Winter 2015–2016

Notes toward a History of Skywriting

A language of the air

D. Graham Burnett

Smoke signal. Photo Robert Hill.

On 28 November 1922, shortly after noon, office workers in downtown Manhattan lifted their eyes to a startling apparition: four large, numinous letters traced in grey smoke against the blue autumn sky—H-e-l-l.

As the New York Tribune put it in a short article the next day: “There were no casualties, but even blasé lower Broadway was thrilled.” It took some time before the “stampeding stenographers discovered that the message was not of supernatural origin,” and only then did they go “calmly back to their business of eating lunch among the ancient tombstones and time-worn inscriptions of Trinity churchyard.”[1]

A fifth letter—an o—had changed the mood.

This (ambiguous) inscription has traditionally 
been taken to mark the origin of skywriting in the United States.

• • •

Across the Atlantic just a few months earlier, on 31 May, a sizeable audience gathered to watch the Derby Stakes at Epsom (lorgnettes at the ready) found their attention redirected high over the infield to a nearly invisible World War I biplane, which began tracing a legible cursive inscription in the clouds. At the stick of the small se5a fighter sat Captain C. Cyril Turner of the R A F—the same pilot who would later interrupt lunching New Yorkers with that brimstone shiver. As chatter filled the stands below, a smoky scrawl spelled out Daily Mail above the racetrack.

Reporting breathlessly the next morning on their own advertising coup de théâtre, the Daily Mail declared a new epoch in human communication:

This remarkable achievement, to be repeated, weather 
permitting, this evening over busy London streets, tells us in words as plain as can be that a new era has opened in signalling from the air, marking an advance which is bound 
to produce far-reaching results, particularly as regards warfare both on land and at sea. We can now write orders 
to armies and navies on the sky as plainly as a schoolboy writes on his slate. An aeroplane can disappear in a cloud of its own making, or conceal the ships it is escorting in a dense mist. Other wonders doubtless are wrapped up in “sky-writing.”[2]

Some schoolchildren who saw the inscription out the window of their classroom asked if an angel was writing in the clouds.[3]

The Daily Mail incident may have been the first instance of skywriting in the United Kingdom—though ambiguity persists. There is good evidence that a previous and less glamorous effort by the same team (Major J. C. Savage, who had patented the avionic smoke-generating mechanism the previous year; his pilot, Turner, who had been practicing the necessary maneuvers for months) was more or less effaced by the publicity around the Derby Stakes caper. A passing mention in a short article in Flight, the newsletter of the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom, notes without fanfare that earlier in the same week, Savage and Turner had written Castrol in the sky—and there seems little reason to doubt that they did indeed make a flight touting this engine lubricant (then used in both airplanes and automobiles).[4]Castrol, then, was probably the first word in the English skies, but the company did not possess a newspaper with which to immortalize their own innovative self-promotion.

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