Remembered today largely for his accomplishments in aeronautical engineering, Ralph Hazlett Upson was an extraordinary man whose vision spanned the range of aerospace history from lighter-than-air flight, through the development of the airplane and into that of space exploration. He held Airship Pilot's Certificate #7, Balloon Pilot's Certificate #48 and Pilot's License #10290 and left a legacy of bold ideas and sensible design.
Upson was born in New York City on June 21, 1888 to Grace Hazlett, a physician, and William Ford Upson, a Wall Street attorney. His childhood was pleasant and intellectually stimulating, and, upon his graduation from high school in 1906, Ralph was sent to Europe to learn French. There he climbed in the French Alps and made his first balloon ascension, an experience that would result in a lifelong fascination with aeronautics.
A second cousin, Frank S. Lahm, was a member of the aeronautical community in Paris and his son, Frank Purdy Lahm,(1) was then conducting practice ascensions in preparation for the first James Gordon Bennett Balloon Race. On September 13, 1906 the younger Lahm took his cousin aloft. Some time later, Frank Purdy Lahm won that race and set an example that his young relation would soon follow.
On his return to the United States, Upson entered Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Upson graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1910. During one college vacation, Upson worked as a volunteer at Hammondsport, New York, assisting Glenn Curtiss in his experiments with the June Bug.
In 1913, with R.A.D. Preston serving as co-pilot, Ralph Upson won the International Balloon Race for the eighth Gordon Bennett Cup. Although neither pilot possessed a great deal of experience in racing balloons, the application of Upson's scientific knowledge and invention of specific refinements led to an impressive victory. Thus began some years of public glory for Upson, as a daring aeronaut and balloon racing champion. In the United States, Upson was to also prevail in the National Balloon Races of 1913, 1919 and 1921. Concurrently, Upson was employed with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, both as a balloon pilot and as chief engineer of the aeronautical department.
Upson left Goodyear in the early nineteen-twenties to pursue an alternate vision for lighter-than-air design, beginning work with the Aircraft Development Corporation. This company (later known as the Metalclad Airship Corporation) was formed specifically to develop Upson's concept, an airship whose skin was composed of duralumin and aluminum. The ZMC-2 first flew August 20, 1929 and was delivered to the United States Navy in September. Unfortunately, a series of airship crashes in the thirties, including the Akron, Macon and Hindenburg disasters, led to the general decline of the airship industry. The "Tin Blimp" or "Tin Bubble," however, is considered to be the world's first successful all-metal airship. It remained flying until 1939 and in commission until 1941.
After a period of consulting work for the United States government and various companies, Upson began another phase of his career: teaching. In 1946 he served as a research specialist and lecturer at New York University. That same year, he accepted a professorship in aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota. There he remained for the next ten years until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 68, when he became Professor Emeritus.
Upson then began a seven year position with Boeing as a research specialist working on the X-20 Dyna Soar orbital space glider program. For the last three years of his life, Upson returned to a less structured consulting status and devoted his spare time to teaching science classes to children.
Ralph Hazlett Upson, brilliant innovator and member of the Early Birds, died August 13, 1968 at the age of 80 after suffering a heart attack while climbing Glacier Peak in the Sierras.