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Archives at The Museum of Flight

John Sylvester Wheelwright Collection

Identifier: 2012-10-30
The John Sylvester Wheelwright Collection is comprised of visual materials related to Wheelright's World War I career. Four watercolor paintings depict airships and officers. The large scrapbook album contains black and white photographs of numerous models of airships and their various components, officers and crews, naval ships and a few airplanes, and aerial views of British coastline and towns. The collection also includes one photographic portrait of a British officer.


  • circa 1907-1943
  • Majority of material found within 1914-1918


Language of Materials

All materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research and is accessible in the Dahlberg Research Center by appointment. For more information contact us.

Conditions Governing Use

The Museum of Flight (TMOF) Archives is the owner of the physical materials in the archives and makes available reproductions for research, publication, and other uses. Written permission must be obtained from TMOF archives before any publication use. TMOF does not necessarily hold copyright to all of the materials in the collections. In some cases, permission for use may require seeking additional authorization from copyright owners. Consult repository for more details.


1.11 Cubic Feet (1 oversize flat box)


The collection consists of materials related to the World War I career of John "Jack" Sylvester Wheelwright (1885-1962), who was a textile designer, engineer and naval commander and served on airships in the Royal Naval Air Service.

Biographical Note: John Sylvester Wheelwright

John "Jack" Sylvester Wheelwright was born on July 25, 1885 to Annie and John Joseph Hanley Wheelwright in Edgware, Middlesex, England. He and his older brother Rowland attended Herkomer Art School in Bushey (John beginning in 1901), and in 1904 John began an apprenticeship at the London design studio Silver Studios. During his lifetime Wheelwright made such notable achievements as being the youngest chief designer at London's Sanderson Fabrics and holding the first patent for an automatic screen printer. At the same time, Wheelwright volunteered for service in both world wars and was an accomplished engineer and captain. He brought his design expertise to these roles, making recommendations in the development and redesign of Royal Naval Air Service airships.

Wheelwright enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1915. He was shortly thereafter offered a commission in the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) as a probationary pilot. He flew in Sea Scout class airships SS-3, SS-19, and SS-7 in the Dardanelles in the summer of 1915 before being sent to training at Wormwood Scrubs in November. He left training in February 1916 for a post at Pulham Airship Station, and was briefly transferred to Kingsnorth Airship Station where he test flew the Coastal class C-17 airship before being ordered back to Pulham as commander of that same vessel. He was again stationed at Kingsnorth for a short time in March 1917 until his promotion to flight commander when he was given command of the new North Sea class airship NS-3 and stationed at East Fortune. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on August 31, 1917.

Wheelwright remained for some time at East Fortune, where he performed tests with and designed significant improvements for the NS-3. He was promoted to flight captain in April 1918 and the NS-3 was officially commissioned for service at this time. Wheelwright commanded the airship on escort missions for naval ships and set several records for speed, altitude, and time aloft. On the night of June 21, 1918, the NS-3 crashed off the coast of Dunbar. Wheelwright swam to shore and returned with local coast guard to rescue the crew, but lost five men. After the loss of his airship, he was posted to the Kingsnorth Airship Construction Station's Technical Group in July and temporarily promoted to Acting Major. In October 1918, Wheelwright was assigned as the test commander for the new NS-13.

During his service in World War I, Wheelwright designed innovations to assist with airship flight including a drift calculator, a trail rope release gear, a reconfiguration of the NS-3 engine, a drogue pump, a spotlight altitude system, a gas purity gauge, and the Plane Trigonometry Calculator. Following the armistice, Wheelwright worked on improvements to Albert Caquot's kite balloon design, which became the Internal Expansion Barrage Balloon. He was released from service on January 29, 1920.

In the interwar period, Wheelwright continued his work as a designer in the textile industry. In the late 1930s, development began on barrage balloons based on Wheelwright's designs and eventually he was brought in as a liaison. After declaration of war with Germany in September 1939, Wheelwright again volunteered for service and became commander of the barrage balloon 901 Squadron. On May 30, 1940, Wheelwright's son Irvine, a pilot with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, went missing and was assumed dead. Development of Wheelwright's barrage balloon experienced numerous setbacks, and although he was permitted to build and test a prototype in 1941, the designs were never utilized by the British military. Wheelwright was released from service on July 24, 1942, the day before his 57th birthday, as a compulsory retirement.

As a civilian, however, Wheelwright found greater freedom to pursue his designs and inventions. In late 1942, he opened John Wheelwright & Co. Ltd. in a warehouse in Tonbridge. Here he developed an air sea rescue kite, several versions of rescue dinghies, and a landing bridge. The latter was possibly intended for use in the beach landings of D-Day, but other designs were used instead.

After the war, Wheelwright continued to work on printing technologies, textiles, and wallpapers. He died on May 22, 1962.


Steve J. Plummer, A Man of Invention. 2010.

Steve J. Plummer, The Wheelwright Family Story. 2010.

Ces Mowthorpe, Battlebags: British Airships of the First World War : an Illustrated History. 1995.


No further accruals are expected.

Existence and Location of Copies

Materials from this collection have been digitized and are available at The Museum of Flight Digital Collections.

Separated Materials

The following objects have been separated from the archival component of this collection and are kept in Objects storage:
  • Control Car model for Airship N.S.3

  • Airspeed Economic Indicator tool
Guide to the John Sylvester Wheelwright Collection
Completed - Level 4
A. Demeter
Description rules
Language of description
Processing, cataloging and digitization of this collection was made possible by a Council on Libraries and Information Resources (CLIR) "Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives" grant.
Edition statement
1st Edition

Revision Statements

  • November 2018: Finding aid migrated to ArchivesSpace.

Repository Details

Part of the The Museum of Flight Archives Repository

9404 East Marginal Way South
Seattle Washington 98108-4097

The Museum of Flight | 9404 E. Marginal Way South | Seattle WA 98108-4097 | 206-764-5874
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