William S. Romme's Merry Widow

William S. Romme’s “Merry Widow”, The Umbrella Plane

The "Merry Widow", aka the: Umbrella Plane, Cycloplane, McCormick - Romme Monoplane

To understand correctly the circustances that led to Mr. Romme’s “Merry Widow”, we need to realize that history is made through a confluence of events.In William S. Romme’s case it involves, among other things: his inventive genius and drive, a bicycle shop, a popular woman’s hat and the degree to which both New York and Chicago embraced the emerging, evolving field of aviation.

Aviation had been consistently evolving since the balloon flights of the mid Seventeenth Century as well as the advanced development of kites and gliders.In the first part of the Nineteenth Century interest and advancement in aviation was on the scale of a torrent of activity with most of the early development work being done in Europe.The United States was slow to embrace the development.An International Conference on Aerial Navigation was held in August, 1893 in conjunction with the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (popularly known as ”The Chicago World’s Fair”). The primary forces behind the Conference were Albert F. Zahm, the Notre DameUniversity professor who first conceived of holding an aeronautical conference, and Octave Chanute who was chair of the committee which sponsored and organized the Conference. Albert Francis Zahm was an early aeronautical experimenter, and professor of physics.Known on-campus for his late-night glider flights, which were launched from the roofs of University buildings, Zahm had a tremendous influence on the history of aerospace research in the U.S. In fact, he was the first to discuss a modern method of launching an airplane and controlling its flight — by rotating parts of the wings to balance it laterally while using a double tail to decrease pitching and yawing.

<Albert Zahm ........................................................................................Octave Chanute >


Chanute is generally known for his work on gliding and his seminal 1894 book Progress in Flying Machines. As he had with his aviation articles, Chanute sought to advance aeronautics by encouraging promising aerial devotees (even to the extent of funding their efforts) and by documenting the state of aeronautical knowledge in publications detailing the newly emerging scientific understanding of aerial navigation. He made good use of his position as a respected engineer to solicit papers from “scientific men or engineers or both” which he then made certain were published.

The following is an excerpt from Octave Chanute’s Opening Address at the conference August 1, 1893:

It is well to recognize from the beginning that we have met here for a conference upon an unusual subject; one in which commercial success is not yet to be discerned, and in which the general public, not knowing of the progress really accomplished, has little interest, and still less confidence.

The fascinating, because unsolved, problem of Aerial Navigation has hitherto been associated with failure. Its students have generally been considered as excentric; to speak plainly, as "cranks" and yet a measurable success is now probably in sight with balloons; a success measurable so far that we can already say that it will probably not be a commercial one; while as to flying machines proper, which promise high speeds, we can say that the elements of an eventual success, the commercial uses of which are not as yet very clear, have gradually accumulated during the past half century.

The truth of these assertions, which will be justified further on, seems to indicate that it is not unreasonable for us as Engineers, as mechanics and as investigators to meet together here in order to discuss some of the scientific principles involved and to interchange our knowledge and ideas.

< Samuel Langley....................................................................................................... Otto Lilienthal >
The year 1896 brought three important aeronautical events. In May, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned steam-powered model aircraft. In the summer, Chicago engineer and aviation authority Octave Chanute brought together several men who tested various types of gliders over the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. In August, Otto Lilienthal was killed in the plunge of his glider.Otto Lilienthal's aerial influence was widespread, and his work was well-known within the U.S. Photographs and engravings depicting Lilienthal in flight were printed in many magazines and journals, and the effect then of seeing a human aloft with great arching wings can hardly be imagined




















Lilienthall in flight

Reading many of these published works and developing a personal interest in the future of aviation were two American brothers who owned a bicycle shop. The

bicycle shop was that of the Wright brothers in Dayton, Ohio


Wright Brothers Cycle Shop in Dayton, Ohio

In May 1899 Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics. Drawing on the work of, Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo Da Vinci, Langley and others they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation that year.

From 1900 until their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots.In 1900 the brothers journeyed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to begin their manned gliding experiments. In a reply to Wilbur's first letter, Octave Chanute had suggested the mid-Atlantic coast for its regular breezes and soft sandy landing surface. The location, although remote, was closer to Dayton than other places Chanute had suggested, including California and Florida. The spot also gave them privacy from reporters, who had turned the 1896 Chanute experiments at Lake Michigan into something of a circus. Chanute visited them in camp each season from 1901 to 1903 and saw the gliding experiments.

