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Matthew B. Sellers II (1869-1932)

Matthew Sellers Matthew Bacon Sellers II was born in Baltimore in 1869, the first son of two native Kentuckians. Beginning in about 1889 and continuing until about the time of the first World War, he conducted basic aeronautical research, progressing from balloons and small flying models and kites to wind-tunnel testing of airfoils, then on to designing, building, and flying a variety of weight-shift-controlled hang gliders. Although he corresponded with other notable aviation pioneers of the time, such as Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute, Sellers worked independently, contributing a number of papers that were published in Scientific American and other technical journals of the period. He received several patents for his kite and aircraft designs.

In the 1880s, Sellers’ mother repurchased about 200 acres of land that had previously been owned by her family near Grahn, KY. Sellers built a second home there in 1889, naming it Blakemore. He spent a portion of each year there until 1911, dividing his aeronautical research efforts between Blakemore and a third home he had built in Warren County, GA.

In late 1908, Sellers added a 7 hp. engine, landing gear, and flight controls to his quadruplane No. 6 glider, producing a powered aircraft capable of making 180-degree turns that would eventually make a number of flights in excess of a quarter of a mile. It was the world’s first functioning aircraft to feature retractable landing gear. His initial short hops in this aircraft, at Blakemore on December 28, 1908, were the first powered airplane flights to be made in Kentucky.

But then in October 1911, tragedy struck Blakemore when one of Sellers’ employees was struck in the head by a propeller and killed. Filled with remorse, Sellers left Kentucky four days later. He would return only once, for a brief visit in 1931. After being seriously injured in a crash himself while demonstrating his aircraft in New York in 1914, Sellers ceased flying and gradually turned his attention to other endeavors.

However, by this time he had become a recognized expert in aeronautics, and starting in 1915 he served under Thomas Edison on the Naval Consulting Board. He married in 1918 at age 49, fathering two sons.

Sellers built his last aircraft at his home in New York in 1926, but it burned the following year due to a faulty carburetor before it could be flight-tested. While recovering from pneumonia in early 1932, Sellers suffered a fatal heart attack at age 63.

With the passage of time, Sellers’ accomplishments were all but forgotten. But in 1967, aviation historian Edward Peck learned of some of Sellers’ achievements and began collecting relevant artifacts, documents, photos, and oral histories. With the permission of the inventor’s two sons, Peck also worked with a group of Carter County citizens to preserve Blakemore. Thanks to their efforts, it was added to the National Parks Service’s National Register of Historic Places in October 1974. Restoration efforts were under way when the house burned only one month after being listed. But the adjacent workshop where Sellers had built his wind tunnel in 1903 was undamaged by the fire, so Peck then directed his efforts toward the preservation of that building.

Contacts with the Kentucky Parks Department and several aviation museums generated interest, but no firm commitments. Through the Smithsonian Institution, Peck was eventually directed to the New England Air Museum (NEAM) in Windsor Locks, CT. In the summer of 1976, a NEAM crew carefully dismantled the workshop and moved it, along with a number of smaller artifacts, to Connecticut for eventual display. Their plans called for reassembling the entire building inside the museum, and Peck worked with the museum’s curator to design the exhibit.

The disassembled workshop was still in storage, inside a cargo aircraft on outdoor static display, when the museum was heavily damaged by a tornado in 1979. The cargo aircraft was torn apart, and much of the dismantled Sellers workshop was literally scattered to the winds. With all of NEAM’s efforts necessarily directed to recovering from the damage done by the tornado, plans for the Sellers exhibit languished. The surviving material was transferred to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in the early 1990s.

In the course of approximately 20 years of research on Matthew Sellers, Edward Peck meticulously assembled a large collection of photos, documents, and correspondence, intending to write a definitive biography. While the copies of the individual photos and documents Peck collected are probably not unique, this material is quite likely the largest collection of material on Sellers in any one place. When Peck died in 1998—the biography, unfortunately, still unwritten—the collection passed to his long-time friend and fellow aviation historian Charles W. Arrington of Louisville, who has since donated it to the AMK.

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