THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Thank you so much for your time Jill. Our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?
I grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. I lived only 40 miles (approximately 64 kilometers) from Headen’s hometown of Carthage, in the heart of the state’s Sandhills region.
You recently wrote a book about the African-American inventor and entrepreneur Lucean Arthur Headen, what was the inspiration behind telling his story?
My interest in Headen grew out of my doctoral dissertation, which looked at the participation of African Americans in the earliest years of aviation. Headen learned to fly in 1911 and afterward he traveled as an exhibition pilot. It was what Headen did in the years that ensued, however, that made me want to write a biography of him. Racial restrictions excluded him from obtaining skilled work and from attending American engineering schools, and he faced an uphill climb as an independent inventor as well. At the time he launched his career, lone inventors were increasingly losing ground to highly trained “industrial scientists.” Teams in corporate and military laboratories soaked up much of the funding previously invested in individuals. Yet, despite both obstacles, Headen was able to finance his work and prosper, not only as an inventor, but as an entrepreneur.
Headen achieved what he did through a combination of ability and will and the support of social networks built by his family. I wanted to explore the interplay between the two. His biography, I think, helps us better understand the relationship that exists between individual creativity and community in determining personal success. As the full title of the book implies, the biography is a tribute both to Headen’s achievements and to the often unacknowledged work of those who helped him attain them.
What was Lucean's early life like?
Headen grew up in a tumultuous period in American history. Part of the first generation born free after the Civil War, he witnessed vicious attacks on African Americans in white-owned newspapers, intimidation meted out in the streets of his home town, and often violent political battles. As he reached voting age, he also felt the sting of legal segregation and the end of black voting rights. He was, however, relatively shielded in his early years from the full brunt of racial hatred. Many of his relatives, including his grandfather, had been artisans during slavery, and the skills they possessed allowed them to earn enough after the war to buy land, start their own businesses, and build a church and a school. Headen’s father and uncle operated a successful sawmill. So Headen had the advantages of financial stability, a good education, and strong role models. Moreover, the social position his family members attained within the Presbyterian Church and the Republican Party (whose social policy was then akin more to today’s Democrats) allowed him to imagine a prosperous future.
How did he manage to overcome the difficult environment for African Americans to become a pioneer in engineering?
In his early years Headen benefitted greatly from social ties his grandparents and his aunts and uncles forged with northern Presbyterians and Republican politicians, black and white, and from Presbyterian church connections his first wife later nurtured. The social networks his family members built provided him key employment opportunities and yielded important investors and promoters for his inventions. They were especially critical to supporting a car manufacturing company he started in Chicago in 1921, which provided him his first true workshop for experimenting with engines. Using his family’s networks as a base, Headen expanded them to include a diverse coalition of individuals to finance his work, and by the late 1920s, he had developed his ideas to the point of commercial viability. That accomplished, he was able to attract the support of deeper pocketed patent speculators and business partners.
You mention in the book that very few documents exist to tell Lucean's story, what sources did you find to help in your research?
Because Headen left no personal or business papers, I was forced to take a different approach to writing his biography. I was able to find a small number of letters and other records in archives in the US and the UK. Among them were incorporation papers and an advertising brochure for Headen’s car company, a handful of letters he wrote his friend Robert Abbott, editor of The Chicago Defender, and after he emigrated to England in 1931, letters he exchanged with representatives of the US Naval Consulting Board, the US Patent Office, and the US Embassy in London about his inventions, and a few items related to a demonstration he made before the British Admiralty in 1917 and an engineering firm he established in Camberley, Surrey, in 1932. These sources weren’t enough, though, to document a life. To do that, I turned to the vast array of online genealogical and newspaper databases and virtual archives now available to historians. These gave me the tools to identify Headen's family members and map out their social connections, document his education, piece together his movements and his career, and discover the backgrounds of those who later invested in his inventions and became his partners. I combined what I uncovered through these sources with knowledge gained from the burgeoning scholarship on African American history, the history of invention, and other relevant topics to place the few archival records I had for Headen into a much clearer context and to flesh out his life story.
How did Headen's work bring him to the UK?
Headen first came to England during World War I to demonstrate a cloaking device for ships to the British Admiralty. His invention employed beveled mirrors to diffract light and mask a ship’s presence. The British Admiralty took an interest in his invention after Sir Ernest Rutherford of the Board of Invention and Research visited Washington, DC, in the late spring of 1917 to discuss anti-submarine measures with the US Naval Consulting Board. Headen was, when Rutherford arrived, demonstrating a model of his cloaking device to the Board.
Headen’s visit to England lasted only six weeks, but the impression it made on him lasted much longer. He decided to emigrate there in 1931 because it represented a better market for his products than the United States. On the basis of his first two patents, he developed a converter kit for automobiles that allowed traditional spark-ignition engines, designed to run on petrol, to burn instead cheaper crude oil distillates such as paraffin, vaporizing oil, and even waste oil. Petrol was plentiful in the United States, an oil-producing country, but scarce in the United Kingdom, which had to source its oil from around the globe. Petrol is the smallest product in the crude oil distillation process, and purchasing an oil supply sufficient to produce enough of it for the UK was expensive, meaning high prices at the pump. Thus, the idea of an oil-burning car held great appeal for the British motorist.
