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  • NTID.USA
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    -3.5%
  • NTIDL.USA
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    0.010
    0.2%
  • OTVI.USA
    12,391.500
    -166.900
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FreightWaves Classics: Burpee and Sopwith combined for aviation first

First chartered aircraft flight occurred 111 years ago

On June 28, 1911, the world’s first documented charter airplane flight took place. It occurred because Washington Atlee Burpee, the founder and head of a large seed-and-planting company that is still in business, was in New York aboard the British ocean liner RMS Olympic. 

The RMS Olympic was a sister ship of the RMS Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage the next year. The Olympic was preparing to travel down the Hudson River and then cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. 

The RMS Olympic in 1922. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The RMS Olympic in 1922. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Burpee sets a logistical challenge

The Colusa, California, Weekly Colusa Sun described Burpee as “the millionaire seed man of Philadelphia.” While on the ship Burpee decided to test a delivery service recently begun by New York City’s Wanamaker department store. 

The store had wireless technology atop its roof that allowed those about to sail across the Atlantic to telegraph orders to be filled. Then store employees would have the requested goods delivered to the pier where a ship was berthed prior to its voyage. 

A view of the Wanamaker store from Astor Place reveals the
Renaissance palazzo-like design of the store by architect Daniel Burnham. (Photo: thedepartmentstoremuseum.org)
The Wanamaker store from Astor Place shows the Renaissance palazzo-like design of the store by architect Daniel Burnham.
(Photo: thedepartmentstoremuseum.org)

Burpee telegraphed a request for the immediate delivery of several small items, including a toothbrush, a pair of socks, and a replacement pair of eyeglasses. However, Burpee did not place his order until the Olympic was already moving down the Hudson River toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Wanamaker employees sought to meet Burpee’s logistical challenge. They hired British aviator Thomas Sopwith to fly the last-minute order by airplane. (Note: this all took place only eight years after the Wright brothers first flight.) Sopwith reached the ship as she was steaming through the Narrows, the tidal strait that is the principal channel from which the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic.

W.A. Burpee. 
(Photo: National Postal Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
W.A. Burpee.
(Photo: National Postal Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

The Weekly Colusa Sun reported, “There was a wild shout when [the Olympic’s] passengers saw the aeroplane circling 600 feet above them, and coming lower and lower toward the ship as she moved on.” When Sopwith’s airplane was approximately 250 feet above the Olympic, he dropped the package from Wanamaker’s from his open cockpit onto the ship’s deck. The package was then delivered to Burpee. “A Wonderful Feat,” proclaimed the headline for the Weekly Colusa Sun’s article that told of the airplane-to-ship delivery.  

Sopwith downplayed the importance of the feat. “No, just business, that’s all,” he replied. “Got an order, filled it and tried to deliver the goods.”

Thomas Sopwith in 1911. (Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
Thomas Sopwith in 1911.
(Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress)

Burpee founded a business empire

Burpee was born in 1858 in Canada’s New Brunswick province, but his family moved to Philadelphia in 1861. Both his father and grandfather were prominent doctors and he also was expected to become a doctor.

But by the age of 14, Burpee was actively breeding chickens, geese and turkeys. A skilled breeder, he corresponded with poultry experts around the world and he also wrote scholarly articles for various poultry journals. Although he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, he left after two years. 

The cover of Burpee's 1886 catalog. (Image: wikiwand.com)
The cover of Burpee’s 1886 catalog. (Image: wikiwand.com)

In 1876, Burpee was 18 years old. He founded a mail-order chicken business with $1,000 (about $25,000 today) that was loaned to him by his mother and a partner. Many Northeastern poultry farmers already knew of Burpee’s expertise, and he subsequently opened a store in Philadelphia. He sold poultry as well as corn seed that was used for poultry feed. 

Soon many of his customers began requesting seeds to grow various vegetables. By 1878, Burpee split from his partner and founded W. Atlee Burpee & Company. The focus of the company became vegetable and flower seeds (but it continued to sell live poultry until the 1940s).

A decade later, Fordhook Farm, the family home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, became an experimental farm where Burpee tested and evaluated new varieties of vegetables and flowers, and also produced seeds that were sold across the world. In the years prior to World War I, Burpee traveled across the United States and Europe, visiting farms while searching for the best flowers and vegetables. (This is why he was on the RMS Olympic in 1911.)

