Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

John Newton Williams was an engineer, entrepreneur, and inventor who engineered the first coaxial rotor Helicopter to fly.

John Newton Williams was born in Brooklyn New York in 1840. In his twenties, he enlisted in the First Regiment of Minnesota Mounted Rangers and fought in the Civil War. In the 1870's, he had taken up horse breeding in Kentucky and Tennessee. He moved to St. Paul Minnesota in 1878 and became a mechanic, and worked wherever he was hired. He demonstrated his excellence in the field of mechanics with his numerous typewriter patents, which led him to begin the Williams typewriter Company in Derby, Connecticut.

In the early 1900's, he discovered his interest in aviation, especially helicopters. He began to build his own helicopter which was spring powered and used two counter-rotating blades. He was able to achieve both vertical and horizontal flight with this model. In 1907, after receiving a $4,000 grant, he was able to build a full-scale model of his machine. At first, he used a Curtis 20 horsepower engine but the machine was unable to lift off. He then attached the machine to a factory belt system and was able to generate up to 560 lbs of thrust. 

Due to his successes with his helicopter, he was invited by Glenn Curtis to join the A.E.A. (Aerial Experimental Association). The members of A.E.A. helped him with the helicopter design and Glenn Curtis gave him a V8 engine. There was only one V8 engine and Williams had to share it with other A.E.A. Projects at the time, such as the Redwing and later the June Bug. His helicopter had a low center of gravity and was guided by weight shift. Williams expected that his helicopter with the new engine would be able to lift him, however, the helicopter was unable to liftoff due to a clutch failure. After repairing the clutch, another test was completed in which a young man, Byron Brown, reportedly was lifted several inches. Finally, the third experiment lifted a man clear off the ground. 

The A.E.A. shifted their focus from Williams' helicopter to the  "June Bug" and left Williams on his own. Williams, however, found another man working in his field, Emil Berliner, who - although their work had not been connected in any way - had arrived at strikingly similar helicopter concepts. The two began the Washington D.C. Helicopter Co. and developed a design that would hold the record for the first successful flight of a coaxial rotor helicopter, in 1908. After an accident in which an employee was wounded, the project was deemed too unsafe to continue, and the company broke up. 

He then moved to the design and manufacturing of motorcycles. He developed a tri-car, with two wheels in the front and one in the back, but was unable to market it well, and the venture wasn't very successful. The approach of WWI would bring him back to the helicopter industry with the demand for new anti-submarine warfare techniques. He gained the endorsement of the Navy on his design but had to prove the concept before receiving funding. He received funding for his project from Dr. Thaddeus P. Hyatt, who was able to raise funds. The design was prototyped and succeeded in lifting off. By contrast to his previous weight shift control system, he developed a wing-warping control system that would increase lift on one side and not the other. Unfortunately, he never succeeded in achieving free flight in his machine and the program was canceled at the end of the war. 

John Newton Williams retired in 1924 in Bethel, Connecticut, where he died on February 14th, 1929. He was 88.


Lt. Col Fardink P. J. (2014). Glenn Hammond Curtiss, the Aerial Experiment Association and the John Newton Williams’ Helicopter of 1908. AHS Forum 70