How was he received in the UK, and what was life like for him on this side of the pond?
Headen seems to have settled into English life with little difficulty. Opening a factory in Camberley, Surrey, he quickly prospered from the manufacture of his converter kit, which was popular with tractor and lorry owners as well as motorists, and from the sale of a widely adopted gasket he designed to minimize the leakage of oil into an engine’s cylinders. By 1937 he was distributing his kit, his gasket, and other products across Europe and the British Commonwealth, and he was touted by the Camberley News as a leader in the town’s industrial development. He was also living comfortably in the area’s best residential hotel.
Headen’s light skin helped him avoid the discrimination sometimes experienced by darker individuals in Britain. And, because he was a talented engineer with knowledge to impart and a successful businessman in a period of economic depression, he commanded respect. Just how much his neighbors came to trust him became clear during World War II, when Headen was accepted as one of only a tiny number of aliens allowed to join the Home Guard in the UK.
After the war, Headen also found love and family in England. Having divorced in 1929, he remarried in 1945 to a local woman, and three years later the couple adopted a son. Headen remained an admired figure in Camberley and in the nearby village of Frimley Green, where he moved after his marriage. His son, Lucean Headen Jr., recalls at least one publication there (now lost) praising his father’s contributions as an inventor and his dedication to his son.
What did being in Britain mean to Lucean?
That’s a difficult question to answer. We have only a single letter he wrote during his first visit to England in 1917 and only a handful of letters he penned after his emigration. His letters, though, are revealing. In 1917 he expressed excitement over being in London, exclaiming “A Man Is a Man for a That.” His later letters commended the rule of law in England, something he could appreciate after having witnessed American racial violence as a young man. In 1900 the brutal murder of a young black man in his hometown had gone unpunished, and a year later, a menacing anti-black political rally had taken over the streets of Carthage. Migrating north had brought little respite. Headen in 1921 lived through one of the country’s most devastating race riots in Chicago. So the British emphasis on order and the rule of law was reassuring to him, I think.
Headen also found in the UK greater opportunity than he could ever have enjoyed at home. Across the UK he participated fully in the larger community, traveled without restriction, mingled freely with other engineers at scientific conferences and competitions, and found companies eager to distribute his products.
His actions during the war, I believe, speak perhaps most directly to how Headen felt about his adopted country. Although he remained an American citizen, he chose to stay in Camberley during the war, when most alien residents left. This was despite the fact that Camberley was positioned directly in the path of the Luftwaffe. Headen even moved immediately next door to his factory, a potential target, to protect it from saboteurs. His decision to remain and to join the Home Guard indicate clearly that by this time England had become his true home.
What kind of activities did he get up to help the war effort?
As I mentioned before, Headen served in the Home Guard during the war. As a member of the Camberley Regiment of the 1st Surrey Battalion, he helped enforce local curfews, carried out guard duties, manned road blocks to allow supply convoys to pass, and took his turn operating antiaircraft guns. He also, according to family lore, volunteered his personal boat for use in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.
Headen’s manufacturing activities also supported the war effort on the homefront. His converter kit allowed lorry operators to switch to cheaper crude-oil products, thus saving scarce petrol for the military, and his gaskets helped make older tractors more efficient, extending their life for farmwork and for service on military bases, where tractors were often converted into earthmovers and mowers for airstrips. Headen also served during the war as a consulting engineer for other local wartime industries.
How did Lucean spend his final years in the UK?
Like most people in Britain, Headen faced great challenges after the war. Capital was scarce and the raw materials needed for manufacturing were in short supply. In addition, diesel compression engines and more efficient petrol engines had begun to replace oil-burning engines, lessening demand for Headen’s converter kit and gasket. Headen adapted by diverting his creative efforts into more affordable directions, developing a replaceable plowshare tip that made it possible for farmers to triple the life of their shares. For several years he sold the “Headen Cap” across Europe and in India, allowing him to support his new family during the postwar turmoil and to provide his son a solid education. Headen continued to manufacture the Headen Cap and his final invention, raingear for cyclists attachable to a cycle, until his death of a heart attack in 1957.
What do you think Lucean’s legacy is, both in the US and in the UK, and also through his work?
Before emigrating to England, Headen served for a decade as a leading spokesman for transportation technologies among African Americans. He was among the first to articulate a comprehensive vision for the automobile, arguing that it could serve not only to challenge segregation but also to build black economic power through manufacturing. The car company he founded, as well as auto races he organized in the Northeast and the South, helped to popularize motoring in black communities and inspired others to enter the engineering profession. Headen also influenced two important early Chicago aviators — Bessie Coleman and William Powell — who after earning their pilots licenses went on to apply Headen’s vision to the airplane, advocating for black men and women to train as both pilots and aeronautical engineers and to develop aviation businesses of their own.
