U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page


Alfaro X-13

The Alfaro X-13 was one of the original entries in the 1927 Safe Aircraft Competition.

Burnelli GX-3

The Burnelli GX-3 was one of the original entries in the 1927 Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition.

Cunningham-Hall X-90

The Cunningham-Hall X-90 was one of the original entries in the 1929 Safe Aircraft Competition.

Dare aircraft

The Dare Safety Airplane was one of the original entries in the 1927 Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition.


The Curtiss Tanager was the winner of the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition. It beat out the British Handley-Page HP-39 by just one point.

Guggenheim medal

The Guggenheim Medal has been awarded annually since 1930 to individuals who have significantly advanced aviation.

Daniel and Harry Guggenheim – Supporters of Aviation Technology

Oftentimes, advances in aviation technology occur through the efforts of private citizens who have a strong interest in aviation and the financial means to bring them about rather than because industry or the military has seen a need. This happened in the 1920s, when Daniel Guggenheim and his son Harry, two men who are generally not well known outside aviation history circles, contributed significantly to the growth of aviation and aviation technology in the United States. The two acted as catalysts for a number of significant technological advances that the aviation industry widely adopted and that would prove beneficial to everyone who flies today.

The Guggenheims were a wealthy family who made the bulk of their money from the mining industry. They believed they had an obligation to return to society some of the benefits they had reaped, so in 1924, Daniel, one of 11 children, and his wife Florence established the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation to promote a variety of charitable and benevolent causes.

Daniel's son Harry, born in 1890, was intrigued with flying and served as a pilot during World War I. Daniel never learned to fly but became interested in the airplane for both military and civilian purposes. After the war, he was impressed by the postwar aeronautical work he saw in Europe, and the father-son team decided to put some of the family fortune into furthering aviation in the United States. Between 1925 and 1930, the family invested more than $2.6 million in a series of aviation-related programs.

The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics was formally established on June 16, 1926. Its major goals related to aeronautical education, aeronautical research, the development of commercial aircraft and aircraft equipment, and the application of aircraft to a variety of economic and social activities.

After World War I, aviation in the United States was in a depressed state. Not only had the surplus of planes from the war eliminated the market for new aircraft, but also the majority of the American public had little interest in flying, largely because of its risky nature. And it was extremely risky, plagued by accidents and fatalities. But there was no pool of trained aeronautical engineers to improve the design and construction of aircraft. Thus, the Guggenheims set out to establish schools or research centers at universities around the country. They also set about to make air travel safer by using their fund to pay directly for aviation research. This research led to the development of more reliable aircraft engines and instruments, and eventually, public acceptance of aviation as a safe and fast method of transportation.

Their educational activities began in 1925 with a grant for the establishment of a school of aeronautical engineering at New York University. Over the next four years, the fund would make grants that established Guggenheim schools or research centers at the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Washington, Georgia School (later Institute) of Technology, Harvard University, Syracuse University, Northwestern University, and the University of Akron. The Guggenheims convinced the noted aerodynamicist Theodor von Karman to emigrate to the United States to head the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Cal Tech (GALCIT). The fund also sponsored educational aviation programs at the elementary and secondary levels and made a grant to the Library of Congress for an aeronautical research collection.

Improvements in instrumentation were needed too. Airplane pilots all knew that weather greatly affected flight safety, particularly when it reduced visibility. Fog, which could reduce visibility to nothing, was probably the most serious condition that pilots faced. Pilots who encountered fog quickly became disoriented and often crashed into the ground. The fund authorized a study of "fog flying" and improved navigation by means of better instruments that would give pilots the information they needed to fly safely even if they couldn't see where they were going.

The fund established the Full Flight Laboratory at Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, to undertake blind-flying research. The engineers worked with radio navigation experts from the Department of Commerce Aeronautics Branch and Bureau of Standards. They also made use of advances in gyroscopic instrumentation primarily by Elmer Sperry, Jr., inventor of the directional gyrocompass and the artificial horizon, and Paul Kollsman, developer of the precision altimeter. Army Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle, who held a doctorate in engineering from the Massachusetts of Technology, did the test flying, making more than 100 "blind" flights. On September 24, 1929, he made the first takeoff, flight, and landing without being able to see outside his cockpit, relying solely on the gyrocompass, artificial horizon, and precision altimeter; the plane's standard instrument display; and radio navigation. Achieving this milestone meant that soon, weather need not limit safe flying as much as it had. Instrument flying for all segments of the aviation industry would become routine within the next decade.

The Guggenheims felt that aircraft could be made safer by improving their aerodynamic characteristics. In 1927, they announced the Safe Aircraft Competition, offering a $100,000 prize and five $10,000 secondary awards for the safest aircraft that could be built. Twenty-seven airplanes entered the competition but only two made it to the final stage and its stringent safety tests. The contest was finally won by the American Curtiss Tanager but only by a single point. Although the safety features it demonstrated were important, its real significance would lie in the effect it had on later short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. Features demonstrated in the competition led to design and flight requirements for STOL aircraft long before it was recognized that any such need existed. Modern STOL aircraft, with their many high-lift devices, began as a result of the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition.

The Guggenheim fund also created a "Model Airway" between San Francisco and Los Angeles that was operated by Western Air Express. This demonstration helped convince the American public that commercial passenger service could be safe, dependable, and comfortable and could exist apart from the airmail business. The service began on May 26, 1928, flying a Fokker F-10 Super Trimotor that Guggenheim provided. The scheduled flights gradually became part of Western's regular service. The flights did not prove financially profitable, but they were heavily used and demonstrated that regular, safe passenger service was a reality.

A special weather reporting service was also implemented along the California air route that reported a wide variety of weather conditions—something that hadn't happened up to that time—and which all pilots in the area with on-board radios could access. Pilots soon realized the value of two-way radio communications for weather reporting.

The Model Airway experiment ended in June 1929. During its yearlong test, not a single weather-related accident occurred. The Weather Bureau took over the weather reporting service officially on July 1, 1929, and the service eventually spread nationwide.

One more program that the Guggenheims sponsored was the marking of rooftops across the country to assist in navigation. Suggested by the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, 8,000 postmasters were contacted in October 1928 and asked to request that all towns paint their name in large letters on a high rooftop and also paint arrows pointing north and to the nearest airfield. Towns across the country responded, and this simple but effective aid to navigation helped pilots find their way.

In September 1929, Harry Guggenheim announced that the Daniel Guggenheim Fund had met its objectives. It officially ended its operations on February 1, 1930. But the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation that had been established in 1924 continued its work. This fund sponsored the rocket research of Robert Goddard and established professorships in his name at Princeton University and at Cal Tech. It also created the Cornell-Guggenheim Aviation Safety Center at Cornell University in 1950, where research was carried out in collision avoidance, crash fire protection, human factors, instrumentation error prevention, prevention of in-flight explosions, and STOL applications. The Guggenheim Medal fund, established in 1927, has also lived on. This medal is awarded annually to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to aviation. The first award, in 1930, went to Orville Wright.

The Guggenheim Fund gave American aviation crucial support during its formative years when individuals could still impact the direction of an entire industry. It supported a wide range of scientific, educational, and social programs relating to aeronautics that stemmed from Daniel and Harry's enthusiasm about aviation and their desire to benefit society.

--Judy Rumerman

Sources and Further References:

Hallion, Richard P. "Daniel and Harry Guggenheim and the Philanthropy of Flight" in Leary, William M., ed. Aviation's Golden Age: Portraits From the 1920s and 1930s. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

______________. Legacy of Flight. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977.

Lomask, Milton. Seed Money: The Guggenheim Story. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1964.

"Daniel and Harry Guggenheim." http://www.aerofiles.com/bio_g.html#guggenheim.

Glines, C.V. The Guggenheims: Aviation Visionaries. Aviation History on http://www.thehistorynet.com/aviationhistory/articles/1196_text.htm.

"The 1927 Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition." http://www.aerofiles.com/Guggenheim_Competition.htm.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation and research and development in problem solving.