After they were finished with the gliding and not finding a suitable light engine available on the market, the Wright brothers turned to their own bicycle shop staff in the person of Charles Taylor to build an engine for an attempt at powered flight.

First Flight

On December 17, 1903 they made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Though they first flew in 1903, the world did not recognize their success until 1908.This was due in part to the brothers themselves not wanting the press in their way and of a desire to protect their work until they could patent it.

From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to solving "the flying problem". This approach differed significantly from other experimenters of the time who put more emphasis on developing powerful engines. Using a small homebuilt wind tunnel, the Wrights also collected more accurate data than any before, enabling them to design and build wings and propellers that were more efficient than any before. Their first U.S. patent, 821,393, did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine's surfaces.

Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flightThe Wright brothers' status as inventors of the airplane has been subject to counter-claims by various parties. Much controversy persists over the many competing claims of early aviators.

First flight claims are made for Ader, Whitehead, Pearse and Jatho for their variously documented tests in years prior to and including 1903. Claims that the first true flight occurred after 1903 are made for Vuia and Santos-Dumont. Supporters of these pre- and post-Wright pioneers argue - that techniques used by the Wright brothers disqualify them as first to make successful airplane flights. Those techniques were: a launch rail; skids instead of wheels; a headwind at takeoff; and a catapult after 1903. Supporters of the Wright brothers argue that proven, repeated, controlled, and sustained flights by the brothers entitle them to credit as inventors of the airplane, regardless of those techniques.

All this came much later, because not many knew of the success at Kitty Hawk.There were only five witnesses: Adam Etheridge, John T. Daniels (who snapped the famous "first flight" photo using Orville's pre-positioned camera) and Will Dough, of the U.S. government coastal life saving crew; area businessman W.C. Brinkley; and Johnny Moore, a teenaged boy who lived in the area. After the men hauled the Flyer back from its fourth flight, a powerful gust of wind flipped it over several times, despite the crew's attempt to hold it down. It was severely damaged and never flew again.

The Wrights sent a telegram about the successful flights at Kitty Hawk to their father, requesting that he "inform press." However, the Dayton Journal refused to publish the story, saying the flights were too short to be important. The flights did not create public excitement—if people even knew about them—and the news soon faded.

In 1904, the Wrights built the Flyer II. They decided to avoid the expense of travel and bringing supplies to the Outer Banks and set up an airfield at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture eight miles (13 km) northeast of Dayton, Ohio. They invited reporters to their first flight attempt of the year on May 23, on the condition that no photographs be taken. Engine troubles and slack winds prevented any flying, and they could manage only a very short hop a few days later with fewer reporters present. Some scholars of the Wrights speculate the brothers may have intentionally failed to fly in order to cause reporters to lose interest in their experiments. Whether that is true is not known, but after their poor showing local newspapers virtually ignored them for the next year and a half.

The Wrights were glad to be free from the distraction of reporters. The absence of newsmen also reduced the chance of competitors learning their methods. After the Kitty Hawk powered flights, the Wrights made a decision to begin withdrawing from the bicycle business so they could devote themselves to creating and marketing a practical airplane. The decision was financially risky, since they were neither wealthy nor government-funded.The Wright brothers did not have the luxury of giving away their invention; it was to be their livelihood. Thus, their secrecy intensified, encouraged by advice from their patent attorney not to reveal details of their machine.

On September 20, 1904, at HuffmanPrairie, Wilbur flew the first complete circle in history by a manned heavier-than-air powered machine, covering 4,080 feet (1,244 m) in about a minute and a half. Their two best flights were November 9 by Wilbur and December 1 by Orville, each exceeding five minutes and covering nearly three miles in almost four circles. By the end of the year the brothers had accumulated about 50 minutes in the air in 105 flights over the rather soggy 85-acre (340,000 m2) pasture. The Wrights scrapped the battered and much-repaired Flyer II, but saved the engine, and in 1905 built a new Flyer III, which included an important design change. Each of the three axes—pitch, roll and yaw—now had its own independent control.

They further rebuilt the Flyer with modificationsthat greatly improved stability and control, setting the stage for a series of six dramatic "long flights" ranging from 17 to 38 minutes and 11 to 24 miles (39 km) around the three-quarter mile course over Huffman Prairie between September 26 and October 5. Wilbur made the last and longest flight, 24.5 miles (39.4 km) in 38 minutes and 3 seconds, ending with a safe landing when the fuel ran out. The flight was seen only by a small number of people, including several invited friends, their father Milton, and neighboring farmers.