In the UK, Headen, along with his business partner James Keil, was among the first to establish Camberley as an industrial area. The town later emerged as a small, but important site for wartime manufacturing.
Headen also made important contributions to British agriculture. His converter kit and gasket, both easy to install and affordable, appealed to cash-strapped farmers in the midst of a long-running agricultural depression. By allowing cost savings and extending the life of older tractors, Headen’s products kept farmers engaged with technology at a time when many were tempted to abandon machines and return to cultivating their land with horses. That continued engagement became critical when war broke out and mechanical skills were sorely needed on farms forced to use mechanical means to produce foodstuffs sufficient to feed a growing military.
Headen also left an important legacy as an aeronautical engineer. Designs he developed in the late 1930s for preventing ice formation and for removing ice from aircraft control surfaces and propellers became a model for subsequent inventors. Especially copied was a pressure-jet system he developed to pump heated air through pipes running throughout a plane’s structure. His design gradually increased the size of apertures in the piping, which ensured constant pressure and an even distribution of heat jets shooting up from the apertures. It also delivered heated air directly to the areas most critical for maintaining control of the aircraft, such as the hinges that moved the rudder.
Headen's anti-icing work has been cited regularly by engineers from firms such as Curtiss-Wright, General Motors, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing, and Rolls Royce, who between the 1940s and today developed the modern anti-icing technologies that allow safe operation of not only airplanes, but rotor aircraft and jet engines. The most recent citation of Headen’s work appears in a 2018 patent for a thermal method for deicing wind-turbine blades. So we still see his influence.
On a personal note, what do you hope readers take away from the book?
I think different readers will take different things from Headen’s story.
Those interested in African American entrepreneurship will find him intriguing. Many are familiar with Booker T. Washington’s encouragement of black investors to pool their resources, with the transformation of small mutual-aid societies into large insurance companies and banks, and with the genius of individuals such as Madame C. J. Walker, who built a hair care empire by employing black women across the country to sell her products. Headen, though, took a different tack; he built diverse coalitions. To assemble and market his cars in the 1920s, he drew together men and women, northerners and southerners, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, churchgoers and rum runners. This “coalition economics” approach suggests that a wider range of black business strategies was being employed in America in the 1920s and 1930s than we’ve previously recognized.
Those interested in the social uses of technology will be interested in how Headen and others employed the automobile. Many African Americans purchased cars to boycott segregation on trains and in train stations and to assert their American identity in a national culture that idealized the open road. Mentions of “motoring” in the social columns of black newspapers, however, suggest that family and community also sparked trips to automotive show rooms. During the exodus from the southern states in the 1920s, often referred to as the Great Migration, the black middle class embraced cars as a way to heal ruptured ties. Automobiles gave drivers not only greater comfort than the hot, dirty Jim Crow cars of trains, but greater flexibility. Unlimited by limited service and poor connections, they allowed individuals to visit the sick and elderly in far-flung locations, attend weddings, reunions, and funerals, and call on friends across long distances. And, because most hotels were whites only, black motorists often stayed with distant relatives, friends, or friends of friends, along the way, strengthening old and also building new social networks.
What I hope everyone takes from the book is what it shows us about the importance of social networks. Headen’s family built national ties within the Presbyterian church and the Republican Party, and Headen relied heavily on these early in his career. He was passionate, talented, and focused, and he worked extremely hard, but without the support that those connections provided, he might not have had the wherewithal or the financial means to stick to his dreams. Networks opened opportunities to him, buffered the consequences of economic and social setbacks, and allowed him time to explore, experiment, and to fail (a necessary element in success).
Success demands we build networks within our communities and coalitions between them. Even as we acknowledge the inequalities that have often existed within broader coalitions, between blacks and whites, between men and women, and between the wealthy and the poor, we must embrace the work, personal and political, needed to eradicate them. Because the greater the diversity of our coalitions, the greater our chances of a future in which we all can succeed.
What projects are next on the horizon for you?
Several projects are currently competing for my attention One is to write a history of two black Presbyterian schools in North Carolina. Another is to explore the use of insulin-shock treatments for those suffering in World War II from what we term today post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. A third is a project to document the women’s music movement of the 1970s and 80s in the United States. I’m not sure yet which I will decide on, or which I will be able to secure funding for, but whichever it turns out to be, I will be happy. >
Finally, what's the best thing about being Jill D. Snider?
The best thing about my life is that I love what I do. I have always been passionate, whether about basketball (which I played in my waking hours and in my dreams as a child), language, history, or archaeology. When I love something, I live and breathe it, and for the past 25 years history has been my passion. I am never happier than when I am digging in the archives or searching in online databases, discovering something new, piecing together scattered bits of information to solve a puzzle. To have the opportunity to do that and to enjoy the support of so many along the way has been a great privilege.
Jill's book, Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur is available to Buy Now as a hard back or Ebook from the University of North Carolina Press.