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William Starling Burgess

  • Born: 1878 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  • Died: 1947 in Hoboken, New Jersey, USA


Jack of all trades

  • Naval architect and boat builder
    Among many things, he designed three America’s Cup winners and other revolutionary yacht designs.
  • Airplane designer
    From 1913, he built many airplanes in marblehead, where he was the largest employer during the First World War. Among these airplanes were those licensed by the Wright brothers.
    Furthermore, he designed and built the hydroplanes for the US Navy.
  • Automobile designer in the field of experimental vehicles
    In 1933, he developed the three-wheel fully aerodynamic-designed Dymaxion together with R. Buckminster Fuller.
  • Published Poet
    The Eternal Laughter and Other Poems
  • Some people even credited him with the development of the font Times New Roman.

A Dazzling Life


William Starling Burgess was born December 25th 1878 into a prominent and formerly wealthy New England family. The family soon lost their fortune and only an elusive glamour remained.
In the 1880s, his father Edward Burgess had designed the three America's Cup contenders "Puritan", "Mayflower" and "Volunteer".
Burgess inherited the analytical skills and joy of experimenting from his father. His father died when William Burgess was only 12 years old.


Even while at his Milton Academy, at the age of 18, he had already developed a new machine gun, which the US-Army showed interested in.
William Burgess studied at Harvard University, dropping out early at the age of 22, despite good performances. He then tried his hand at many different occupations, amongst them a poet. His collection of poems, however, did not find the approval of the public.
Shortly after dropping out of Harvard, his first yacht designs would gain victory.


In 1904, he officially established himself as a yacht designer and boat builder in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where he initially designed and built smaller boats.

In 1909, he became interested in aviation, designed and flew the first airplane in New England. Following this, both he and his yacht building partner Norman Prince passed their flying exam with the Wright brothers. He then spent several years building the Wright brother's airplanes for the US Army and Navy.

In 1911, together with two partners (Greely S. Curtis and Frank H. Russell), he founded the Burgess Co., for the construction of airplanes, hydro airplanes and „flying boats“. By October 1911, he had already fitted out a biplane with swim pontoons and was carrying out water take-offs and landings.
His radical and different designs were already beginning to attract attention.

Even then, William Starling Burgess was considered to be a visionary designer and an outstanding inventor of his time. Along with Wright brothers, he was considered one of the pioneers of american aviation. In 1913/1914, he became the third person, following the Wright brothers and Curtiss, to receive the Collier trophy, the highest award in US-Aviation.


American System

Characteristic for the USA, Burgess mass-produced his design of the Burgess-Dunne seaplane during the First World War: over 800 workers built eight airplanes a day.

Although the business grew rapidly, Burgess sold the factory in 1917. He spent the following years as a ranking lieutenant commander, designing airplanes for the United States Navy, and was often called upon as a consultant to the assistant Defense Secretary at that time, F.D. Roosevelt.

In 1920, Burgess devoted himself again to yacht design. Among many other things, he was commissioned to carry out rigging and sailing tests for the America’s Cup due to his experience in aerodynamics. As one of the first engineers of his time, he tested yacht models in towing tanks and the rigs in wind tunnels. Mathematical formulas were refined on the basis of these results.
In 1922, together with two partners (Frank C. Paine, the later designer of the America’s-Cup-Yacht “ Yankee”, and A. Loring Swasey), he set up the company Burgess, Swasey & Paine in Boston. Among his designers at that time was a certain L. Francis Herreshoff. Burgess seemed to be able to recognise and make the most of the skills of others.
Burgess was also the first American to engage in the design and building of 12-metre R-Yachts.

Cooperation with Bremen Shipyard A & R

In the mid 1920s, Henry Rasmussen met the designer Burgess and by 1926 Rasmussen had completed two small motor boats for Burgess. What followed was a close business relationship, which they developed successfully. Burgess designed the yachts, which A & R then built for the US customers. This represents an example of successful international cooperation across a distance of more than 4.000 miles - in the Twenties of the last century!

Design Companies

The company dissolved in 1926, and Burgess then formed the partnership Burgess & Morgan Ltd., yacht design, New York City.
In 1930, he designed the America’s Cup winner “Enterprise”, introducing yet again revolutionary innovations such as the duralumin mast. He followed this in 1934, with the design of the equally successful yacht “Rainbow”. In 1937, together with Olin Stephens, he designed his last America’s Cup challenger “Ranger”.

After having designed a streamline-shaped skyscraper in 1927, he joined forces again with R. Buckminster Fuller in 1933 to design the revolutionary aerodynamic three-wheel vehicle Dymaxion. For this, he carried out extensive wind channel tests.

From 1935, Burgess worked as a freelance yacht designer for the “Aluminium Company of America” where he applied aluminium as a building material. He designed the “Alumette”, a ship built entirely out of aluminium (including the propeller).
In 1937 he developed a fast destroyer made from aluminium for the US Navy. From 1942, Burgess was employed as a civil designer in the aviation department of the Navy, where he was concerned with the submarine defense. In 1946, Burgess came to the Steven’ Institute of Technology, where he researched in the area of damage limitation.

Complicated private life

Numerous affairs, five marriages, five children, high-profile divorces and endless scandals, the accidental death of one of his sons etc. - private details, which were often connected to his business life, led to numerous problems and many financial in nature. At one time he even had to declare bankruptcy due to his lack of business knowledge. The scandal surrounding his first divorce shook Boston so much that Burgess even felt forced to leave the country for a few months. Just how much these private worries affected him, is reflected in his alleged several suicides attempts. Altogether he led a spectacular life, not untypical for that time. He was a child of the times.
However, his life in the public eye prevented from having either a life of wealth or the approval of his peer him - despite his numerous inventions. His health also suffered over many years: among other things, he suffered from an undiagnosed ulcer that led to his often high consumption of morpheme.


His daughter Natascha once described him as “a bird of paradise in a family of English sparrows”.

A friend of his last wife once wrote about him: "With all his brilliance, he is a child, and that is part of his charm. He will not face hard facts, but will hide from them and will love the person who shields him from them."

His daughter Natascha wrote this about his death in 1947: "Papa had a recurring dream all his life of a beautiful, walled medieval city. He would approach it in his dream but he could never enter. The doors and gates were always locked. He would look at all the towers and balustrades and know that it was beautiful within. He longed to enter but never could."
"One morning as he was reading the newspaper, he looked up and said to Majorie, his last wife, 'Majorie, I had my dream again last night and I finally found the key to the city.' With that, he fell over dead. He must have entered that city at that exact moment. What a wonderful way to step forth into something new!"


The Art of Tasha Tudor, Harry Davis, Little Brown and Company (October 2000)

To the lines drawings of the 12-m R-Yacht 

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