The Wright Flyer III piloted by Orville over Huffman Prairie, October 4, 1905.

Flight #46, covering 20 and 3/4 miles in 33 minutes 17 seconds; last photographed flight of the year


Reporters showed up the next day (only their second appearance at the field since May the previous year), but the brothers declined to fly. The long flights convinced the Wrights they had achieved their goal of creating a flying machine of "practical utility" which they could offer to sell.

The only photos of the flights of 1904–1905 were taken by the brothers. In 1904 a technology enthusiast witnessed a few flights including the first circle. An article by the witness, Amos Root, wrote for his beekeeping magazine was the only published eyewitness reports of the Huffman Prairie flights, except for the unimpressive early hop local newsmen saw. Root offered a report to Scientific American magazine, but the editor turned it down. As a result, the news was not widely known outside of Ohio, and was often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS OR LIARS?"

The Wright brothers were certainly complicit in the lack of attention they received. Fearful of competitors stealing their ideas, and still without a patent, they flew on only one more day after October 5. From then on, they refused to fly anywhere unless they had a firm contract to sell their aircraft. They wrote to the U.S. government, then to Britain, France and Germany with an offer to sell a flying machine, but were rebuffed because they insisted on a signed contract before giving a demonstration. They were unwilling even to show their photographs of the airborne Flyer. The American military, having recently spent $50,000 on the Langley Aerodrome—a product of the nation's foremost scientist—only to see it plunge twice into the Potomac River was particularly unreceptive to the claims of two unknown bicycle makers from Ohio. Thus, doubted or scorned, the Wright brothers continued their work in semi-obscurity, while other aviation pioneers like Brazilian Alberto Santos – Dumont, Henri Farman, Leon Delagrange and American Glenn Curtiss entered the limelight.

In 1906, skeptics in the European aviation community had converted the press to an anti-Wright brothers stance. European newspapers, especially in France, were openly derisive, calling them bluffeurs (bluffers). Ernest Archdeacon, founder of the Aero-Club de France, was publicly scornful of the brother's claims in spite of published reports

The Paris edition of the New York Herald summed up Europe's opinion of the Wright brothers in an editorial on February 10, 1906:

The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown.'

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s ´s public flight in October 1906 was the first certified by the Aero – Club de France and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).

The Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907. They spent the time attempting to persuade the U.S. and European governments that they had invented a successful flying machine and were prepared to negotiate a contract to sell such machines. In May 1906 they were finally granted a patent for their flying machine.

Replying to the Wrights' letters, the U.S. military expressed virtually no interest in their claims. The brothers turned their attention to Europe, especially France where enthusiasm for aviation ran high, and journeyed there for the first time in 1907 for face-to-face talks with government officials and businessmen. They also met with aviation representatives in Germany and Britain. Before traveling, Orville shipped a newly-built Model A Flyer to France in anticipation of demonstration flights.

In France Wilbur met Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm, a Lieutenant in the U.S.Army Aeronautical Division U.S. Army Aeronautical Division. Writing to his superiors, Lahm smoothed the way for Wilbur to give an in-person presentation to the U.S. Board of Ordnance and Fortification in Washington, D.C. when he returned to the U.S. This time, the Board was favorably impressed, in contrast to its previous indifference. With further input from the Wrights, the U.S. Army Signal Corps issued Specification #486 in December 1907, inviting bids for construction of an airplane under military contract. The Wrights submitted their bid in January. In early 1908 the brothers also agreed to a contract with a French company. In May they went back to Kitty Hawk with their 1905 Flyer to practice in private for their all-important public demonstration flights, as required by both contracts. Their privacy was lost when New York newspapers heard about the tests and sent several reporters to the scene.

The brothers' contracts with the U.S. Army and a French syndicate depended on successful public flight demonstrations that met certain conditions. The brothers had to divide their efforts. Wilbur sailed for Europe; Orville would fly near Washington, D.C.

Wilbur began official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908 at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. His first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle amazed and stunned onlookers, including several pioneer French aviators. In the following days, Wilbur made a series of technically challenging flights, including figure-eights, demonstrating his skills as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far surpassed those of all other pilot pioneers.

