Waiting for a recent flight I found myself pondering on the sheer magic of flight. The daily workings of the airport are something of a miracle of human ingenuity, turning around one of the worlds thousand or so 100 tonne B767s is a bustle of of well organised procedures that seems humdrum, we have been traveling like this for the last 50 years.
As a kite flyer I’m reminded of the time when the kite and the balloon were the only practical flying machines and how aerial views published on postcards and in the press of the day were the most concrete contact people had with aviation. It seems incredible that a kite was the seed from which the aircraft as we know it today grew and even more incredible that aerial photography predates the aeroplane by a good 40 years. There was a time when the view from above was more than a novelty, it was proof of mans ascent to the skies!
The search for the ‘conquest of the skies’ begins with George Caley, then Otto Linnethal, Hargrave, Cody and ultimately the Wright brothers who were able to claim the summation of countless amateur kite experimenters who took to the skies from windswept spaces in search of the secret of flight. It was a world of novelty as the horseless carriage, telegraph, photography and railway were connecting mankind in new and evermore remarkable ways. I see the invention of the aircraft as an ’emergent technology’ which happened as so many interdependent technical breakthroughs occurred almost simultaneously around the globe produced the skills to allow the aircraft to emerge. The Wrights were first but there were many others who were able to exploit the technologies of the day to follow them in very short order.
The transition from kite to ‘plane is a complex story, it was a development that took place across the globe with key players in correspondence from Australia, Europe, Russia and the Americas. The maturing of the industrial age and it’s new lightweight materials had thrown the opportunity to experiment into the hands of the practical and theoretical men of the day and the starting point for understanding the wing was the kite. Before kite development in the 19th Cent got going it was the balloon that gave us the first photographic views of the world from above.
In 1858 aerial photography1 was achieved for the first time from a gas filled balloon at the valley of Bievre, the Petit-Bicêtre6 by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known as “Nadar” ) who, in 1868 shot and processed callotypes suspended in a doubledecker basket from a huge hydrogen balloon over Paris.
The world on a map would never look the same once there were photographs to depict it as it really is. The birds eye view would never again be solely from the artists imagination. The science of photogrammetry was born out of the need to turn these photos into maps.
Aime Laussedat’s first attempts at aerial phtogrammetry produced a photographic bird’s-eye map of Paris in 1867 from a combination of balloon and roof top photography. There is some confusion over Lausedat’s use of aerial capture for his early phtogrammetic work as it has been stated he made early attempts at kite photography although he may have used such imagery photogrammetically without being the cameraman!
Mapping from photographs had become a reality and Albrecht Maydenbauer was able to give us the modern method of control point & metric capture culminating with the first metric camera in 1872.2
In 1885 John Kemp Starley’s safety cycle rattled out of Coventry: above all other products of the 19th century the ‘safety’ drove the production of mass produced parts in light-weight steel. Never before were ball bearings, chain drive and paved roads in such demand!Both the Wrights and their rival Glen Curtiss cut their engineering teeth on bicycles, Curtiss being both a mechanic and racer. The almost universal adoption of the cycle as personal transport spawned a vast network of backyard workshops to keep the worlds bikes on the road. Between 1.5 and 2 million bikes were manufactured in the US in the year 1900 alone, and it is estimated that there were 5 million US bikes in use at that time. Bicycle manufacture influenced material supply to the extent that the weight of the average steel ‘safety’ dropped from 45lb in 1890 to 22lb in 1895.3
Access to or knowledge of the finest lightweight alloys developed for cycles made a gas engine light enough to fly possible.
In 1888 Arthur Batut made the first KAP flights. Bataut showed us a lightweight camera was not only possible but effective too. Batut’s connection with his local landscape through a raised viewpoint drove him to succeed where Laussedat failed, he built his own miniature camera and developed a bowed kite for stability.4
Batut and the pioneer KAPers that followed him showed the world a tethered wing was more than a toy and, although balloon and airship were big contenders for mastery of the skies, it would be the development of the kite that would bring us flight as an everyday event.
