After making a reputation with lighter-than-air craft, Thomas Scott Baldwin turned to heavier-than-air flying machines in 1909. By 1911 he had built several airplanes and had gained extensive experience as an exhibition pilot. He began testing a new airplane in the spring of 1911. It was similar to the basic Curtiss pusher design that was becoming quite popular with builders by this time, but it was innovative in that it had steel-tube structural components. It was powered by a 60-horsepower Hall-Scott V-8. Baldwin called his new machine the Red Devil III, and thereafter each of his airplanes would be known as a Baldwin Red Devil. Baldwin built approximately six Red Devils. Most were powered by the Hall-Scott, but Curtiss engines were also occasionally used. By mid-1911, Baldwin was training pilots, taking up passengers, and performing regularly with Red Devil aircraft at air meets. He advertised Red Devils for sale into 1913.
Thomas Scott Baldwin was one of the more significant aviation figures of the pioneer era, even though his name is relatively unknown today. He was born in 1854, and after a stint as a brakeman on the Illinois railroad as a youth, he joined the circus as an acrobat. One of the circus attractions was a balloon with which Baldwin ascended seated on a trapeze suspended beneath. He made his first trip aloft in 1875. Soon he enhanced the act by performing acrobatics on the trapeze at several hundred feet, which, by 1885, led to parachute jumps from the balloon. His successful daring quickly led to a world tour, including a special performance before the Prince of Wales in London. Baldwin's manager for the tour billed him as "Captain" Baldwin, a nickname by which he would be known from then on.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Baldwin's interest in aviation expanded from free balloons to dirigibles. Between 1900 and 1908, he built a number of non-rigid airships. Among the most famous was the California Arrow, powered by a small Curtiss engine and piloted by Roy Knabenshue at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. In 1905, the Baldwin Airship Company was incorporated, and Captain Baldwin soon became a major name in the early American aviation circles. In 1907, the Baldwin company was commissioned by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to build a 600 cu m (20,000 cu ft) capacity airship. The 29 m (96 ft) long non-rigid was powered by a 20-horsepower Curtiss engine, traveled at a speed of 20 mph, and had a total lifting capability of 617 kg (1,360 lb). It was tested successfully for the Army in August 1908 and was designated the SC-1.
By 1909, Baldwin shifted his focus to heavier-than-air flight. During late 1909 and early 1910, Curtiss built an airplane of his design for him. It was a tractor biplane with a biplane tail similar to the well-known Farman design, and it had a large vertical surface mounted above the top wing for lateral steering. The original 25-horsepower, four-cylinder Curtiss engine was quickly replaced by a Curtiss V-8. By the summer of 1910, Baldwin was testing a second airplane at Mineola, Long Island. This aircraft was similar to the Curtiss biplanes of the day, featuring a centrally-mounted pusher engine and a forward elevator supported by booms ahead of the wings.
Baldwin flew at an air meet in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 7-8, 1910, as well as at the famous competition at Belmont Park, New York, later that month. In December 1910, he formed an exhibition team with J.C. "Bud" Mars and Tod Shriver and began a tour of the Pacific. They made flights in Honolulu during the week of December 31, 1910, en route to the Philippines, China, and Japan. One of the airplanes was sold to a school in Manila. The group returned to the United States in the spring of 1911.
Shortly after his return from the Pacific, Baldwin was testing a new airplane at Mineola. The new aircraft was again similar to the basic Curtiss pusher design that was becoming quite popular with builders by this time, but it was innovative in that it was constructed of steel tubing. Built for Baldwin by C. and A. Wittemann of Staten Island, New York, it was powered by a 60-horsepower, Hall-Scott V-8, and could fly at the then impressive speed of 60 mph. Baldwin called his new machine the Red Devil III, and thereafter each of his airplanes would be known as a Baldwin Red Devil. The origin of the name appears to stem from Baldwin's painting his aircraft bright crimson overall. There is also an unsubstantiated story that following an accident, Baldwin emerged from the wreckage of his airplane angrily voicing some choice phrases in the presence of a young girl who had witnessed the incident. The girl purportedly left the scene sneering at Baldwin, "old red devil." Whatever the truth of the origin of the name, Baldwin's distinctive red airplanes were collectively known as Red Devils.
Between 1910 and 1913, Baldwin built approximately six Red Devils, although that is a very rough estimate. Most were powered by the Hall-Scott, but Curtiss engines were also occasionally used. By mid-1911, Baldwin was training pilots, taking up passengers, and performing regularly with Red Devil aircraft at air meets. He advertised Red Devils for sale into 1913, and they were featured in Hall-Scott's advertising in this period. During these years, he continued his domestic and international tours. Beginning in late 1911, with Lee Hammond, he made another major swing through the Orient.
The history of the NASM Baldwin Red Devil is very obscure. It differs from other Red Devils in a number of ways, most significantly in that is has no forward elevator. Also, it has single ailerons mounted between the wings, rather than the trailing edge ailerons on both wings that were typical of other Red Devils. One photograph exists of a Red Devil with no forward elevator and trailing edge ailerons, as well as a picture of yet another with a forward elevator and single interplane ailerons, thus demonstrating that the unusual features of the NASM airplane did appear on other confirmed Red Devils. Unfortunately, no picture of the NASM Red Devil exists showing the airplane before the First World War, when it was presumably built and flown. Another apparent difference of the NASM airplane is the engine type. It came to the museum with a 50-horsepower Maximotor B-4 installed. Although no contemporary documentation cites any Red Devils as powered by a Maximotor, the holes in the engine mount of the NASM airplane suggest that this was the original engine in this airframe.
The Smithsonian purchased its Red Devil in 1950 from Roosevelt Field, Inc., in New York, when it was closing down and disbursing its museum collection. Nothing is known of how, when, or from whom Roosevelt Field acquired the airplane. Indeed, its only documentation as even being a Baldwin Red Devil is its characterization as such by Roosevelt Field. Nevertheless, the steel-tube structural components and general design of the NASM airplane are consistent with known features of Baldwin Red Devils. So there is little reason to doubt that it is a Red Devil.