CHAPTER XVI. The "Human Birds"
For many years after the publication of Sir George Cayley's articles and lectures on aviation very little was done in the way of aerial experiments. True, about midway through the nineteenth century two clever engineers, Henson and Stringfellow, built a model aeroplane after the design outlined by Sir George; but though their model was not of much practical value, a little more valuable experience was accumulated which would be of service when the time should come; in other words, when the motor engine should arrive. This model can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, at South Kensington.
A few years later Stringfellow designed a tiny steam-engine, which he fitted to an equally tiny monoplane, and it is said that by its aid he was able to obtain a very short flight through the air. As some recognition of his enterprise the Aeronautical Society, which was founded in 1866, awarded him a prize of L100 for his engine.
The idea of producing a practical form of flying machine was never abandoned entirely. Here and there experiments continued to be carried out, and certain valuable conclusions were arrived at. Many advanced thinkers and writers of half a century ago set forth their opinions on the possibilities of human flight. Some of them, like Emerson, not only believed that flight would come, but also stated why it had not arrived. Thus Emerson, when writing on the subject of air navigation about fifty years ago, remarked: "We think the population is not yet quite fit for them, and therefore there will be none. Our friend suggests so many inconveniences from piracy out of the high air to orchards and lone houses, and also to high fliers, and the total inadequacy of the present system of defence, that we have not the heart to break the sleep of the great public by the repetition of these details. When children come into the library we put the inkstand and the watch on the high shelf until they be a little older."
About the year 1870 a young German engineer, named Otto Lilienthal, began some experiments with a motorless glider, which in course of time were to make him world-famed. For nearly twenty years Lilienthal carried on his aerial research work in secrecy, and it was not until about the year 1890 that his experimental work was sufficiently advanced for him to give demonstrations in public.
The young German was a firm believer in what was known as the "soaring-plane" theory of flight. From the picture here given we can get some idea of his curious machine. It consisted of large wings, formed of thin osiers, over which was stretched light fabric. At the back were two horizontal rudders shaped somewhat like the long forked tail of a swallow, and over these was a large steering rudder. The wings were arranged around the glider's body. The whole apparatus weighed about 40 pounds.
Lilienthal's flights, or glides, were made from the top of a specially-constructed large mound, and in some cases from the summit of a low tower. The "birdman" would stand on the top of the mound, full to the wind, and run quickly forward with outstretched wings. When he thought he had gained sufficient momentum he jumped into the air, and the wings of the glider bore him through the air to the base of the mound.
To preserve the balance of his machine - always a most difficult feat - he swung his legs and hips to one side or the other, as occasion required, and, after hundreds of glides had been made, he became so skilful in maintaining the equilibrium of his machine that he was able to cover a distance, downhill, of 300 yards.
Later on, Lilienthal abandoned the glider, or elementary form of monoplane, and adopted a system of superposed planes, corresponding to the modern biplane. The promising career of this clever German was brought to an untimely end in 1896, when, in attempting to glide from a height of about 80 yards, his apparatus made a sudden downward swoop, and he broke his neck.
Now that Lillenthal's experiments had proved conclusively the efficiency of wings, or planes, as carrying surfaces, other engineers followed in his footsteps, and tried to improve on his good work.
The first "birdman" to use a glider in this country was Mr. Percy Pilcher who carried out his experiments at Cardross in Scotland. His glides were at first made with a form of apparatus very similar to that employed by Lilienthal, and in time he came to use much larger machines. So cumbersome, however, was his apparatus - it weighed nearly 4 stones - that with such a great weight upon his shoulders he could not run forward quickly enough to gain sufficient momentum to "carry off" from the hillside. To assist him in launching the apparatus the machine was towed by horses, and when sufficient impetus had been gained the tow-rope was cast off.
Three years after Lilienthal's death Pilcher met with a similar accident. While making a flight his glider was overturned, and the unfortunate "birdman " was dashed to death.
In America there were at this time two or three "human birds", one of the most famous being M. Octave Chanute. During the years 1895-7 Chanute made many flights in various types of gliding machines, some of which had as many as half a dozen planes arranged one above another. His best results, however, were obtained by the two-plane machine, resembling to a remarkable extent the modern biplane.