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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Though Santos-Dumont devised an elevator similar to the Wrights’, in general, the designer “didn’t develop [14 bis] in the same way that the Wrights developed theirs, based upon lift and drag,” notes curator Peter Jakab. “That’s the thing that separates the Wrights. The Flyer was truly an engineered aircraft.”

Santos-Dumont was back in the air in 1909 at the Reims Meet in France with his Demoiselle, a more Wright-like monoplane that flew but set no records. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, he committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 59.

The Angular Swan

Alexander Graham Bell grew interested in flying machines while watching his friend Samuel Langley experiment with his Aerodromes in the last decade of the 19th century. In 1907 Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association with a handful of young men, including Glenn Curtiss, with the intent of getting into the air as soon as possible.

Bell was a big believer in the four-sided triangular cell—the tetrahedron. Such a cell possesses, he wrote, “qualities of strength and lightness in an extraordinary degree. It is not simply braced in two directions in space like a triangle, but in three directions like a solid….” Using hundreds of fabric tetrahedrons, he constructed huge craft he called Cygnets, or Swans.

In 1907, AEA member Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge flew the first one from Bras d’Or Lake near Bell’s summer home in Nova Scotia. It was towed behind a steamer. It had no controls, and after it landed was dragged apart. Bell completed his Cygnet II within two years; this one had a triangular “wing,” weighed some 900 pounds, and rested on runners; the pilot sat behind the biplane elevator and in front of a pusher engine with a 10-foot propeller.

Despite three tries that February, the Cygnet II remained firmly adhered to terra firma. What kept it there? “Drag,” says Tom Crouch, an early-aviation curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “What works for a kite doesn’t work for an airplane.”

Been Too Long at the Fair

The Marquis d’Ecquevilly was a French naval engineer who got into the aviation field in 1907 with his strange and beautiful multiplane, about which little has been written. He started with a four-wheel platform on which the pilot stood, upon which he mounted a pair of oval hoops 16 feet across, which in turn acted as a frame for the five pairs of fairly flat wings. Two more wings were mounted on top of the pairs. The wings’ inboard sides were attached to a frame of five more ovals, and the engine—a 10-horsepower Buchet—was mounted on a pair of (what else?) circular frames. In the January 1909 issue of Aerophile, the Marquis likened the craft’s construction to “that of the big Ferris wheel of the [Paris Universal] Exhibition of 1900.”

There was no tail nor any control surfaces to speak of. Indeed, as the Marquis himself wrote, “It would be premature to speculate on how this machine would be controlled, insofar as its dynamic stability is so much more longitudinal than lateral.” There is also no record of its having flown, either before the June 1908 fire that damaged it or afterward, when the Marquis rebuilt it with 50 smaller wings. (Perhaps he had the same idea as Horatio Phillips: more planes, more lift, and worry about control later.)

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