History books are spilling over with people who have achieved seemingly impossible feats in their lifetime, but they often miss the awesome stories of many Black innovators. One of these people was one of the first Black pilots who also raced cars and designed a cloaking technology for ships. This is the story of Lucean Arthur Headen.
The story of Headen is a hard one to tell. There’s only one book celebrating his life, a biography published in 2020 by Dr. Jill D. Snider, a scholar from North Carolina who focuses on African American aviation history. One of the challenges she faced while writing was the fact that Headen preserved no diaries, no mementos and lived a private life, as she noted in an interview with her publishing company. Fewer than twenty letters exist between him, a friend, and potential business partners, and they are brief and down to business. He didn’t talk much, but his friends in the media loved talking about him, and that’s pretty much all we have to go on.
Headen lived during a time of major racial injustice where you could be murdered at any time by violent racists and mobs. He lived through one of the bloodiest race riots in American history, the anti-Black terror of Chicago 1919. Hell, it started a few blocks from his home. I can see why he kept a pretty low profile.
Headen was born in 1879 in Carthage, North Carolina, into a family of former slaves. Much of the family learned trades during their enslavement and naturally, they made an impact on him as he grew up. His grandfather farmed the land the family lived on and was a master wheelmaker at the local buggy company. His great-uncle was even a nationally known blacksmith. Some members of his family found themselves in careers in education and politics, too. Snider believes these humble beginnings are what inspired Headen to learn about mechanics and design.
Even early on in life, Headen strove for achievement. He had a good education and stability at a time when both were rare for Black people. But sadly, he still faced the harsh reality of racism. He was born only 14 years after the end of the Civil War and the dangers of being a Black person in America were still massive. The threat of violence was material and to make matters worse, North Carolina was enacting its first Jim Crow laws and suppressing the Black vote.
Headen advanced his education at a boarding school and then left the South in 1903. He moved often, actually, both around the States and eventually out of the country entirely. It wasn’t easy being a Black person and sometimes the best way to escape oppression was to pack up and go to a better place. Headen wasn’t the only one. Many people of color who were able to afford the journey found themselves escaping hate in the U.S. to be expats in more welcoming countries.
He met his first wife, Tena, during his journeys and together they built a strong social network with family, friends and even the Republican party of the time (closer to today’s Democrats) that would support him in his future endeavors.
Headen designed his first invention at 31 while working as a railroad porter. As Air & Space Magazine notes, it was a “device to keep an aircraft stable while returning to level flight after banking.” This sounds a lot like an early vertical stabilizer. Unfortunately, it appears the drawings have been lost to time and no patent was ever filed. Thankfully, his interest in taking to the skies didn’t stop there. Headen took his adventures to Long Island, New York for flight lessons by the Aeronautical Society.
Headen and his wife moved to Chicago in 1914 and he continued his quest to make new things. Sadly, the move didn’t shield him from the danger as he faced further hatred and bigotry when he tried to join the Aero Club of Illinois and was denied entry because of his race.
He did find a bit of a celebrity status in Lake Forest, Illinois, with a fan writing to the Chicago Defender, via Snider’s book:
“Lake Forest is highly honored by having Mr. Headen, the only Afro-American aviator. We feel very proud of him.”
The Chicago Defender, a Black-owned newspaper published by Headen’s friend, Robert Abbott, was one of the only places Headen could enjoy praise for his work.
Headen hoped to make a career out of flying, however, he didn’t have a license or a plane. Forced to rent planes, it quickly appeared his flying career wasn’t really getting off of the ground.
In Chicago, Headen’s network would help him scale to greater heights with more ambitious inventions and even a company of his own. He worked for patent lawyer Wilmot Comfort Hawkins to evaluate patent prototypes with a side job working for the Chicago Tribune’s Robert R. McCormick as his driver.
In 1917, the Chicago Tribune published Headen’s latest invention, a “magic cloak” to make a boat disappear.
Despite the Tribune’s headline, Headen’s device wasn’t magic, but clever engineering. It was an array of mirrors attached to a ship. The mirrors made the ship completely blend in with its surroundings. The idea was that ships meant to chase U-Boats could be camouflaged and hidden from detection. It worked so well that in a test with a boat moored 200 feet offshore, onlookers couldn’t find it and neither could a search party of boats.
Unfortunately, while the Navy liked the idea, it deemed the apparatus too heavy and too expensive. The Navy instead deployed dazzle camouflage to cloak ships, as Air & Space Magazine notes. Headen went to England and pitched it to their Navy. However, World War I ended before the development could see use.
Undeterred by these letdowns, Headen continued to will new creations into existence. In 1919, he returned to Chicago and, according to a wonderful history page put together by the Surrey County Council, he got right to his next interest: cars.
Headen used his business connections and the family network he built with his wife to start a car company.
He taught himself automotive engineering and decided to open up the Headen Motor Company to build his ideas. Headen Motor Company is known to have produced the Headen Pace Setter, Headen Six and Headen Special racecar. These cars were built by hand by Black workers. Headen raced the Headen Special around the country and eventually founded the first national African American racing association.
Sadly, I could not find any examples of a Headen vehicle today, but the Library of Congress has a brochure deep inside of its archives.
