We've all seen in movies some grand gesture or profession of love spelled out in the sky. But the history of skywriting is a lot less romantic. In fact, it comes from a very practical need.
The First Skywriters
Skywriting was first developed by the British Royal Air Force. Pilots discovered that by blowing smoke out of their exhaust, they could create messages and designs in the sky. This became an effective way to send messages to troops in another field or act as a smoke screen.
Skywriting As Advertisement
Skywriting made its way to the public in 1922 when RAF pilots Cyril Turner and John Savage used the method to break into advertising and gain the attention of George Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company.
While Savage escorted Hill on the ground, Turner displayed their memo in the air. The iconic message read, "VANDERBILT 7200," which was Hill's hotel phone number.
The duo's ploy worked. Over the next three hours, it took eight switchboard operators to field the incoming 47,000 calls that came in.
Allan j. Cameron and Leroy Van Patten soon created the Skywriting Corporation of America, patenting the writing gas, which was actually just light paraffin oil that was fed through the exhaust. The company controlled the market for years until TV took over as the king of advertising.
Although it's often considered a lost art, it is still possible to hire a skywriter today. In fact, Yoko Ono brought new wind to the art when she sent a birthday message to husband John Lennon and son Sean in 1989. She had the phrase "Happy Birthday John & Sean – Love Yoko" paraded across the sky nine times.
- Major Jack Savage was a former British Royal Air Force pilot and a prolific writer for Flight magazine. He owned a successful skywriting fleet of Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 aircraft operating in England.
- Did you know that the skywriting corporation purchased a fleet of surplus World War II planes and proceeded to design a new skywriting process called "dot matrix skywriting," also known as sky typing?
- One of the first mega companies to use skywriting was Pepsi-Cola which used the services from Skywriting Corporation of America to reach a mass market. The company contracted a whopping 2,225 flights in 1940.