George DeBeeson, my father, was born George DeJean Beeson, in Shickley, Nebraska on May 31, 1897. After his Navy days, George had a legal name change, joining the De to Beeson. He grew up on the Beeson farm in Geneva, Nebraska not far from his birthplace. He had a natural talent in artwork, but he and three brothers learned their father's trade of blacksmithing. George's natural abilities and varied experiences would take him far beyond what his grade 8 education would have. In fact, an oral exam given by an education official years later, indicated he acquired the equivalent of a university education. Not surprising, considering he helped his brother, Wes, build an airplane on the farm in 1914; trained for the Navy Air Corps in 1918 and flew for 20 years afterward (including stunt flying); had a sign business; worked in the aircraft industry; developed an automatic pilot; progressed with his artwork to become an animator for Walt DisneyStudios for several years then on to Walt Lanz and Univeral Studios; created and manufactured an extensive line of ceramics; painted volumes of landscapes and seascapes; built several violins as well as played them; was a jack of all trades and good at many. I remember growing up thinking, "My dad can make anything", and I think he could have.
In 1914, the brothers built an airplane on the farm made from "piano wire and canvas and bicycle tires" and entered it in the Geneva County fair and won a prize. That was the start of a keen interest in aviation that resulted in years of flying and culminated in developing a unique automatic pilot. Aviation history and technology was changing rapidly through the decades of the 20's and 30's. I remember stories of George rubbing shoulders with some of the "greats" of those times like Frank Hawkes, Jimmy Doolittle, Francisco de Pinedo, Wiley Post, and the like. Those must have been exciting times! George worked for some of the "big name" aircraft manufacturing companies of the time, always trying to figure out how to perfect the automatic pilot.
He finally succeeded in 1929 and by 1931 had patented a robot that would outperform anything of the day, according to various reports (see clippings, and what others say). Several outfits offered to finance and manufacture the robot, but complications started cropping up that seemed to stop George from reaping the benefit of his invention. I had always heard that he lost it once through divorce and then through a company he worked for. As I read through some of the documentation, I discovered that he was in litigation with a company that entered into an agreement with him, but he claimed tried to swindle him out of his interests. That was the Kormann Aero-Safety Appliance, Inc., a Nevada corporation operating in Glendale, California. It's not clear what happened, but he certainly did not become the wealthy individual he hoped to be. Things were happening fast in the flying world, and of course the automatic pilot became an important part of the history of aircraft. Whether George's invention was incorporated into the popular mechanism of the day or not is uncertain. Some family members claim that Sperry or Continental Motors got the rights to it. General Electric wanted to test it further. The impact of his invention may never be known. One thing is sure, the expression of calling the auto-pilot "George", may have more meaning than meets the eye!
As an aside, I'm including an interview of Roland Reiss done by Paul Karlstrom for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution in which my father is described as a "Renaissance man misplaced". Certainly Mr. Reiss is not correct to assert George DeBeeson invented the first automatic pilot, but his description of my father's background and influence on Mr. Reiss is very interesting. Here is the excerpt concerning George:
"The other person I want to mention who was very,
very important to me was a man who lived in south Pomona named
George DeBeeson. He was an incredible man! He worked for Disney
and left over a dispute about one of his inventions. He painted
California landscape school oil paintings and he was kind of a
Renaissance man misplaced. He had invented the first automatic
pilot for the airplane. He showed me photographs of him with
Marconi. He had flown "Jennys" [Curtis JN-4D] and all that sort
of thing. He had a ceramics factory in south Pomona where he
made black panthers and tigers. I have to show you this one of
little girls with lambs which in those days were sold at
Bullocks. They were never painted. They were glazed white. The
tigers and panthers were glazed in color. I painted some of them
for him. I would just come in and work on things now and then.
Before meeting George, I signed up for an art class at the
Recreation Department and a graduate student from Claremont was
supposed to teach this class. He came down twice and then we
were told he wasn't going to come any more, but we'll get an
instructor for you. So the next week there was this old man
named George DeBeeson standing there. He immediately adopted me
as his art apprentice. It was an incredible experience because
behind his large concrete block factory he lived in a tarpaper
shack. He was probably sixty-five years old and his wife was
twenty-four. She was a church organist and he built this giant
organ for her to rehearse in the home. His son-in-law was Korla
Pandit, who was the great figure on television in the early
days, who played the organ and all the women would sigh over his
playing. Korla would come out on weekends and they would have
dinners and I would always be there.