father’s death. My father (who was nine at the time) remembered this flight, and Binkley mentioned it in the family letter I posted last year:

Since I had the experience of getting into a plane here [New York] at 5:00 p.m. and getting out at San Francisco at 9:00 a.m. the family in California seems so near to me — just around the corner, in fact.

A 1937 TWA timetable shows the Sky-Chief (Flight 5) with “sky-sleeper equipment”, leaving New York (Newark) at 5:00, stopping at Columbus, Kansas City and Albuquerque, and reaching Los Angeles 17 hours later at 7:04 AM local time; a connection from there to San Francisco arrived at 11:00 AM. Meals were served aloft, and stops were only 10 or 15 minutes. The plane would have been a DC-3. The Sky-Sleeper flights had “separate club lounge and berth sections … berths are longer, wider and softer than in a Pullman.” The DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport) version of the DC-3 had 16 berths.

Christian K. Binkley died on Friday, April 29, 1938, having been in the hospital since a heart attack a few days before. Binkley wrote to him that day, then presumably received word of his death and flew out that day or soon after. It’s surprising that no letters to Frances from this visit survive, since he generally wrote to her frequently when they were apart. Perhaps his letters were kept separate from their other correspondence because of the importance of the occasion, and were lost. We have to reconstruct his movements from his outgoing letters. There are four carbon copies of letters dated Monday, May 2, but it is impossible that he returned so soon: either he left on Monday (or later) after dictating the letters, or more likely he made dictaphone recordings on Friday before he left, and they were typed up in his absence on Monday. He was probably back in New York on May 11 when he wrote to TWA for a refund of $5.00 because he had only booked the sleeper from Kansas City on (he doesn’t say whether this was on the outbound or return flight), and certainly by the 12th when he gave the final lecture in his classes at Columbia.9 It was an extravagant expense for a trip of a few days, since even the reduced summer fare in 1937 was $276.02 return.

Binkley’s previous transcontinental trips, by train in 1917, 1919 and 1930, and by car in 1927, involved days of travel, so it’s easy to imagine how impressive a 17-hour flight would have been in comparison. On the other hand, air travel would still have seemed risky. Only the previous month, on Mar. 1 1938, a TWA DC-2 crashed near Yosemite on a run from San Francisco to Winslow, Arizona, killing all on board. At the time of Binkley’s trip the wreck had still not been found, and TWA, increasingly desperate to close the story, was offering a $1000 reward for news of its location. It would not be discovered until June 12.

  1. Doc. 4460: RCB to Shotwell, 1931-03-04.

  2. Doc. 2927: RCB to Hutchison, 1931-03-04; he mentioned his interest in Hutchison’s work in a letter to Scientific American: Doc. 4456, 1931-03-11.

  3. “Rain Here is Prelude to Heavy Storm”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1931-03-08, p.1. RCB described the events and his disappointment in a letter to his brother Francis: Doc. 2657 1931-03-11.

  4. Doc. 4458: RCB to Shotwell, 1931-03-07.

  5. Doc. 4441: RCB to Shotwell, 1931-03-09

  6. Doc. 6407: FWB to RCB, [1932-03-28].

  7. Doc. 6808: FWB to RCB, [1932-03-25].

  8. Doc. 2660: RCB to FWB, [1932-03-25].

  9. As he wrote to his family. A 1938 Family Letter.