What Were They Thinking?

The wonderful, unworkable world of airplane design in the years before the Wright brothers.

Alexander Graham Bell was infatuated with the tetrahedral, or four-sided, cell, but only one of his tetrahedral kites flew. (NASM)
Air & Space Magazine

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Flexible Flier

In 1894, Sir Hiram Maxim, an American inventor living in Britain who gave us the machine gun, a telegraph, several systems of lighting, and more than 260 other inventions, put the finishing touches on an aerial brainstorm, which he called the “kite of war.” It was a huge biplane: some 4,000 square feet of wing surface area and weighing an astounding 8,000 pounds. Maxim gave it two engines, one on the right side and the other on the left, because he had a theory about flight control. He believed he could steer his machine to the right or the left “by running one of the propellers faster than the other.” The difference in power was supposed to yaw the craft.

On July 31, Maxim prepared to test his great kite. He had constructed a track with an iron rail on which the machine’s four wheels would sit. The vehicle was to take off down the track like a winged sled; as it gained speed, its crew would attempt to raise it off the rail by use of its “fore and aft horizontal rudders.” The track also had  a wood guardrail that was to keep the craft from climbing too high.

With three crewmen onboard, the machine lurched upward. And then it kept going, until it had it snapped right through the upper guardrail. Maxim cut power and the kite settled down, one of its propellers cracked from hitting the wood railing. The flight had ended before Maxim had been able to test his theory about steering.

“Maxim spent 30,000 pounds, and his contribution to aviation was virtually nil,” says Peter Almond, who nonetheless decided to include Maxim’s machine in the Hulton Getty book: “I took a slightly generous view of him because of the sheer chronology,” he explains. “He did this in 1894, before anyone else had done any of it.”

A Strange Duck

Alberto Santos-Dumont, son of a wealthy Brazilian, used his money to experiment with flying machines. Following the lead of Gabriel Voisin, who in July 1905 managed to get himself towed aloft in a glider dragged behind a racing boat, Santos-Dumont envisioned on of his dirigibles, No. 14, dragging an airplane, 14 bis (“bis” being French for “II,” or “the second”], into the air. He had mechanics build a light frame of pine and bamboo, with wings that swept upward—behind the operator, who stood in the cockpit facing the boxy elevator. An Antoinette engine turned the four-blade aluminum pusher propeller behind the pilot.

Though Santos-Dumont thought the craft resembled a bird of prey, most  observers thought the elevator looked like a duck’s head sticking out in flight, and called the machine canard, French for “duck.”

In September 1906, Santos-Dumont, now using an engine powerful enough to obviate the need for a dirigible launch, managed to hop 23 to 43 feet (different observers gave different estimates). The following month, before a crowd that included members of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, formed the year before to keep aviation records, Santos-Dumont stood at the controls, advanced the throttle, and lifted off, flying 197 feet before touching ground again. It was the first official, public flight of an airplane in Europe.

The Wrights acted unimpressed. “If he had gone more than 300 ft. he has really done something; less than this is nothing,” Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute.

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