The French public was thrilled by Wilbur's feats and flocked to the field by the thousands. The Wright brothers catapulted to world fame overnight. Former doubters issued apologies and effusive praise. L’Aerophileeditor Georges Besançon wrote that the flights "have completely dissipated all doubts. Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly...." Leading French aviation promoter Ernest Archdeacon wrote, "For a long time, the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of bluff... They are today hallowed in France, and I feel an intense pleasure...to make amends."

Orville followed his brother's success by demonstrating another nearly identical Flyer to the Unites States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, starting on September 3, 1908. On September 9, he made the first hour-long flight, lasting 62 minutes and 15 seconds.

In January 1909 Orville and their sister, Katharine, joined Wilbur in France, and for a time they were the three most famous people in the world, sought after by royalty, the rich, reporters and the public. The kings of England, Spain and Italy came to see Wilbur fly.

After their return to the U.S., the brothers and Katharine were invited to the White House where President Taft bestowed awards upon them. Dayton followed up with a lavish two-day homecoming celebration. In July 1909 Orville, with Wilbur assisting, completed the proving flights for the U.S. Army, meeting the requirements of a two-seater able to fly with a passenger for an hour at an average of speed of 40 miles an hour (64 km/h) and land undamaged. They sold the aircraft to the Army for $30,000 (which included a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the speed specification).

Wilbur climaxed an extraordinary year in early October when he flew at New York City's Hudson-Fulton celebrations, circling the Statue of Liberty and making a 33-minute flight up and down the Hudson River alongside Manhattan in view of up to one million New Yorkers. These flights solidly established the fame of the Wright brothers in America.

Wilbur circling The Statue Of Liberty

Up and until this time, the Wright brothers were unappreciated as was the field of aviation.The American public saw the early airplanes as a curiosity to be exhibited at fairs and special events as the balloon was ealier.This all changed with the awareness of the Wrights accomplishments and the potential that some saw for the airplane.

1909 -1910 was an exciting time for aviation, the American public had heard or read about the airplane but until they could see one in the air with a man aboard flying, in control of his aircraft, they were somewhat skeptical.This began to change in 1909 when an international air meet was organized in Reims, France.The featured event was the Gordon Bennett Trophy Race which previously was awarded the fastest balloon in a race.The world’s aviators flocked to Rheims, they came from just about every country that had produced an aeroplane.The Wrights did not attend, they were busy in court trying to stop the meet from happening as they felt those organizing and participating were trying to capitalize on their invention.

From 1910 until his death in 1912, Wilbur took the leading role in the patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss, who was creating a large company to manufacture aircraft. The Wrights' preoccupation with the legal issue stifled their work on new designs, and by 1911 Wright aircraft were considered inferior to those of European makers. Indeed, aviation development in the U.S. was suppressed to such an extent that when the U.S. entered World War I no acceptable American-designed aircraft were available, and U.S. forces were compelled to use French machines.

The lawsuits damaged the public image of the Wright brothers, who were generally regarded before this as heroes. Critics said the brothers were greedy and unfair and compared their actions unfavorably to European inventors, who worked more openly. Supporters said the brothers were protecting their interests and were justified in expecting fair compensation for the years of work leading to their successful invention. Their 10-year friendship with Octave Chanute, already strained by tension over how much credit, if any, he might deserve for their success, collapsed after he publicly criticized their actions.

But, the Wrights accomplishments and the success of others in aviation had formed a torrent of interest and participation that could not be stopped.An American, Glenn Curtiss, in his Curtiss Flyer unexpectedly won the Gordon Bennett Race and as a result, his country, by tradition, was to host, the next year’s race.

As much as any other single event during the period, Glenn H. Curtiss’ 1909 exhibition flights at Hawthorne Race Track in nearby Cicero ignited aeronautical interest in Chicago. Among those on-hand to witness the restrained yet profound event of Curtiss moving straight and level through the air at an altitude of about 10 ft. were Charles Dickinson and Harold F. McCormick. Curtiss’ exhibition of heavier-than-air flight prompted Dickinson and McCormick to become extraordinary supporters of aeronautical activity in Chicago.

The day before his two-day exhibition flights at the Hawthorne Race Track in Cicero, Illinois, on October 16 and 17, 1909, Curtiss spoke to the Chicago Automobile Club and suggested that an aero club be formed in Chicago.

