Family Aviators – Separated by 160 Years

Sometimes history surprises us. It’s even said that history repeats itself. Events of the past can become events of the present. The concept of history repeating itself is also known as historic recurrence. 

“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”

-Kurt Vonnegut Jr., American Author and Essayist

Here’s one of those stories of historical surprise.

In November 2022, six months after the release of my book Fortitude, I was participating in an Indie Author event at the local public library in Fairfax County, Virginia. My wife Nancy was walking from table to table meeting the other local authors, when a name on a book poster caught her eye. That name was R.J. Spalding. R.J. Spalding was an early aviation pioneer in the 1880s whose story was captured by author Mary Buckingham Lipsey. 

Ok, so what’s the Spaulding connection? What’s the historical surprise?

My son, likewise named R.J. Spaulding, is also an aviation enthusiast. He has been fascinated with flying since his childhood. In this month’s post, let’s compare the stories of these two R. J. Spauldings; aviators born 160 years apart. 

Reuben Jasper Spalding

Reuben Jasper “R.J.” Spalding was born February 26, 1827 in Old Fort Snelling, Minnesota. In 1846, at age 19, R.J. enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Mexican-America War. Private Spalding was assigned to Company F, First Missouri Mounted Cavalry. He later drew a pension from the government for his military service. R.J. must have been a man of adventure, as after the war ended, he traveled west having fair success during the California Gold Rush in 1849. By 1860, R.J. settled in the Rocky Mountains region of Colorado – first in a town named Swallows, then in Rosita.1

Here’s a fascinating quote from Reuben Jasper Spalding in a letter written to Charles Warren Spalding, author of The Spalding Memorial, as he shared his family history for the book.

“My grandfather [Job Spalding, Jr. (1737-1806)] was a cooper2 by trade, and lived in Concord, Mass. He had sons by the name of Job, Ebenezer, Stephen (my father) and Reuben, who was drowned when a boy; also a daughter Abigail. Himself and his two older sons, Ebenezer and Job were soldiers in the Revolutionary War, and served under Washington.3 My father [Stephen Ephraim Spalding (1774-1853)], then a child, was held up in his soldier-brother’s arms, to see Major Andre executed.”4

-Reuben Jasper Spalding (~1892)

By the late 1870s, R.J. became interesting in flying. He dreamed of the independent flight of man and so he began his engineering quest to create a Flying Machine. 

R.J. Spalding’s invention, dubbed the “Birdman Suit” by some, was worn like a winged suit, allowing the pilot to move the wings and tail with the arms and legs. The overhead balloon was added to the design in an attempt to make the aircraft and pilot lighter. The engineering impasse to success was ultimately weight, so sadly R.J. Spalding never achieved flight. 

R.J. Spalding’s patent application, filed in 1888, begins with the following:

“Be it known that I, Reuben Jasper Spalding, of Rosita, in the country of Custer and State of Colorado, have invited a new and improved Flying-Machine, of which the following is full, clear, and exact description. My invention relates to a machine for navigating the air, and has for its object to provide a simple, comparatively inexpensive, easily-operative, and efficient apparatus of this character.”5

-R.J. Spalding, Inventor (1888)

On March 5, 1889, R.J. Spalding was granted patent number 398,984 for his Flying Machine. His sophisticated mechanics were well-designed creating a captivating image of a “birdman”. You can view the engineering drawings and read the specifications for R.J. Spalding’s Flying Machine HERE

Author Mary Lipsey wrote about the early development of aviation in her book Aviation: From Curiosity To Reality. The back cover of her book shows the drawing of R.J. Spalding’s flying machine. You can learn more about Mary’s book HERE.

R.J. Spalding died on April 19, 1902 in Pueblo County, Colorado at age 75. Sadly, R.J. did not live to witness that first sustained flight of mankind by the Wright brothers occurring the following year on December 17, 1903. 

Ryan Joseph Spaulding

Here’s the story of a modern “R.J.” Spaulding who also had a fascination with flying. This is the story of my son, Ryan Joseph Spaulding, who was born in the very same month as Reuben Jasper Spalding, but 160 later. 

I must say that adage, “born to fly”, is so true. From the time Ryan was a child, he had a fascination with aviation. He would sit outside for hours at our home in Clifton, Virginia, watching commercial aircraft fly over on their final approach to Washington Dulles International Airport. Ryan quickly began to identify the make and model of those aircraft. My wife and I bought Ryan a radio monitor so he could listen to the pilots talking with Air Traffic Control (ATC) which he spent countless doing.

At age 14, Ryan began flight training at the Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia. Born to fly? I’d say so, as Ryan was flying Cessna aircraft before obtaining his automobile driver’s license! 

Ryan studied aeronautics at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. While in college, he obtained his private pilot, instrument, twin-engine, and commercial pilot certifications. Later, Ryan graduated from the Sheffield School of Aeronautics and today works at American Airlines.

The Spaulding Lineage Connection

Both Reuben Jasper Spalding and Ryan Joseph Spaulding descend from Edward Spalding (1601-1669), progenitor, and first to bring the Spalding name to the American colonies in the 1600s. Reuben and Ryan also descend from Edward’s son Andrew Spaulding (1652-1713). Andrew was the third great-grandfather of Reuben and the eighth great-grandfather of Ryan.

The innovation gene must run in the Spaulding family. My third great-grandfather Addison Spaulding patented an artificial leg in 1855 following a horrific farming accident in 1848 resulting in the amputation of his leg. Read Addison’s compelling story HERE

The Collaboration 

Indeed, history surprises us and sometimes repeats itself. And history did just that with two aviation enthusiasts named R. J. Spaulding. Although separated in time by 160 years, both of these Spaulding men had a fascination for flight. 

I’ll wager that with Reuben’s determination to fly in 1889 and Ryan’s modern aeronautics education and experience, that together they could have collaborated to implement the engineering modifications needed to get that “Birdman Suit” to fly!

“A favorite theory of mine is that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often.”

-Mark Twain, American Writer, Humorist and Lecturer 


  1. Spalding, Charles, W. The Spalding Memorial: A Genealogical History of Edward Spalding of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay and His Descendants. (Illinois: American Publishers Association, 1897), 557.
  2. Cooper: In Colonial America times, the cooper was a woodworker who made barrels, buckets, tubs, troughs and other containers from timber staves that were heated to make them pliable. Coopers also made wooden tools such as rakes and wood-bladed shovels.
  3. Spalding, C. The Spalding Memorial, 176.
  4. Major John Andre was head of the British Secret Service in America during the Revolutionary War. He was convicted as a spy by the Continental Army for assisting Benedict Arnold’s attempted surrender of the fort at West Point, New York. Major Andre was hanged on October 2, 1780 in Tappan, New York.
  5. Patent for R. J. Spalding’s Flying Machine; 3/5/1889; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241 is in the public domain and was accessed from on December 26, 2022. 

Published by Dale Spaulding

Family historian and author of Fortitude.

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