CHAPTER XV. A Pioneer in Aviation

Hitherto we have traced the gradual development of the balloon right from the early days of aeronautics, when the brothers Montgolfier constructed their hot-air balloon, down to the most modern dirigible. It is now our purpose, in this and subsequent chapters, to follow the course of the pioneers of aviation.

It must not be supposed that the invention of the steerable balloon was greatly in advance of that of the heavier-than-air machine. Indeed, developments in both the dirigible airship and the aeroplane have taken place side by side. In some cases men like Santos Dumont have given earnest attention to both forms of air-craft, and produced practical results with both. Thus, after the famous Brazilian aeronaut had won the Deutsch prize for a flight in an air-ship round the Eiffel tower, he immediately set to work to construct an aeroplane which he subsequently piloted at Bagatelle and was awarded the first "Deutsch prize" for aviation.

It is generally agreed that the undoubted inventor of the aeroplane, practically in the form in which it now appears, was an English engineer, Sir George Cayley. Just over a hundred years ago this clever Englishman worked out complete plans for an aeroplane, which in many vital respects embodied the principal parts of the monoplane as it exists to-day.

There were wings which were inclined so that they formed a lifting plane; moreover, the wings were curved, or "cambered", similar to the wing of a bird, and, as we shall see in a later chapter, this curve is one of the salient features of the plane of a modern heavier-than-air machine. Sir George also advocated the screw propeller worked by some form of "explosion" motor, which at that time had not arrived. Indeed, if there had been a motor available it is quite possible that England would have led the way in aviation. But, unfortunately, owing to the absence of a powerful motor engine, Sir George's ideas could not be practically carried out till nearly a century later, and then Englishmen were forestalled by the Wright brothers, of America, as well as by several French inventors.

The distinguished French writer, Alphonse Berget, in his book, The Conquest of the Air, pays a striking tribute to our English inventor, and this, coming from a gentleman who is writing from a French point of view, makes the praise of great value. In alluding to Sir George, M. Berget says: "The inventor, the incontestable forerunner of aviation, was an Englishman, Sir George Cayley, and it was in 1809 that he described his project in detail in Nicholson's Journal. . . . His idea embodied 'everything' - the wings forming an oblique sail, the empennage, the spindle forms to diminish resistance, the screw-propeller, the 'explosion' motor, . . . he even described a means of securing automatic stability. Is not all that marvellous, and does it not constitute a complete specification for everything in aviation?

"Thus it is necessary to inscribe the name of Sir George Cayley in letters of gold, in the first page of the aeroplane's history. Besides, the learned Englishman did not confine himself to 'drawing-paper': he built the first apparatus (without a motor) which gave him results highly promising. Then he built a second machine, this time with a motor, but unfortunately during the trials it was smashed to pieces."

But were these ideas of any practical value? How is it that he did not succeed in flying, if he had most of the component parts of an aeroplane as we know it to-day?

The answer to the second question is that Sir George did not fly, simply because there was no light petrol motor in existence; the crude motors in use were far too heavy, in proportion to the power developed, for service in a flying machine. It was recognized, not only by Sir George, but by many other English engineers in the first half of the nineteenth century, that as soon as a sufficiently powerful and light engine did appear, then half the battle of the conquest of the air would be won.

But his prophetic voice was of the utmost assistance to such inventors as Santos Dumont, the Wright brothers, M. Bleriot, and others now world-famed. It is quite safe to assume that they gave serious attention to the views held by Sir George, which were given to the world at large in a number of highly-interest- ing lectures and magazine articles. "Ideas" are the very foundation-stones of invention - if we may be allowed the figure of speech - and Englishmen are proud, and rightly proud, to number within their ranks the original inventor of the heavier-than-air machine.