In response to his remarks, the Aero Club of Illinois (“A.C.I.”) was incorporated on February 10, 1910, with Octave Chanute as its first president. The stated purposes for which the A.C.I. was formed were:

“To foster the science of aeronautics. To encourage aerial navigation, excursions, congresses, expositions, conferences and inventions. To promote aerial and other contests, races, trials, meets, games, exhibitions and shows. To do everything in conduct of the work of the organization in a manner not contrary to the city ordinances or the laws of the land.”

The newspaper coverage of Curtiss’ was immense and every American took some pride in the Reims win. Before an air meet could be organized to defend the Gordon Bennet Trophy, exhibition and demonstration flights were popping up all over the country.Aircraft manufacturers (the Wright company and the Curtiss Company) and showmen organized so many of these flights that almost everyone had a chance to see an aeroplaneand its pilot for themselves.

Many times these Air Meets were the first time an aeroplane had flown in that particular state:

Jan. 29, 1910

First flight in Utah (Salt Lake City)

Louis Paulhan

Feb. 1, 1910

First flight in Colorado (Denver)

Louis Paulhan

Feb. 7, 1910

First flight in Louisiana (New Orleans)

Louis Paulhan

Feb. 10, 1910

First flight in Arizona (Phoenix)

Charles Hamilton (Curtiss team)

Feb. 18, 1910

First flight in Texas (Houston)

Louis Paulhan

Feb 1910

First flight in Florida (Orlando)

Lincoln Beachey (Curtiss team)

March 18, 1910

First flight in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City)

Charles Willard (Wright team)

April 8, 1910

First flight in Tennesee (Memphis)

Glenn Curtiss

May 18, 1910

First flight in Arkansas (Fort Smith)

Bud Mars (Curtiss team)

June 13, 1910

First flight in Indiana (Indianapolis)

Orville Wright

June 18, 1910

First flight in Kentucky (Louisville)

Glenn Curtiss

June 22, 1910

First flight in Minnesota (Speedway Field)

Glenn Curtiss

June 23, 1910

First flight in Nevada (Carson City)

Ivy Baldwin

June 29, 1910

First "public" flight in Iowa (Sioux City)

Bud Mars (Curtiss team)

July 19, 1910

First flight in North Dakota (Grand Forks)

Archibald Hoxsey (Wright team)

July 23, 1910

First flight in Nebraska (Omaha)

Glenn Curtiss

Sept 24, 1910

First flight in Vermont (St. Johnsbury)

Charles Willard (Wright team)

Sept 27, 1910

First flight in New Hampshire (Rochester)

Archibald Hoxsey (Wright team)

Oct 13, 1910

First flight in Idaho (Lewiston)

James J. Ward (Curtiss team)

Dec 31, 1910

First flight in Hawaii

Bud Mars (Curtiss team)

Several large aviation meets were held in the United States in1910.The first was in Los Angeles




Another was held in the Boston area


The biggest air show was in NewYork. .New York was another area of the country that embraced the possibilities of aviation. By 1909 the first daring flights were made from the Hempstead plains in the central part of NassauCounty. Because the flat, open landscape made a natural airfield, famous aviator Glenn Curtiss brought his biplane the "Golden Flyer" here. By 1910 there were three airfields operating on the Hempstead Plains, and Long Islanders were now building their own airplanes. Several flying schools and aircraft factories also sprang up and Long Island became a center of the aviation world. By far the most important aeronautical event on Long Island up to this time was the 1910 International Aviation Meet at BelmontPark. The greatest aviators from all over America and Europe came to Long Island to show their latest flying machines, race, set records and win prize money. A similar meet was held at the Nassau Boulevard airfield in Garden City in 1911.

All of this intensified interest in aviation by the public at large as well as people with a technological inclination.William S. Romme, a thirty-eight year old New York inventor was one of those technologically inclined persons who became involved in aviation.In December of 1908, he filed for a patent on an aircraft that was very saucer like.

Side story - In searching U. S. Patent records an earlier disc shaped "flying machine" was applied for in 1897 and granted in 1898 to a Prussian who lived in Dresden in what is now Germany, Friedrich Alexander Jone. The design at first glance at the drawing below, immediatly has one thinking of a flying saucer or disc like flying machine.

But as one reads the abstract accompanying the patent drawings we note that this is Figure #2, Figure #1 follows:

We now see that figure #1 is a front view (not top view) of the design, figure #2 shows the view from he side. It resembles a large (it would have stood 60 ft. into the air) Ferris Wheel with wings (F) on the side and a "car" (D) hanging from the bottom for the pilot and gear. Surrounding the core in the middle, between the wings to which the" spokes" are attached and inside those spokes is a disc shaped gas bag. So the design is a little more than a balloon with wings and propellers. There is no record that it was ever built or flew.

