Newman, Prentice Alexander (1871–1964)


By: Doug Perkins

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 2021

Updated: November 4, 2021


Prentice Alexander Newman, pioneer Texas aviator who designed and built the first single-wing airplane in the United States, was born near Riedelville (now Gillett) in Karnes County, Texas, on January 1, 1871, to Joseph Austin Newman and Hutokah Dodson (Caylor) Newman. His grandfather, William Rabb Newman, who was wounded at the battle of San Jacinto, his great-grandparents, Joseph Newman and Rachel Rabb Newman, and his great-great-grandparents, William Rabb and Mary Smalley Rabb, were members of Texas’s Old Three Hundred settlers.

Newman attended public schools in Laredo through sixth grade after his father gained employment in 1881 with the International-Great Northern Railroad that had completed its line to the Texas-Mexico border that year. In Laredo, the young Newman showed keen engineering interest while following early flight experiments of Samuel Pierpont Langley and Sir Hiram Maxim. In 1889 Newman gained notice when, using just a pocketknife and awl as tools, he built a miniature steam engine. He fashioned the steam cylinder out of a copper cartridge shell, and the boilers were made of oyster cans. He used pieces of copper wire to make rods and crank pins. Laredo leaders announced they would feature Newman's model in the city's 1889 Texas Spring Palace exhibit in Fort Worth. In 1892, when Newman was twenty-one, the U. S. Patent Office awarded Patent 485,976 to him for a novel steam-engine innovation. He and his family were living in Runge in Karnes County at the time.

P. A. Newman married Pearl P. Williams of Cuero in DeWitt County on October 9, 1901. They later had three children—P. A. Jr., Lillian, and Thomas Cline. In 1903 the couple moved to Dallas where he worked as a machinist at a manufacturing company. In 1904 Newman worked as a machinist at the Fort Worth Auto and Livery Stable, and in 1907 he took the same position at R. L. Cameron Auto in Dallas. The latter move occurred after a family tragedy that deeply impacted his life, yet simultaneously directed his focus toward aviation innovation.

Newman’s sister, Lillian, a trained nurse, was widely known for administering health care during a 1903 yellow fever outbreak in DeWitt County. She died on April 27, 1905, in her parent's home in Runge after undergoing a botched medical procedure. Newman and his brother, Arthur, blamed Lillian's death on Elmer "Shell" Mason, a Yoakum feed store operator whom Lillian had been dating. In the early morning hours of May 16, 1905, the Newman brothers checked into a room in Lane Hotel in Yoakum. The hotel was situated catercorner to Mason's residence. Only the Newmans knew exactly what occurred next, but at approximately 6:30 a.m., Mason left his residence for his business a block away. As Mason walked south on Lott Street, three rifle shots originated from the Newmans' hotel room. Two bullets hit Mason, and he died ninety minutes later.

The Newman brothers immediately surrendered to authorities; this action started a series of legal maneuvers by their defense team using the "unwritten law" strategy. Lawyers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries employed this defense in murder cases linked to the honor of an accused man's female relative. The strategy sought to persuade jurors to base their verdict on moral judgment rather than existing law. Newspaper accounts regarding jury selection for Arthur Newman’s trial alluded to the probability that Lillian Newman died from a botched abortion. A Lavaca County District Court jury in Hallettsville acquitted Arthur in 1907. Another jury acquitted P. A., but not until November 1909 following multiple continuance applications that postponed the trial.

While awaiting his court date, P. A. Newman in 1908 joined G.A.C. Halff's Alamo Automobile Company, located on Losoya Street in San Antonio. That same year, national public and military interest in aviation intensified as the Wright brothers and other aviation entrepreneurs conducted first-of-a-kind feats of altitude and distance with powered biplanes in both the United States and Europe.