Still in his stride in the 1930s and with the help of a grand network of allies, Headen kept on innovating. With the help of fellow inventor Henry Petit, he patented the Headen-Petit spark ignition. This system made multiple spark points inside an engine’s cylinder, which made it easier for engines to run on paraffin and tractor vaporizing oil instead of expensive gasoline. Headen took off to England, where he demonstrated this invention with the Royal Auto Club. From Air & Space Magazine:
By 1931, Headen had reached a crossroads. He was divorced, and was eager to return to England where he was recognized as an inventor, period—not “a Negro inventor,” as he was known in the United States. After relocating to England, he invented a gasket marketed for agricultural use, and adapted it for aircraft engines. “He did purchase a small Carden Flying Flea in the 1930s to test a popular anti-dilution gasket he patented in an airplane engine,” says Snider. “I found no evidence, though, that he was ever licensed to fly in the U.K., so he was probably testing the gasket while running the engine with the machine on the ground.”
In moving to the UK, he escaped much of the racism he faced here in the States. But he didn’t just escape hatred, he was respected in England.
He formed the Headen Hamilton Engineering Ltd with George Hamilton in London. The company moved into Surrey in 1932 and began manufacturing an engine converter kit as its first product.
His partnership with Hamilton didn’t last long, however, and he got a new partner, James McLean Keil, and renamed his company to Headen Keil Engineering Ltd. Headen Keil Engineering gained popularity across England for its carburetors and gaskets. Headen also adapted a gasket for aircraft engines.
Headen next tackled the huge problem of aircraft de-icing. Ice buildup on the control surfaces of planes can be incredibly dangerous and in those days, de-icing fluid wasn’t a thing. Headen patented a brilliant idea to use the plane’s own engines to keep control surfaces warm enough to melt ice. An outer jacket hugged the exhaust manifold and the warm air trapped in the jacket was blown the length of the wings. The idea was even adapted to prevent propeller icing. Another aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, cited Headen’s de-icing methods. Snider says his aircraft developments went even further than that:
His work has been cited by engineers from Curtiss-Wright, General Motors, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing, and Rolls Royce, who between the 1940s and today have developed the modern anti-icing techniques that allow safe operation not only of airplanes, but of rotor aircraft and jet engines. And, we still see Headen’s influence today. The most recent citation I’ve seen of his work appears in a 2018 patent for a thermal method to de-ice wind-turbine blades.
You would think that an invention cited by such big players in the aerospace industry as Rolls Royce and Boeing would easily land Headen a spot in a history book, but such isn’t the case. While none of his creations are particularly world-shattering, I believe that they are worth mentioning and remembering. After all, his work is still referenced today in the aviation industry.
According to Snider, the letters Headen sent to America to Robert Abbott, he enjoyed the freedom from segregation that England offered him. Sadly, these letters aren’t easily accessible. Snider describes Headen in her book as having a “stoic, unemotional demeanor,” and notes that even his local Black-owned newspaper couldn’t get a lot out of him:
In 1917, the Defender characterized Headen as a “man of very few words,” adding, “No one knows where he came from, where he is going or what he knows as he says nothing.”
He lived through the violence back in North Carolina and he lived through the Chicago Race Riot in 1919. England proved to be a safer place. He also felt England was also more committed to actually following the law, something that to this day remains a problem regarding the treatment of Black Americans. His career in England was so successful that Headen found himself in engineering circles and he was even considered to be a local leader.
His products found heavy use during the Second World War. Since gasoline was rationed, farming and commercial vehicles needed another way to run. This is where Headen’s engine converter kit and gaskets really shined. The Royal Air Force even used some of the vehicles for airfield service. Headen himself also volunteered in the Camberley regiment of the Surrey Home Guard’s 1st Battalion, one of the only Americans to do so.
He was one of many Black expats involved in pushing back against fascism across the world. Headen was in Europe at the same time, for example, as writer Langston Hughes. Hughes was in Spain during its Civil War and reporting on Black volunteers fighting against Franco in the country. Many of these expats remarked on how amazing it was that racial prejudice was not just frowned upon, but illegal. They weren’t just fighting a war, but pushing back on prejudice as well. Headen’s incredible life came to an end in 1957 after he suffered a heart attack. His life was punctuated with many innovations and inventions. If he wasn’t flying, he was racing cars or making flight safer. He earned 11 patents in England. Snider described his life as one of relentless pursuit, of finding space for himself and his passions:
Limited by segregation to work as a railroad porter for almost a decade, he refused to give up his ambitions, and in 1911 risked life and limb to learn to fly. Once trained, he left his job to make exhibition flights in the South and Midwest. That’s not something many people 32 years old (his age at the time), would do. Later in his career, after building up a highly successful garage business in Chicago, he risked it all to start his car company and to enter auto racing. He was then already in his mid-40s. And he was 52 when he emigrated to England to start his engineering firm. He often defied expectations. In England he was free to be himself. A British obituary simply describes him as “an American who settled in [the village of] Frimley Green.”
His story is also that of how far having a solid foundation of a supportive network can get you. Snider believes that without the network he built over the years he would not have been able to get as far as he did.
While writing this story, I found it hard to find much information about Headen. Pictures were even harder to come by. I’m baffled that a person like him was barely even mentioned until Snider’s book. That there wasn’t even a book about him until 2020 shows how much Black experience and Black innovation has been overlooked. In his life, Headen chose to be private. After his death, history chose for him.
Update: Friday, March 21, 2021, 4:58 p.m. CST: Photographs related to Headen, and further discussion of his life and inventions, can be accessed on YouTube at the Surrey History Trust’s site: