If you are like me, the end of June usually means the start of summer travel, which often includes flying somewhere. Prior to the global pandemic, commercial flight was so common that I never thought twice about how we got there. When looking through the titles of newly digitized episodes of The World Is Yours, I came across “Flying the Ocean.” The episode originally aired on October 10, 1937 and was centered around the men and women who made transcontinental flight possible.
The show begins with coverage of Pan American Airways’ China Clipper, one of the first four-engine flying boats to carry passengers across the Pacific Ocean, landing in San Francisco after a week-long trip from Hong Kong. This trip sparks a discussion between Old Timer, the host, and his friend Mona about how travel across the ocean has changed over the last fifty years while examining the planes they see within the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum. Old Timer goes on to tell Mona about the aerial steam carriage, built by William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow in 1842. In the clip below, voice actors play Henson and Stringfellow as they discuss their plans to create the first airline.
[Man] Oh of course it can’t be done. I say Stringfellow, where is that partner of yours?
[John Stringfellow] Oh, he’ll be here and don’t be impatient. Now gentlemen, if Mr. Henson seems to show an adversity to our plan, please don’t be alarmed. I’m sure I can win him over.
[Man] Did you tell him about it?
[Stringfellow] Yes, but frankly gentlemen, he didn’t seem to care very much for it.
[Stringfellow] Oh, come in William. I think you know most all of these gentlemen.
[William Henson] Oh yes, yes, yes. How do you do, gentlemen. My partner Stringellow has told me of your idea gentlemen.
[Man] Splendid. Then we can get down to business.
[Stringfellow] You see, William, our friends here have become interested in our aerial stream carriage. They think it has great possibility.
[Henson] Go on.
[Stringfellow] The point is they would like to have our cooperation in forming an aerial transportation company. Now with the money made from the company, we could go on with our experiments and construct the full size flying machine. I think it’s a splendid idea.
[Henson] And where is all this money coming from?
[Stringfellow] Why from the shares.
[Stringfellow] Why of course. We intend to sell shares in the company.
[Henson] On the strength of what, may I ask?
[Stringfellow] Why our experience and experiments of course. We have a model, haven’t we? A model that worked.
[Henson] Well, it moved a bit for two or three seconds.
[Stringfellow] William, we need money to further our experiments. Now look, here is one of the circulars we are going to distribute. I wish you would read it.
[Henson] The aerial steam carriage is intended to convey passengers, troops, and government dispatches to India, and all corners of the royal empire. Oh, but good heavens.
[Man] Here’s another Mr. Henson.
[Henson] The stream carriages will leave from convenient places at regular intervals through the week. The fare will be reasonable. It is indeed possible that passengers may leave from Fish Street Hill and arrive in Egypt the next day for lunch. (sigh) What do you think of this scheme, Stringfellow?
[Stringfellow] It’s honorable. We make no promises William, simply predictions. I’m in favor of it.
[Henson] Well then I supposed I’ll have to go along.
Regrettably for Henson and Stringfellow, the aerial stream carriage did not gain as much support as they hoped, and the airline endeavor was a flop. Stringfellow was able to get one of his models airborne during a test launch in 1848, however.
The episode then moves on to Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and his experiments with balloon travel before transitioning to a reenactment of the first successful transatlantic flight by the Navy NC-4 from May 8-31, 1919. Unfortunately, the NC-4 fame was short-lived, as a British duo, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, made the first non-stop transatlantic flight just a few weeks later. The next dramatization of the program is Charles Lindbergh’s solo nonstop flight from New York to Paris in May 1927.
One of the most entertaining parts of the episode for me was when, at the end of the episode, Mona laments to Old Timer about how she has never flown before. In the following clip, Old Timer tries to rectify that with a little “radio magic.”
[Mona] How marvelous it would be if Henson and Stringfellow and other visionaries of ocean flights could be alive today to see the results. Clipper ship service across the Pacific. Flying boats from Florida to Buenos Aires. Aviation has certainly played havoc with Father Time. Oh, Old Timer, oh dear I wish I could take a trip in one of those clipper ships, just to, just to see what it feels like to fly from one continent to another in a week.
[Old Timer] Well, let’s do it then.
[Mona] Wha? Well how?
[Old Timer] Why, (laughs) that’s easy. Let’s step on the magic carpet of radio.
[Old Timer] And be carried out to California. We can do anything with radio you know. Now, just close your eyes.
[Old Timer] Now, for a little magic music (music plays). (laughs) Here we are at Alameda Airport all ready to take a flight across the Pacific in the China Clipper.
[Mona] Look at her, what a beauty. Three tons of flying comfort and safety.
[Old Timer] C’mon, we better hurry, they are calling for passengers.
[Mona] Alright, I’m coming.
[Man] Your ticket, sir?
[Old Timer] Here you are. Almost ready to go, are we?
[Man] Yes sir, in just 30 seconds.
[Mona] 30 seconds? They certainly have this figured closely.
[Man] Yes, ma’am. We don’t want to be late for Hong Kong.
[Old Timer] (laughs) Look at your watch, Mona.
[Old Timer] Three o’clock.
[Old Timer] We’ll arrive in Hong Kong, China at exactly five minutes past three o’clock one week from today.
[Mona] Well, this is going to be my first flight across an ocean. Oh, I’m so excited (airplane motor noises).
After the plane takes off, Old Timer informs Mona about the significance of radio beams in air navigation. Then, they hear the theme song for The World Is Yours playing on a radio in someone’s cabin, followed by an announcement for “Old Timer and his friend Mona” to return to the Smithsonian before the program signs off without them! The pair rush back to the Smithsonian on their magic carpet in time to end the show with musings about what the future might hold for aviation.
Every episode of The World Is Yours that I listen to makes me fall further in love with the program, and I can’t wait to share more of it with you.
- Smithsonian Institution Sound Recordings, circa 1915-1941, Accession 05-142, Smithsonian Institution Archives