Getting back to Romme's 1908 design -

Romme purposefully designed an alternate design from the Wright Brothers model so as to be clear of any copyright infringement. Note the landing gear (31), those are not wheels but spherical balls. It was said he built this aircraft, but there is no proof of this.It was also said the aircraft was destroyed in an accident.There are reports that Romme designed other aircraft before the one he filed the patent application in December of 1908.The 1908 application was assigned in April of 1909.

The full application with drawings and abstract can be viewed at this link >

He described his design as “ an improved aeroplane having a large inverted bell-shaped, flaring bearing surface”.Inside the inverted bell structure was a skeleton frame supporting the outside surface as well as the pilot basket, concentric rings supported by ribs, the motor, controls and propellers for vertical and horizontal thrust.The horizontal and vertical propellers suggest a VTOL capability. The skeleton frame rested on four spherical, hollow balls (to help keep it afloat when on the water as well as to serve in the place of wheels).The patent drawings follow:

In the beginning of September 1909, the Aeronautic Society of New York held a contest for models in flight to be judged for longest flight time, stability and originality.There was an unexpected number of models offered in the competition.At first the competition was to have run one week, but the committee in charge decided to extend the competition and have a second contest because of the great amount of entries.This second competition was won by the model of William S. Romme.Romme was member of the Aeronautical Society and the Aero Club of America, His design was a circular airplane model.

The flights of this model, were so slow, steady and sure, it gave rise to the utmost astonishment and enthusiasm.Mr. Romme was, by very large majorities, voted both the first and second prizes. The New York Times reported Romme’s model:

was of an entirely and original design.It was a circular monoplane, something like the brim of a “Merry Widow” hat with the top of that famous and wondrous head covering cut away.It’s stability in the air, and its slowness of flight-speed were amazing .Its behavior in every flight created the greatest enthusiasm.So satisfactory was the final result that Mr. Romme is now building a full size machine on exactly the same lines.


Pictures of the model William S. Romme built, now located at Princeton University. Note the spherical landing gear

Having won the competition, William S. Roome then begins to seek a financial backer to fund the actual construction of the design for testing and flight operations.New York was one of the earliest areas to develop active organizations seeking to develop aviation.As a member of these organizations and attending some of their events, he was aware of the fact that businessmen who were impressed by the potential of the aeroplane were prepared to assist in developing it by funding the work of inventors like himself.

One of the people he approaches is Harold F. McCormick. Harold McCormick is the son of Cyrus McCormick of International Harvesters and a son-in-law to John D. Rockefeller. Mr. McCormick was an avid supporter of aviation and had initiated, with others, the support of aviation in the Chicago area. He wasinterested in Romme’s ideas and asks his engineers to give an opinion on whether they feel the design is practical and has any potential.

They report that it is and does.In March of 1910 McCormick and Romme make an application for a patent on Romme’s design .In1912 the patent was granted and assigned to the McCormick Romme Company.The company was formed August 8, 1910 for the purpose of developing Mr.Romme’s ideas regarding the design.The corporation is based out of Chicago, where International Harvester is based.William S. Romme is the President and McCormick the Vice President. John D. Rockefeller was said to be an officer of the company as well, but this is unconfirmed.

The drawings accompanying the 1910 patent , as modified by me (added a legend, re-oriented drawings) are below:


To see the original drawings and to read the full abstract at this link >

The principal design feature is the fact that the design has an aeroplane within an aeroplane.The aircraft is made up of two concentric circular planes termed the main aeroplane and the subsidiary aeroplane which gives the design its stability.

Initially Mr. Romme begins assembling the aircraft at his workshop at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.When the project becomes too big for his workshop, he erects a tent beside his work shop to hold the 40 foot wide aircraft.Mr. McCormick provides for an armed guard to protect the tent and its contents.Someone provided a bulldog for added security.

