On Dec. 17, 113 years ago, two bicycle manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio, solved the riddle that had beguiled humanity's greatest minds: "The Flying Problem."
Orville and Wilbur Wright's 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., ushered in a mania for all things airborne. Six years later, Arthur Atherhol assembled a squadron of 14 amateur aviators to form the Aero Club of Pennsylvania, one of the oldest continually operating groups of its kind in the country.
For Philadelphians today, flying is often synonymous with long queues, testy TSA agents, and cramped legs. But to Atherhol and the Aero Club, the prospect of controlled flight in heavier-than-air craft held out the promise of untold potential, akin to the ways many initially viewed the internet and social media.
Erecting an airfield first in Clementon before moving to Manoa, the Aero Club set out to instruct members in the latest piloting methods and to stoke public interest in flying.
On both counts, the club soared.
With support from members and Rodman Wanamaker, the newly formed Philadelphia School of Aviation near the Navy Yard dabbled in some of the earliest seaplane experiments. The club also became an early advocate for federal control of aviation, lobbying Congress to regulate airspace for safety's sake.
As to public interest in the club and aviation in general, more than 30,000 Philadelphians attended a flying show at the then-Point Breeze Racetrack in 1910, the largest such event yet held in the United States.
During both world wars, club members served as pilots and advisers. The Aero Memorial, opposite the entrance to the Franklin Institute, honors the fliers felled during the global conflagrations.
In peacetime, the club was no less in the avant-garde of piloting and aircraft technology. It was in a Pitcairn-Cierva autogiro - manufactured by club member Harold Pitcairn - that Amelia Earhart set an altitude record in Willow Grove in 1931.
Perhaps the most visible impact of the club for non-aviators is the Philadelphia International Airport. From 1939 on, the expansion of the then-Municipal Airport was spearheaded by club president J. Victor Dallin and others.