If Walter T. Varney was not obscure enough for you, here, perhaps, is air flight’s oddest character, Alfred W. Lawson.
Alfred William Lawson was a man of many hats. His life would see him transition from working class boy to hobo to baseball player and manager, from aviation enthusiast to aviation engineer, from economist to prophet. Lawson’s life was marked by a dramatic desire to excel, and a constant inability to attain his lofty goals.
In 1886, at the age of 17, Lawson took up the life of a tramp, traveling by hopping on freight trains. This, however, was only to be a brief sojourn in Lawson’s journey. By the spring of 1887, Lawson had taken up his first trade, baseball, in Frankfurt, Indiana. During his baseball career, Lawson would play as a pitcher and outfielder for a wide host of teams, ranging all across the country from Washington and Oregon to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. He even organized some teams, acting as manager, and helped pull together a short-lived league in Florida. He played for the National League in 1890, in one disastrous loss for the Boston Beaneaters and two losses for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He also organized several international ventures most plagued with financial difficulty, including two tours of Cuba¹, two tours of England, and a solo world tour that took him to South Africa and India. By 1895, Lawson left the field, his arm shot, but continued to manage up until the 1907, including a few more games in South Africa.
Though the majority of his baseball ventures had ended in failure and poverty, Lawson’s ambitions had not abated. In 1904, he wrote a utopian novel called Born Again, which displayed his growing prophetic bent. In 1907, after seeing an airship in flight, he had a whole new passion: aviation. In 1908, in Philidelphia, he began publishing the magazine Fly. Two years later, he relocated to New York City, renaming the magazine Aircraft. He also contributed to the 1912 edition of the New Websterian Dictionary. He made another startling display of prophetic talent when he stated in 1916, “Prior to the year 1970 air traffic will be practiced to such an extent that traffic rules of the air will have to be enforced, certain routes being charted altitudinally, the larger, long-distance ships being given the right of way at the higher altitudes.”
In 1917, he started the Lawson Aircraft Corporation, and worked on a design for the military, that after the end of World War I, they no longer wanted. Undeterred, Lawson started the Lawson Airplane Company in 1919, where he commissioned a 24-year-old Vincent Burnelli to design and build the C-2, what Lawson incorrectly termed the first airliner². His first prototype crashed after only a few minutes in the air, but he took his second C-2 on a national tour. At one point he carried 16 Senators, including future president Warren G. Harding. Despite a successful tour, no airline wanted to pay for the C-2. In 1920, Lawson was awarded one of the first airmail contracts in the United States. That same year he decided to build an even larger, more expensive plane, L-4, but when, in 1921, the plane crashed into a tree on its first attempted takeoff, Lawson’s second aircraft company crashed as well, taking its airmail service with it.
By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Lawson tried his hand at economics. In 1931, he published Direct Credits for Everybody and founded the Direct Credit Society. In his book, his society, and his newspaper, The Benefactor, he advocated for an abolition of interest on loans, government control of banks, and a government monopoly on lending. He also advocated something similar to (but much more generous than) Social Security for the elderly and those unable to work. This movement actually gained Lawson a strong following, the society claimed 150,000 members at its peak. Gradually the fervor surrounding direct credit dwindled.
In 1935, Lawson would publish the first volume of Lawsonomy his prophetic masterpiece. This book, the first of three volumes, outlined Lawson’s unusual ideas about physics and philosophy. These ideas were built on the principles of suction, pressure, and the loopily named “zig-zag and swirl” as the primary forces of the physical world. He followed it up with Mentality and The Almighty, which expanded his ideas to the realm of humanity, God, and whatever else struck his fancy. In 1943, he founded the University of Lawsonomy at the former site of Des Moines University³ in Des Moines, Iowa. The school was free, but allowed only males and expected a student to study Lawson’s teachings for 30 years before being granted the title of “Knowledgian.” Not satisfied with a philosophy he dubbed “the knowledge of Life and everything pertaining thereto” Lawson also founded the Lawsonian Religion in 1949. In 1952, Lawson was called before the Senate regarding financial practices at his school. After his death in 1954, Lawson’s University relocated to Sturtevant, Wisconsin, where its sign is still prominently displayed along Interstate 94.
While Lawson and his ideas have been largely forgotten, his adherents maintain a mostly out of date web presence here and here. There was evidently a student reunion in 2002 at the University, but its phone number (1-888-LAWSON-U) and email address are both currently out of service. So much for Lawson’s prophecy that by 2000 all of the world would be adherents of his ideas.
1. Lawson abandoned his second trip to Cuba after financing fell through, forcing his teammates to make the trip themselves after securing backing from a new source.
2. The honor of first airliner goes to the only slightly more successful BAT FK26, designed by Frederick Koolhoven, which first flew in April, 1919. Lawson’s plane did not fly until August 19th of that year. Lawson did have the first American airliner.
3. This Des Moines University was a liberal arts college affiliated with the Baptist Bible Union of North America. It closed in 1929 and should not be confused with the current Des Moines University.
If you go here you can find a poem about two of Lawson’s followers.
Favorite quote encountered in researching Lawson: “The force of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was no doubt caused by electron feces.”
More about Lawson: