Pioneer aviator James J. Slavin.

Slavin biplane

A few weeks ago I received an email from aviation historian Andreas Jensch of Austria, seeking information on James Joseph Slavin. Andreas related that James Slavin was both an inventor and aviation pioneer; he held a patent in the United States and United Kingdom for a “stability device for aeroplanes,” and won a competition with a personally constructed biplane in an aviation contest in Los Angeles in October 1910. Andreas was hoping that we could find more information on this early flier.

Between Google and Ancestry.com, we were able to fill in some details in the life of James J. Slavin.

James’s patents were a key to identifying him in U.S. census returns. His patent dealing with stability for a heavier-than-air airship is easily found in Google– when you look it up  airship be sure to click the link to view the .pdf of the patent, instead of trying to decipher the OCR text on the search results page. James was living in Los Anglese at the time of the patent filing in 1908, which fits nicely with his involvement in flying contests in 1910. The device was also patented in France and Great Britain, and the drawings with the French patent  are quite interesting.

But Slavin had an earlier patent for a speed indicator. This patent was filed in October 1902, and James was living in Cleveland, Ohio.

The 1900 Ohio census shows a James J. Slavin, 24, living with his parents and siblings in Cleveland. James is a “commercial traveler” for a publishing house– in other words, a traveling salesman. His parents were John Slavin, a tailor, born in Ireland in 1845, and Clara, born in Pennsylvania in 1852. His sisters were also in the garment trade; Mamie, born in 1877, and Clara, born 1879, are both listed as milliners. James’s brother Harry was just 7 years old and a student. The household was likely quite lively, as James’s mother is listed as a rooming house keeper, and there are seven boarders living in their home.

Since we were fortunate to place James in Cleveland with his parents in the 1900 census, we’re able to follow the family forwards and backwards in the census pretty easily.

James makes his first appearance in the 1880 census for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Father John is a tailor, and his mother Clarene (Clara in the other censuses) is listed as “keeping groceries.” I assume this means that the family sold groceries out of their home. James is 5 and at school, while sisters Mary, 3, and Clara, 1, are at home. Also living with the family is Clarene’s mother, Sarah Williams, 58.

Of course the 1890 census isn’t available, so we’ll jump forward to 1910. James’s father has presumably passed away between the 1900 and 1910 censuses, as Clara, 58, is the head of the household. James, 33, is an insurance salesman, brother Harry, 17, a draftsman, and sister Clara, 20, a saleswoman. The family is now living in Los Angeles, California.

By 1920 James has married. He is still in L.A., a stocks and bonds salesman, and married to Ruth, 42, and Indiana native. There’s no change in the household in the 1930 census, save James and Ruth getting older. In the 1940 census, James is alone– a widower– and presumably retired (or at least not working, as no occupation is listed). He is still in L.A.

Interestingly, according to the 1940 census, James’s accomplishments– inventory, pioneer aviator, investments salesman– are a little more remarkable in that he had only a sixth grade education!

You can find transcriptions of these census records in the PennsylvaniaOhio,  and California miscellaneous census records on this website.

Since James married late and no children are listed in the 1920 through 1940 censuses, we can presume he and Ruth never had children. According to the California Death Index, he died 16 April 1950 in Los Angeles.1

James is mentioned in several newspaper articles and other publications regarding his aviation career. Transcriptions are available at slavens.net

Nominated for Aero Club

Aviation Meet

Second Aeroplane Meet

Slavin Crashes

While it looks nothing like the biplane in the “Aircraft” magazine photo that’s at the top of this blog, an online album of photos from the San Diego Air and Space Museum has a photo of “Slavin’s plane.”

Slavin plane
Andreas is skeptical of the identification. “Till now I haven’t found a characterization that fits to this machine, as it is not really a biplane. And it does not show any similarities to the first Slavin biplane, in respect of the control mechanism. If it isn’t captioned wrong, it might be a later built variant, possibly to test the stability system with oblique planes or rudders. (You must excuse me, just I am usually sceptic with hand-written captions of photographs from an ‘out of order’ collection. There are too many errors copied and repeated in this matter.) Andreas, as genealogists, we know all about captions in photo albums that appear to be incorrect.  ;-)

Andreas and I would love to hear from family members who can shed any light on James J. Slavin, his life, his inventions, and his aviation hobby. While it appears that James and Ruth didn’t have any children, it’s likely that his brother Harry or sisters Mary and Clara may have. Anyone have memories of a grandparent speaking of their Uncle Jim and his biplane?


1State of California. California Death Index, 1940-1997. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics.

Copyright © 2015 Larry Slavens. All rights reserved.