Sir George Cayley

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Sir George Cayley


English Inventor and Aviator

Sir George Cayley was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1773. He led a privileged childhood at his parent's estate, Brompton Hall, and was primed to take over the baronetcy. As a child, Cayley's greatest fascination was with the scientific world. He kept notebooks full of sketches he made of plants and animals, was an avid study in mathematics and navigation, and loved to tinker with all sorts of gadgets. His great passion was flight, however, and he dreamed of one day taking man into the air to soar like the birds.

In the 1780s, the world had a new fascination with flight, thanks to the work of balloonist brothers Jacques-Etienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1745-1799 and 1740-1810, respectively). But Cayley wasn't interested in this type of ascent. He wanted to fly with the help of mechanics, and was convinced that it was only a matter of time before he would create a real flying machine.

His first device was modeled after a toy helicopter invented by Frenchmen Launoy and Bienvenu in 1784. His version had feathers for propellers and used an airscrew to achieve mechanical flight. Cayley carefully studied the flight of birds, for clues on how to apply the same dynamics to his machine. He discovered that birds twisted their wings to help them fly long distances, and envisioned that the same effect could be created in a fixed-wing, flying machine with the use of cambered wings.

In 1799 he sketched out his idea on a silver disc. On one side, he illustrated the aerodynamic force on a wing, on the other, the design for his fixed-wing airplane. Five years later, he had built the world's first workable model glider, which consisted of a paper kite used as a wing, with an adjustable tail mounted on the end that could be used for horizontal and vertical control. In 1809, he built a full-sized version which could fly unmanned.

Cayley's next hurdle was to find a way to power his flying machine. In this, he was constrained by the technology of his day. Steam engines were too heavy for flight, so he invented his own hot-air engine, using a gunpowder motor. In 1809-10, he published his theories on aviation in the article "On Aerial Navigation." His article was not well received in the scientific or general communities, but Cayley was not ready to give up.

He was willing to put his dream on hold, however, and spent the next three decades pursuing other occupations. In 1832, Cayley became involved in public affairs and was the parliamentary representative of Scarborough. He cofounded the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831 and of the Regent Street Polytechnic Institution in 1838.

In 1843, when he was 70 years old, Cayley finally returned to his true love, and his drawings of a helicopter-like machine were published in Mechanics' Magazine. His design had four circular lifting rotors, which could be adjusted to form wings, as well as two pusher propellers.

In 1849, Cayley built his first full-sized glider. The only problem was, it could only fit a small boy. That boy (whose name has not been recorded) became Cayley's test pilot, and the first person in history to fly—if only briefly. In 1853 he built a new and improved glider, and convinced his reluctant coachman to make the first flight. The machine and coachman soared 900 feet (274 m) across a Brompton dale before crashing.

At the time of his death in 1857, Cayley had never received public recognition for his work, but today, he is credited as a pioneer in the field of aeronautics. His work paved the way for Orville and Wilbur Wright's (1871-1948 and 1867-1912, respectively) famous flight at Kitty Hawk, and for later advances in aviation.


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Sir George Cayley

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