The aircraft features a hollow mast of ash that is ten feet high and is in the center of the aircraft.From the mast there radiates out nine 20 foot bamboo poles placed equidistant around the mast.The surface of the aircraft is covered with vulcanized linen capable of withstanding a pressure of 100 pounds to the inch.The engine will be secured to the mast as is the pilot’s seat.Wire supports also radiate from the top and bottom of the mast out to the end of each bamboo pole.A long propeller shaft made of an aluminum alloy goes from the engine to the outside edge of the back of the craft making it a pusher aircraft design.Other metal parts used are made of the same aluminum alloy.The aircraft weighs 300 pounds without the engine and Mr. Romme declared it will be stronger and more stable than machines of greater weight.Mr. Romme is assembling the aircraft and will research and fit a suitable engine later.Plans were made to ground test the assembled aircraft with its engine at the Mineola, New York field in September, 1910.

Mr. Romme called his machine “The Merry Widow”* after the story from the New York Times about his model competition victory.

* for an understanding of why the term ”Merry Widow” was attached to the design follow this link >

The McCormick – Romme project has a set back when a great wind came up and blew the tent and its aircraft over causing extensive damage.Mr. Romme set about to rebuild it and get it ready for testing.

As mentioned above, in October, 1910 the first international air meet ever held in the United States was held at Belmont Park Race Track in Long Island, New York.The atmosphere was electric andthe meet provided a real spark for all Americans interested in aviation.The Europeans were the leaders in aviation for now but many an American at that meet was spurred to get involved and change that.Among those present at the meet were Chance Vought, a recent engineering graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and Harold F. McCormick.McCormick in 1910 was Treasurer of International Harvester, Vice President of the Aero Club of Americaand one of the founders of the Aero Club of Illinois.Mr. McCormick was already interested in experimental aircraft designs that offered an alternative approach and shape from the Wright brother’s design.Besides sponsoring the Romme design, he had designed a plane himself and hired a young graduate from the Chicago Armour Institute to shepard its development.His name was Sidney V. James.

It has also been said that he also possibly supported the efforts of Howard Dietz and a design called the Paraplane.Some have referred to it as the McCormick – Dietz aircraft.The Dietz aircraft was a designed by someone else, not Dietz and it was built by someone other than Dietz.Howard J. Dietz funded the building of the aircraft. It did have a number of similarities with the Romme aircraft but I do not believe McCormick had anything to do with it.For more on this aircraft go to this link >

It is possible that Vought, McCormick and Romme met at the meet, because not long after the Air Meet - Vought was hired as a consultant for the Romme design.The location for ground testing Romme’s, now reconstructed aircraft was changed from Mineola to the field at Belmont Park, New York. Harold McCormick had arranged for the use of one of the better hangers built for the air meet.The engine Romme elected to be installed was a 2 cyclinder opposed air-cooled engine with water cooled cylinder heads.Romme, himself, served as pilot for the initial ground testing at Belmont.Locals referred to the aircraft as “novel”.The aircraft was now being called the McCormick-Romme monoplane.

William S. Romme aboard his design at Belmont during ground testing

Romme’s testing proved the aircraft to be underpowered by the installed engine.A water-cooled 50 hp Gnome engine was suggested, probably by the new consultant, Chance Vought, as engines were his strong point.It was ordered by McCormick who also ordered a second Gnome for the “Mustard Plaster”.The new engines had to come from France, so it would be a while before they arrived and could be installed.

The Merry Widow at Belmont Park in October, 1911.

In the meantime Romme and Vought continued ground testing at Belmont.The weather was not cooperative and there were not many days they could take it out.A search was made for a southern field which would allow for better weather to test and develop the aircraft.Mr. McCormick arranged for the aircraft to be shipped by rail to a brand new airfield just opened beside Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.While the aircraft was en route to Texas, McCormick had a hanger built for it at the San Antonio field.

Getting the Merry Widow into its new hanger at San Antonio

On April 11, while running the aircraft on the San Antonio field, Romme hit a rut that lifted part of the aircraft, the wind caught it and turned it over.The Fort Sam Houston soldiers assisted in getting the aircraft back to its hanger.

Romme and Vought set about putting the aircraft back together.Meanwhile Harold F. McCormick decided to organize an air meet in Chicago.In conjunction with this, McCormick was behind the purchase of an airfield for the Chicago Aero Club at Cicero, Illinois.He had three hangers built at the new field. One was for the Romme design , one for his own design that Sidney James was working on,the “Mustard Plaster” and one was for future use.

He requested that Romme and Vought bring the “Umbrella Plane” or “Cycloplane,as the McCormick – Romme design was popularly known, to Cicero.He wanted it to be there for the Grand Opening of the field which was planned for early July 1911 in preparation for the Chicago Air Meet that was now scheduled for August, 1911 at Grant Park in Chicago.Cicero Flying Field was going to be used for some ancillary events.