Newman studied the Wrights' architecture, devised modifications, including a novel steering mechanism actuated by a pilot's body motions, and then designed and built components for an unpowered biplane in the Alamo Automobile Company basement. In the last days of 1908, he assembled the components on the Fort Sam Houston parade grounds in San Antonio. A reporter in the December 31, 1908, edition of the San Antonio Gazette described the finished Newman biplane as twenty-five-feet long and ten-feet high with a thirty-five-foot wingspan. On January 2, 1909, at the “cavalry drill grounds” of Fort Sam Houston, Newman secured a 150-foot towline from his biplane to a Stoddard-Dayton forty-five-horsepower automobile driven by Halff. With Newman in the pilot's seat, a crowd said to be as low as 200 and as high as 500 spectators watched the biplane gain momentum behind the vehicle, lift off the field, and then soar overhead. Newman guided the biplane to an altitude estimated between fifty and seventy feet in Texas's first heavier-than-air machine flight of the twentieth century. When the towing rope broke, the plane fell to earth and sustained damage, but Newman emerged unhurt to the ovation of the crowd. The San Antonio Light pronounced, “San Antonio’s aeroplane can really fly.”

Newman planned to move directly to a powered version of his biplane but failed to interest San Antonio investors. His brother, Arthur, who had moved to Brownsville after his acquittal, encouraged the city's Chamber of Commerce to bring his brother's new technology to the lower Rio Grande Valley. A chamber-arranged meeting between Newman and local investors resulted in funding pledges for the Brownsville Aeroplane Company.

During the next six months, Newman built several iterations of unpowered biplanes within the abandoned Merchant & Planters Rice Milling Company warehouse just north of Brownsville's city center. Around at least one trip to the Lavaca County Courthouse to fight his murder indictment, Newman conducted public tests of his biplanes in west Brownsville. Initial attempts failed to achieve flight, but a private test on March 23, 1909, and two June public efforts were successful. On the last June 3 flight, Newman piloted his biplane about a quarter mile. Those accomplishments gained him international publicity although some reporting was grossly exaggerated.

Newman next installed an engine purchased from the Herring-Curtiss Company. He planned to conduct a July 4 exhibition of a powered biplane on the coastal plains between Brownsville and Point Isabel. A June 30 storm slightly damaged his airship and forced postponement. A few failed or aborted attempts at powered flight followed. Then on August 20, 1909, before a small crowd that included a reporter, Newman piloted Texas’s first recorded powered flight of an aircraft. Although initially pulled by an automobile, the Newman biplane allegedly flew about 100 yards under its engine's power at an estimated six feet of altitude before mechanical problems brought it down.

A week later, after another tropical storm damaged the plane, Newman returned his aircraft to the rice mill. By late October, he had radically converted his biplane into the first fixed single-wing monoplane in the United States. Frenchman Louis Blériot's successful monoplane flights over Europe three months earlier likely influenced the modification.

Before trying the new machine, Newman was acquitted of murder by a Lavaca County jury on November 6. He returned to Cameron County and announced a test of his monoplane on Thanksgiving week. A later announcement set the test for the first week of December. No record shows either test occurred. Newman later indicated that the monoplane failed to take flight in private tests because of engineering deficiencies with its tail. Company investors cut off funding in December, and Newman never attempted another flight after 1909.

Despite mixed success with his airships, Newman introduced flight innovations that became American aviation standards. Among his concepts that even the Wright brothers had not adopted at the time were positioning the engine in front of the pilot and between single, fixed, dihedral wings. For the latter invention, the New York Times in 1964 recognized Newman as the aviator "who built the first single-winged plane in the United States."

After his aviation career ended, Newman operated an automobile garage near downtown Brownsville. He added chauffeur services into northeastern Mexico as events sparking the Mexican Revolution began to emerge. His passengers included Americans with interests across the border, Díaz government military officials, and, later, Constitutionalist officers. Between late 1912 to about 1916, Newman and his clients crisscrossed Tamaulipas and trailblazed early automobile routes over unpaved wagon paths.