Burpee shipped many of the European vegetables and flowers to Fordhook Farms for testing. The plants that survived were crossbred with native American plants, producing hybrids better suited to the United States. Fordhook Farms was the first “laboratory” to conduct research and test plants and seeds in this way. 

The cover of Burpee's 1901 catalog. (Image: wikiwand.com)
The cover of Burpee’s 1901 catalog. (Image: wikiwand.com)

One key to the success of Burpee’s mail-order business was the 1863 legislation that required free delivery by post offices to residents’ homes. That was expanded in 1896, when rural free delivery was mandated. (To read a FreightWaves Classics article about how rural free delivery improved roads in the United States, follow this link.)

Burpee catalogs were delivered directly to customers’ and prospects’ mailboxes by the Post Office. Burpee’s customers sent the company thousands of letters annually thanking him for his seeds, which helped them grow bountiful crops and/or flowers. Burpee’s catalogs became his best advertising.

Burpee’s first catalog contained 48 pages; by 1915 his catalogs contained 200 pages and he mailed one million catalogs each year. The 1891 catalog was the first to feature engravings made from photographs, and a decade later this process was done by machines. Burpee also relied heavily on testimonial letters and plant descriptions.

When Burpee died in 1915, the company employed 300, and it was the world’s largest seed company. The Burpee company received 10,000 orders a day.

The interior of the Burpee bulk seed warehouse in 1943. (Photo: Arthur S. Siegel for the Office of War Information/Library of Congress)
The interior of the Burpee bulk seed warehouse in 1943. (Photo: Arthur S. Siegel for the Office of War Information/Library of Congress)

The W. Atlee Burpee & Co. is still in business, although it has not been owned by the Burpee family since 1980.

Sopwith

The pilot who delivered Burpee’s package to the RMS Olympic became Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, CBE, Hon FRAeS. Born January 18, 1888, Sopwith was an English aviation pioneer, businessman and yachtsman. 

Sopwith was born in London, England, the eighth child and only son of Thomas Sopwith, who was a civil engineer and managing director of the Spanish Lead Mines Company in Linares, Jaén, Spain. 

Sopwith was interested in motorcycles, and in 1904 at the age of 16 he took part in the 100-mile Tricar trial. He was one of four medal winners. He was also an expert ice skater in his youth and played “in goal” for the Princes Ice Hockey Club in the 1909-10 season. As a member of the Great Britain national ice hockey team, he and his teammates won the gold medal at the first European Championships in 1910.

Interested in flying, Sopwith’s first flight was in a Farman airplane. He taught himself to fly on a Howard Wright Avis monoplane; his first solo took place on October 22, 1910. He crashed after only traveling about 300 yards. However, his flying skills improved quickly, and on November 22 of that year he was awarded Royal Aero Club Aviation Certificate No. 31, flying a Howard Wright 1910 biplane.

Thomas Sopwith at the controls of his Howard Wright biplane. (Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
Thomas Sopwith at the controls of his Howard Wright biplane. (Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress)

Less than one month later (December 18, 1910), Sopwith won the £4,000 Baron de Forest Prize. With inflation, the £4,000 would be worth about £460,000 today, or approximately $377,250. The Prize was for the longest flight from England to the Continent in a British-built aeroplane. Sopwith flew 169 miles in three hours, 40 minutes. He used his prize money to establish the Sopwith School of Flying at Brooklands.

Then Sopwith and his partners established the Sopwith Aviation Company in June 1912. On October 24, 1912, Harry Hawker, Sopwith’s chief engineer and test pilot, won the British Michelin Endurance prize with a flight of eight hours and 23 minutes. He flew a Wright Model B that had been completely rebuilt by Sopwith. 

Sopwith Aviation received its first military aircraft order in November 1912. By the end of World War I, the company had manufactured more than 18,000 aircraft for the Allies, including nearly 5,750 of the famous Sopwith Camel single-seat fighter. Sopwith was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1918 for his wartime efforts.

A Sopwith Camel. (Photo: thoughtco.com)
A Sopwith Camel. (Photo: thoughtco.com)

Despite his accomplishments and awards, Sopwith’s company went into bankruptcy after the war due to Great Britain’s punitive anti-profiteering taxes as well as a failed attempt at motorcycle manufacturing. In 1920 Sopwith re-entered the aviation business with a new company that was named for Harry Hawker. Sopwith became chairman of the new firm, Hawker Aircraft.

In 1979, Sopwith was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.