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Sir George Cayley – “the father of aerial navigation”

In my previous life running a marketing agency, I had the pleasure of working with a local precision engineering company called Produmax who manufactured aeroplane parts in Baildon, West Yorkshire. When they moved into their new purpose built factory unit, they decided to call one of their meeting rooms The Cayley Room. I helped them develop their new brand and signage, including a Perspex sign for the wall to explain how this little heard of Yorkshireman was really one of the founding fathers of the aeronautical industry.

George Cayley was born in Scarborough in 1773 and was a member of a titled family based in Brompton. He inherited his father Baronetcy in 1792, then married Sarah Walker, the daughter of his maths tutor having 5 children and both George and Sarah both lived well into their 80’s.

His greatest legacy was cutting through the confused ideas at the time on flying. He defined the principles of heavier than air flight and studied the problems associated with mechanical flight using models based on his theories and calculations.

In 1909 Alophonse Berger, the President of the Societe Francaise de Navigation Aerienne stated Cayley’s name should be “inscribed in gold letters on the first page of the aeroplanes history”. As is often the case with great inventors, it took several decades after Cayley’s death before the ideas in his work were given due credit.

So what were some of Cayley’s ideas?

He was he first person to recognise the importance of streamlining an aircraft – and the need for a light engine and materials to be used in its manufacture.

He also came up with the idea of an internal explosion or some form of combustion within the engine and most importantly the need for a jet reaction to propel the aircraft.

These basic principles which were published over 200 years ago are still pretty much the basis of what the science of aerodynamics has been based on since. Even during his lifetime fellow inventor William S. Henson dubbed him “The father of aerial navigation”.

We know that Leonardo da Vinci had many years ago dabbled with the construction of an aeroplane, and even during Cayley’s lifetime great engineers like Watt and Stephenson were the catalyst for rail transport and a growing industrial revolution, but flying had become overlooked, with the public being sceptical, still having visions of inventors wearing false wings and flapping like birds.

This meant when Cayley’s first paper about a fixed wing aeroplane published on the art of flying in 1809 was met with ridicule. But, his thinking is now widely recognised. A drawing from 1799 showing air forces on an aeroplane wing and another of a flying machine are now proudly displayed in the Science Museum in London.

From his earliest papers he predicted the future and the impact flying would have on society – “A new era of society will commence from the moment that aerial navigation is familiarly realised” and “ I feel perfectly confident that we shall be able to transport ourselves and families, and their goods and chattels more securely by air than water and at a greater velocity of from 20 to 100 miles per hour”.

A lot of his theories were based on experimental models often based on observations. He built paper kites and looked at a herons flight to conclude the wings were concave and that curve would give better lift.

He studied air resistance and weight control with models and importantly found that acute angles on a wing could help with stability. To prove his theories be built a glider and in 1804 flew it from a hill in Brompton to test his theories.

In 1810 his definition of flight was first published in a paper for the Journal of Natural Philosophy. It stated “To make a given surface support a given weight by the application of power to the resistance of air” This is still a recognised definition to this day.

He realised that his studies and findings would not practically be able to be manufactured during his lifetime and he evolved his scientific studies into other areas. His other inventions included the self righting lifeboat, the hot air expansion engine, and the caterpillar tractor track. He also had interests in artificial limbs, acoustics and optics as well as writing papers on how to make the railways safer by automating processes to avoid manual error.

In 1838 he was invited to become a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers which was some recognition of his scientific and engineering prowess.

A funny story which I will end on shows that even 5 years before his death his fascination with flying hadn’t completely diminished. He built an improved glider and George Cayley’s coachman was flown across a small valley at Brompton Hall. Cayley’s Grand Daughter recorded in her diary that the coachman was so upset that on scrambling from the glider said to his employer “ Please, Sir George, I wish to give notice, I was hired to drive not to fly!”

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