In November 1913 Newman was one of six American chauffeurs hired to transport officers and ammunition from Matamoros to resupply Constitutionalist forces under Gen. Pablo González after the battle of Ciudad Victoria. Newman alone completed the mission after friendly fire killed the convoy's commanding officer and sent the other five drivers back to Matamoros. His automotive skill allowed his passenger, Brownsville photojournalist Robert Runyon, to capture, for American newspapers, historic images that showed the impact of this early northeastern Mexico battle. 

In 1915 and 1916 the U. S. Bureau of Investigation and other federal agencies utilized Newman for intelligence gathering because of his familiarity with all factions involved in the tumultuous Mexican Revolution. His reports covered troop movements within Mexico of both Federal and rebel forces as well as activities of insurgent leaders of the Texas bandit wars.

Newman closed his garage in 1940 and moved with his daughter, Lillian, and her husband, William J. Earle, who worked for Pan American Airways, first to Guatemala and in 1945 to Honduras. Except for occasional visits to the Brownsville home of his youngest son, Thomas Cline, Newman remained in Central America until 1955. He then returned to Texas to live with his oldest son, P. A. Jr., and his family in San Antonio. Newman died there of a stroke on June 28, 1964. He was buried in Buena Vista Cemetery in Brownsville.

Austin Statesman, April 17, 1907. Brownsville Daily Herald, February 19, 1909; March 8, 9, 1909; April 17, 1909; July 1, 1909; August 4, 5, 7, 9, 20, 28, 1909; September 17, 1909; November 18, 1912; December 16, 1913; March 24, 1915; April 9, 1915; May 14, 1915. Brownsville Herald , January 15, 20, 1909; June 2, 4, 1909; February 22, 1913; July 7, 1929; September 22, 1929; November 8, 1936; December 6, 1942. Dallas Morning News, May 17, 1905; August 24, 1930. Flight International, April 17, 1909. "From Brownsville, Texas," The Automobile (Chilton Company, Incorporated) XX, No. 24 (1909). Robert Earl Good, "Conquering the Last Frontier—Aviation," The Junior Historian 16 (March 1956). Robert Earl Good, "Texas' First Airplane Flight" The Junior Historian 14 (May 1954). Hallettsville New Era, May 19, 1905; April 19, 1907. Intellectual Property: P. A. Newman, "Boiler Feeder and Indicator," Patent No. 485,976, United States Patent Office, November 8, 1892. Bill Neal, Sex, Murder and the Unwritten Law (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2009). "Newman Aeroplane," Aeronautics IV, No. 3 (1909). Robert L. Newman (grandson of P. A. Newman), Telephone Interviews by Doug Perkins, October 1, 2015; July 21, 2016. New York Sun, March 24, 1909. New York Times, June 22, 1908; June 30, 1964. Lorraine H. Owens (great-niece of P. A. Newman), Telephone Interview by Doug Perkins, September 23, 2016. Frank N. Samponaro and Paul J. Vanderwood, War Scare on the Rio Grande: Robert Runyon’s Photographs of the Border Conflict, 1913–1916 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). San Antonio Daily Express, January 1, 4, 11, 1909; February 1, 1909. San Antonio Express, May 17, 1905; August 9, 1908; January 3, 1909. San Antonio Gazette, December 31, 1908. San Antonio Light, December 30, 31, 1908; January 3, 1909; June 29, 1964. Patty Newman Turner, George Newman, and Betty Newman Nauer, Joseph and Rachel Rabb Newman: An Old Three Hundred Family of Texas and Their Descendants (Wyandotte, Oklahoma: Gregath Publishing Company, 1998). Victoria Weekly Advocate, May 20, 1905.

Categories:
  • Aviation and Aerospace
  • Science
  • Inventors
  • Transportation and Railroads
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio
  • South Texas
  • Valley Area
  • Brownsville

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Doug Perkins, “Newman, Prentice Alexander,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/newman-prentice-alexander.

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November 1, 2021
November 4, 2021