The “Umbrella Plane” was put on display for the July fourth dedication of Cicero Flying Field.The other experimental funded by McCormick was also displayed.Its wing was wider than it was long.There were a number of terms for it: “Longitudinal Monoplane”, “Reverse Curve Monoplane” or the “McCormick Apertoidal Monoplane.Those at Cicero called it the “Mustard Plaster” for the dingey yellow fabric used to cover the wing and body.For more on this aircraft go to this link >

50 horsepower Gnome Engine

On July 15 the Gnome engines arrived and they were soon installed.After that everything was directed to the 1911 Chicago Air show.When it was over McCormick had the hangers at Grant Park moved to Cicero.Cicero Flying Field,had a short life due to industrial and residential development needs,but it would go on to become an important link in the development of aviation in America.

On August 23, 1911, with William S. Romme at the controls, the “Umbrella Plane” rose 15 feet into the air.Romme quickly brought it down as he was not expecting to get airborne.

Note the slim horizontal panel on the mast and the new stabilizers behind it.

William S. Romme is to the right of the pilot.

Only known picture of William S. Romme (an enlargement from previous picture)

Graphic from Robert Casari Article In the Ameican Aviation Historical Journal, Fall, 1972

The elevators and rudders were changed frequently as Romme and Vought sought to improve the aircraft’s controls.This continued into the Fall of 1911.In September the engine and propeller were moved to the front and the surfaces were back to the original settings.In November it was a tractor design.It was decided an experienced pilot was needed and McCormick hired Andre Ruel of the BenoistSchool.Ruel ground tested the new configuration.

In the early Sping of 1912, the long drive shaft was eliminated and further tests conducted.Beginning in April of 1912, Andre Ruel flew the “Umbrella Plane” at increasing altitudes until he reached 30 feet. By April 21s, tRuel was making several turns and flying up to the 30 foot mark repeatedly.

Discussions were still being made on how to improve the plane.A long narrow rudder was added in May.The number 2 was painted on it, presumably to represent the #2 McCormick experimental aircraft.

Pilot Andrew Drew in flight suit. Vought under the aircraft with hand on strut

In June, 1912 Andrew Drew replaced Ruel as the pilot of the “Umbrella Plane”. He quickly reached Ruel’s point of making turns and climbing to 30 feet. He felt the aircraft was still underpowered and requested a new engine with more horsepower and a new propeller.

In May of 1913 shortly after the flying season started again after the winter cessation because of the difficult weather, Max Lillie, a regular at Cicero and the #1 advanced pilot in the United States asks to fly the “Umbrella Plane”.Lillie takes it around the field a few times. Then Ruel asked to fly it again and takes it up several 1,000 feet.

Still in May, the new 80 hp Gnome engine is installed and Lillie took the first flight.He said he felt the increased torque from the more powerful engine he makes two successful right hand turns in the aircraft.

On May 31st, 1913, Lillie was again piloting the “Umbrella Plane”.While making a turn “it slid on the bank”, hit the ground and rolled over as wreckage. Lillie was thrown unharmed from the plane .Lillie said he took the wreckage from Cicero and dumped it into Lake Michigan.

Chance Vought commented “it went with McGinty” a reference to a popular song of the period about a broken man who jumped into the water “knowing well…he could not swim” (for more on McGinty use this link > ).


Vought called the aircraft a “freak” and began to concentrate on more traditional designed aircraft. He went on to found an aircraft dynasty.


Thus ends the story of William S. Romme’sMerryWidow” the Umbrella Plane.Romme continued to work on inventions in other fields including the carriage return for typewriters, a novel key, a necktie and a device for decomposing solid substances electronically.

The facination with the round, disc or "saucer" aircraft design has kept the Merry Widow aka McCormick Romme Monoplane's story alive after all these years. It is usually included in the litany of aircraft designs that led to the German's study of flying discs in World War II and in discussions about "Flying Saucers" and UFOs.. In 1997, a model built by Ben Guenther and entered in the International Plastic Modelers Society's competition at it's national convention in Columbus, Ohio, for the built from scratch, 1/72 scale or smaller division, won First Place. Guenther's model is shown below as photographed by Sven Knudson.

Another model of the "Merry Widow" turned up in an auction in 2014 with several other pre-WWI early aircraft models. These models were meticulously built by a, for now, unknown modeller-


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