The Genesis of Flight

The Aeronautical History Collection of Colonel Richard Gimbel

The Genesis of Flight features 300 items from the Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical History Collection of more than 20,000 books, prints, manuscripts, and other items tracing 3,000 years of humanity’s aspirations and eventual achievement of flight.

This book meets a long-standing need to provide scholars worldwide and the general public with an illustrated catalogue of selected holdings of one of the most prestigious aeronautical history collections in existence—the Colonel Richard Gimbel collection on the history of man’s dream of flight from antiquity to the advent of powered flight at the beginning of the twentieth century. Richard Gimbel, born in 1898, was the son of one of the founders of the Gimbel Department store chain. He graduated from Yale University and served as vice president of the Gimbel Corporation. He began his collection on the history of flight while serving with the 8th U. S. Army Air Force in England during World War II. After retiring from the U. S. Air Force in 1953, he became Curator of Aeronautical Literature at Yale where he continued building his collection. According to his wishes, it was donated to the United States Air Force Academy upon his death in 1970.

Colonel Gimbel’s goal in assembling the collection was to document man’s dreams of and efforts to attain flight. The collection’s more than 20,000 items vividly reflect both humanity’s vision and its fulfillment. Five thousand year old seals carved from semi-precious stones and used to inscribe clay tablets record man’s earliest conception of flight. Among the collection’s thousands of books are priceless volumes printed before 1501. Many, such as Robert Hooke’s Philosophical Collections (1682), are serious, scientific studies of the possibility of flight. Others are about imaginar voyages into space and to other worlds, including Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1547), Cyrano de Bergerac’s account of a voyage to the moon first published in 1651 and, of course,the nineteenth-century classics of Jules Verne. More than 2,000 prints, portraits, engravings, etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs in both color and black and white comprise a unique and arresting pictorial history of aeronautics. Important letters written by pioneers of flight—Montgolfier, Blanchard, Lunardi, Lilienthal, Count von Zeppelin, Santos-Dumont, Langley, and the Wright brothers—are to be found among the collection’s manuscript holdings. There are also rare commemorative medallions, sheet music, posters, dime novels, postcards and postage stamps, early flight manuals, catalogues of aircraft equipment, match boxes, and even children’s games and toys—all recording, in one way or another, humanity’s aspirations to fly.

The Friends sponsored the international scholarship and publication in 2000 of The Genesis of Flight in print, followed by an online version of the book in its entirety (Via Thumbnails Below), which includes a brief audio commentary for most of the entries.



Introduction to the Collection


Albert P. Clark, Lt Gen, USAF (Ret.)

Tom D. Crouch

Former Superintentdent, USAF Academy
Founding Member and First President,
Friends of the USAF Academy Library
Senior Curator, Smithsonian Institution,
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D. C.

Introduction: A Gift of Tradition

The smoke had cleared by the time Richard Gimbel arrived in England..., but one of the most historic neighborhoods in the City of London remained an urban wasteland of broken glass and brick. Soon thereafter, Gimbel noticed an advertisement for a London bookshop that, in spite of the best German efforts to the contrary, would be “Open for Business as Usual.”

Printed Books

The Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical History Collection contains rare books and pamphlets from the time of the first balloon ascents, tracts offering designs for heavier-than-air machines, books of flying legends, imaginative tales in both verse and prose of voyages to the moon and planets, books of scientific theory and quasi-scientific speculation, treatises on the flight of birds, and works of angelology that examine the human aspiration to flight from the point of view of religious belief.


Part One
1489 – 1750

Part Two
1751 – 1850

Part Three
1851 – 1892

Part Four
1891 – 1953


As with the printed books, the strength of the Gimbel collection's 324 manuscripts and typescripts lies in their diversity. Together with letters from many of the most significant figures in the history of aeronautics since the late eighteenth century, it includes material helping to reveal the scientific, social, and personal contexts in which aeronautical experiments were carried out.


Colonel Gimbel began to amass his aeronautical collection during World War II, a decade after author Lockwood Marsh had lamented that early aeronautical prints were becoming difficult to find. Yet Gimbel was able to assemble an unsurpassed private collection of images. At the end of his life Gimbel owned approximately 2,000 prints, which he organized into about 40 groups according to theme.


Part One
1779 – 1784

Part Two
1783 – 1802

Part Three
1797 – 1843

Part Four
1846 – 1902

Other Holdings

The Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical History Collection is especially rich in what is termed “other holdings”—so-called ephemera that reflect Colonel Gimbel's wide-ranging interest in things aeronautical. In addition, these items reveal the breadth of the popular arts—advertising, journalism, popular music, and popular reading material—with which aeronautics came into contact in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. 

Part One

Part Two


The Gimbel Collection has a fine selection of more than a dozen cylinder seals and two stamp seals from the civilizations of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria, engraved with images of both real and mythical flying creatures. Indeed, the first seal described in this section depicts an Anzu bird, the mythical eagle that flew to the heavens with a man on its back.


This selection depicts a small percentage of the numismatic issues in the Gimbel collection. The issues illustrated were selected to represent (1) the dream–the mythological legend of Daedalus and Icarus; (2) the concept–the genius of Leonardo da Vinci; and (3) the imagination–the scholarship of Jules Verne.

Chapter pdfs


The Gimbel Collection Library