An eye for an i #462 Children

Writing in the skies

Skywriting over the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture 2008 Fly-In in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the U.S. The EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is an annual air show and gathering of aviation enthusiasts.   | Photo Credit: FutureUApilot Wikimedia Commons

Just after noon on November 28, 1922, people on the streets of Manhattan, and even some workers inside their offices, skewed their heads towards the skies to catch a glimpse of what was unfolding in front of their eyes. For there in the blue autumn sky appeared four letters made of smoke: H-e-l-l.

The Savage-Turner show

Before anyone decided to hit the panic button, the city and its people seeing this strange apparition gave out a collective gasp as a fifth letter ‘o’ appeared to complete the word, “Hello”. As the seconds ticked into minutes, the entire message “Hello USA Call Vanderbilt 7200” was out there in the skies, high above Times Square.

This is the first recorded usage of skywriting as a medium for advertising in the U.S. While Captain C. Cyril Turner was manoeuvring his aircraft to produce the writing, another Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot Major J. C. Savage, who had patented the avionic smoke-generating mechanism the previous year, escorted George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, on the ground.

The phones keep ringing

Turns out, the first skywriting advertisement in the U.S. was a meta-advertisement of sorts. For it was an ad for an advertising mechanism, as Savage and Turner were trying to convince Hill of the medium’s potential.

“Vanderbilt 7200” was the phone number of the hotel at which Hill was staying. The operators at the hotel scrambled to manage the mad rush of calls as the switchboard kept lighting up non-stop in the hours that followed. The 47,000 calls that the hotel received in a span of a few hours not only convinced Hill, but also worked as proof of concept for skywriting as an advertising mechanism.

Earlier the same year, Savage and Turner had worked their magic across the Atlantic in England. While the first attempt, when they had written “Castrol” (the engine lubricant used in the airplane), didn’t receive a lot of attention, the second one was a massive hit. On May 31, Turner had formed the words “Daily Mail”, the name of a British newspaper, over Epsom Downs during the Derby Stakes (a flat horse race in England) and the newspaper ensured that the feat was immortalised.

In the decades that followed, skywriting turned out to be a popular advertising method. In the late 1930s to mid 1940s, the Pepsi-Cola Corporation became one of the longest running contractors of skywriting. They used a fleet of over 10 aircraft to advertise their products in numerous States of the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Cuba using thousands of skywritings.

Timing is everything

The traditional method of skywriting has been more or less the same as what Savage and Turner promoted. The core mechanism involves an apparatus that permits the pilot to release a stream of fluid (different materials are used and some are even treated as trade secrets) onto the aircraft’s exhaust pipes. This is usually done by the pilot using a switch or a lever and the vaporised liquid pour out of the exhaust outlets as thick trailing smoke.

Apart from timing and judging the moment when this switch needs to be turned on perfectly, the pilot is also responsible for ensuring that the billowed smoke results in readable text. Even though there is no official training body and it remains something that is just learnt, it is like an artform that has to be mastered to get the writing right out there in the skies.

What is skytyping?

Digital skywriting, or skytyping, has been around since the 1940s. Even though there are similarities with skywriting, skytyping involves at least five airplanes and hardly any aerial acrobatics, if you count out formation flying. The crafts emit automated dots based on a programme that tracks the location of each of these planes and these dots blend together to appear as letters from a distance. The advent of televisions and other advertising mediums, however, resulted in the decline of skywriting in the second half of the 20th Century.

In the current age of social media, where photos are snapped, shared, and made to trend instantly, skywriting is making a comeback again with the exposure it offers. This is because people still find it a novel way to advertise, celebrate, or even protest, while some go so far as to employ it to send out significant personal messages (think birthday wishes or marriage proposals). The idea might well be over a hundred years old, but the fascination of seeing some writing in the skies continues to enthral one and all.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 10:16:15 PM |

Next Story