The 15th-century figures who inspired the phrase Renaissance man set a high bar for versatility. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, physicist, inventor, philosopher, astronomer, and naturalist. His contemporary Leon Battista Alberti was an architect, artist, poet, and cryptographer who could reportedly jump over the head of a man standing next to him.
There are few 20th-century examples of such multifaceted genius. But one modern-day New Yorker comes close. Augustus Post was a pioneering automobile driver and airplane pilot, a balloonist, and an accomplished outdoorsman, author, actor, lecturer, and musician. And in case you're wondering why you're reading about him here, Post also helped found AAA.
Yet he is almost completely unknown today.
Augustus Post was born in Brooklyn in 1873. Raised in affluence, he was noted in high school for his singing and banjo skills. He attended Amherst College, where he competed as a speed walker. Then, after attending Harvard Law School, he discovered his life's obsession with transportation.
Post bought his first car at a motorcycle rally in 1898. Two years later, he commissioned a steampowered car from auto manufacturer Thomas White. In 1903, after he and a friend drove that White Steamer from Pittsburgh to New York, Post made the visionary suggestion that, if the old pike road in Pennsylvania were resurfaced, it could become "the first link in the transcontinental boulevard." The Good Roads movement that Post ardently supported culminated in 1913 with the opening of the Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco. One section of it indeed went through Pittsburgh.
In 1904, Post helped launch an auto race from New York to St. Louis, Missouri, which became an annual event known as the Glidden Tours. Along the route of the race, thousands of small-town Americans turned out to watch—and, in many cases, get their first glimpse of this new technology.
Post was the first person to drive a car in New York City, established the city's first parking garage, and received its first speeding ticket. (He was going five miles per hour in Central Park.)
As cars became more common, auto clubs began to spring up across the country, campaigning for better roads. Post helped promote the formation of such clubs, and ended up taking on leadership positions within the nascent American Automobile Association in its first years of existence.
In an age when ballooning was wildly popular, Post was also one of the great aeronauts. He gained fame for his exploits in the Gordon Bennett Cup, a balloon race that's still going strong, which rewards the balloonist who flies farthest from a starting point. Post competed for the cup five times, surviving a hair-raising crash in 1908 when his balloon dropped 3,000 feet and plunged through the roof of a house in a Berlin suburb.