Shattered Dream: America's First Patented Helicopter

First Patented Helicopter: A Shattered Dream

America’s First Patented Helicopter was a shattered dream

William J. Purvis and Charles A. Wilson built America’s First Patented Helicopter in Goodland, KS, but Newton’s Third Law defeated them. Since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, any helicopter must compensate for the rotor’s twisting action. They never solved the torque problem, but they set the stage for others’ successes.

A replica stands in Goodland’s High Plains Museum. Press a button and the rotors turn.

America's First Patented Helicopter
Charles A. Wilson and William J. Purvis stand with their helicopter, the only known picture of their invention.

The impossible dream

Bill Purvis dreamed of flying. Just six years after the Wright Brothers‘ first flight, the science of aerodynamics was in its infancy. Purvis was a railroad mechanic, not an aviation engineer. His dreams seemed impossible.

A eureka helicopter moment

One morning in 1909, Purvis walked into Derby’s Confectionery Shop in Goodland, Kan. As the story goes, he saw children playing with a toy whirligig. He grabbed the toy from the children and threw money at them. The whirligig had inspired him to create a helicopter.

Building the Purvis-Wilson Flying Machine

Purvis convinced his friend Charles A. (Art) Wilson to help him build a flying machine. In the partners’ vision, the machine would rise straight into the air and hover indefinitely.

They built a tower for testing the machine and put together parts as they were able.

They worked at the Rock Island Railroad machine shop. After some initial skepticism, their fellow mechanics began to help build the flying machine’s parts.

‘A crippled praying mantis’

Mary Collett Farris’ book “The Short Happy Life of the Kansas Flying Machine“, describes the machine as “a fantastic monstrosity with all the grace of a crippled praying mantis.”

The contraption weighed 400 lbs. with two sets of canvas blades, a long central shaft, and a smaller shaft inside the long one. The helicopter blades spanned 18 feet.

Would-be inventors must be optimistic and believe in their creations. Purvis and Wilson were no exception. They figured two lightweight engines would lift the machine. The engines cost $800. In 2019 dollars, that’s more than $22,500.

The partners did not have that kind of money. They decided to form the Goodland Aviation Company and sell the stock.

Dreams on Thanksgiving Day

To attract potential investors, the company set up a Thanksgiving Day demonstration on Nov. 25, 1909. The whole town came to see what would happen.

They placed the machine and a six-horsepower engine on the ground and loaded it down with boulders. Purvis told the crowd they didn’t want the machine to fly yet. They didn’t know what would happen when it became airborne.

When the engine started, the rotors turned and the machine jumped up and down.

The crowd was impressed. Taking advantage of the moment, Purvis announced that Goodland Aviation Company was selling the stock at G.L. Calvert‘s law office. Potential investors wasted no time handing over their money.

Goodland Aviation Company stock was sold in this building for America's First Patented Helicopter
Investors flocked to G.L. Calvert’s law office after the flying machine’s Thanksgiving Day demonstration. Marion & Betty Parker Collection/Kansas State Historical Society

They meant business “in the airship line”

The inventors filed for a patent on March 18, 1910. By April 1910, the inventors had built a shop with a wooden track. “The inventors and constructors mean business in the airship line,” The Goodland Republic said. They had filled their shop with “machine shop appliances”, including a 6-horsepower steam engine. The shop stood at Highway 24 and Cattletrail’s intersection.

Watching the helicopter’s progress became a spectator sport. People picnicked outside the shop grounds on Sundays. Mary Purvis, Bill’s wife, could tell how many had come by the amount of trash the picnickers had left behind.

Mr. and Mrs. William J. Purvis. Purvis was an inventor of America's First Patented Helicopter
Mr. and Mrs. William J. Purvis.

The search for power

Farris’ book said the machine could fly several feet off the ground when conditions were right. However, the inventors’ original 7-horsepower motors were not strong enough to fly the machine, especially with a pilot aboard.

They decided they needed a 40 or 50-horsepower motor. In the July 22, 1910, issue, The Republic reported that Purvis had gone to St. Louis to buy one. The same issue announced that Wilson had moved to Kansas City, where he would return to the machinist trade. Purvis could not afford the engine and came home empty-handed — without a partner.

Mrs. McIntyre ‘says she saw an aeroplane’

In November 1910, Mrs. A.D. McIntyre called The Republic. She had seen an aeroplane flying high, but it was shortly lost to sight.

The Republic went to see whether Purvis’ machine was flying. Purvis said it was not and he was still making some changes.

Helicopter inspiration strikes

While Purvis talked with the editor, an idea came to him. What would happen if he ran the motor on the ground with a long belt attached?

A wild ride before the end

Purvis borrowed Billy Walker’s threshing machine steam engine. He tied it to the flying machine. He climbed on board for a wild ride.

According to Farris, he eventually crashed into a water tank, drenching himself and the spectators and shattering his machine.

After escaping from the debris, he said, “It’ll fly! I proved it!” He pleaded for more funding, but the crowd turned away. “You can’t let me down now,” he said. “… It’s my life’s work!”

No one would listen.

The road not taken

The company’s investors asked Purvis to try installing a propeller. They believed a propeller would solve the problem Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws had posed. Purvis refused.

Helicopter becomes a shattered dream

Just over two months after Mrs. McIntyre’s vision, Purvis sold his farm. He and his family moved to Missouri. Two months after that, Goodland Aviation disbanded. The stockholders held an auction and sold everything.

Becoming America’s First Patented Helicopter

In a cruel irony, Goodland Aviation’s patent application was approved on June 4, 1912, not quite two months after the auction.

Legacy of America’s First Patented Helicopter

In 1942, The Goodland News-Republic looked back at the flying machine. The newspaper cited a recent Kansas City Times article in which Wilson had been interviewed. Wilson said their flying machine had been a failure. He would rather forget the whole thing.

The Goodland writer did not agree. “Many people here like to remember that one of the first efforts to devise a machine to fly in the air was made at Goodland,” he wrote.

The torque issue is solved

In 1939, Igor Sikorsky added a vertical rotor (propeller) to his craft. The vertical rotor was smaller, reducing weight. Its presence also solved the torque issue.

If Purvis had agreed to the propeller, would America’s First Patented Helicopter have become America’s first practical helicopter? No one can say.

For America’s Bicentennial, Harold Norton of Brewster built this replica from the original plans in High Plains Museum. If the inventors had had more time and money, he believed they might well have worked out the problems. Instead, America’s First Patented Helicopter remained a shattered dream.

How to visit America’s First Patented Helicopter

High Plains Museum is located at 1717 Cherry. Hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Saturday, Sunday from 1-5 p.m. during the summer. Admission is by donation.

More to do in Goodland

The museum and helicopter are just one of the Top 10 Things You Should Do in Goodland. Learn more about Kansas and especially Northwest Kansas.

America's First Patented Helicopter
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Sources: They Came to Stay: Sherman County and Family History Vol. II; Sherman County Historical Society newsletter February 1986; Goodland Republic and Goodland News-Republic articles accessed through; Kansas Memory, Kansas State Historical Society.


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