By 1893 Lawrence Hargrave’s Box Kite appeared, it was the big innovation for the kite at the turn of the 20th century, he developed series of powerful lifters and although the box kite doesn’t work quite like a biplane Hargreave’s configuration of the double box is an important staring point for Voisin, Curtis and the Wrights; it was popular, proven and well known from 1893 onwards. Hargrave solved 2 problems with this kite: how to get maximum lift by using a cell and how to maximize the lift of a surface using an aerofoil profile. Hargrave tested and logged thousands of hours of flight to perfect the design which became a standard scientific lifter for decades. Lawrence Hargrave began the modern science of empirical aerodynamics and his box design became the core of the Cody and Saconney man lifting kites as well as the Chanute and Wright gliders of the 1900s.
Gabriel Voisin scaled up the Hargrave box with the 14 Bis design (it didn’t fly until 1907) and was considered so laterally stable as to be almost unsteerable other than in the direction of launch…some kite charactistics are not desirable in aircraft!
By 1900 the Wrights flew a bigger kite than the Hargrave Box. Flying on a single line as a kite the Wright glider is displays a kite angle of attack as the brothers explore the lift of their wing. Following from Otto Linnethal and Chanute the Wrights opened up the box to allow crosswind stability,
In 1901 Marconi made the first transatlantic radio transmission. A kite gets Marconi out of a fix in Newfoundland as an emergency sky hook to replace a fallen transmission tower, it just about worked and the Atlantic was crossed by radio!
In the pre-dawn of the aviation age the world would turn to the balloon and kite as a sky-hook for meteorological observations, military reconnaissance, rescue from shipwreck, first crossings for bridge building and aerial photography: designs were well understood and kite performance was measured and keenly reported (the Aeronautical Journal published many detailed accounts of kite feats and theory through out the 1890s and on in to the 1900s).
It was clear the knowledge gained from kiting was going to develop into an aircraft of some kind. Kite fever was at it’s peak, public meetings were attended by thousands who saw altitude and endurance attempts by ever more elaborate designs, some are still with us others have vanished but the kite will never again have the same attraction to the masses. After weeks of blustery kite flying and crashing at Kittyhawk the Wright wing was developing from kite to glider and a new form of aircraft was ready to bite into the wind for the first time.
On December 17th 1903 Flyer 1 limped off the end of is cable assisted launch track to achieve the first sustained, powered and controlled heavier than air flight at Kittyhawk sands. The true moment man first took to the skies by aircraft may never be known (Gustave Whitehead’s 1901 flights may never be verified) but the Wrights got the problem of flight sorted on a fairly repeatable basis and staked out the patent: they stood on the shoulders of giants, some obscure others less so, Flyer 1 was the summation of Hargrave’s wing profile, decades of light weight cycle frame alloy research, the collected wisdom of enthusiasts like Chanute, and the Aeronautical societies of the world not to mention a lot of patient testing too. The offset engine mounting and it’s asymmetric chain drives were a feature of the early Flyers this was to balance the weight of the pilot against that of the engine on the centre line. I have never figured out why the Wrights went for an anhedral for Flyer 1, a detail that was quickly dropped from later models, was this an attempt to wring lift out of the woefully under-powered machine it by use of ‘ground effect’ in 1903?
1905 The public interest as well as the Hargrave influence is plain to see in this shot of the mid section of the Santos-Dumont No 14bis. The wing is being taken to a flight attempt at Bagatelle, France in Sept 1905 (It flew, Santos-Dumont is on the right wearing a derby hat). The Wright canard ‘open box’ design was by no means instantly adopted by all, Bleriot, Voisin and many others stood by their pre 1903 ideas and took to the skies: some worked, some didn’t.
1906 George R Lawrence’s epic panoramic image ‘San Fransisco in Ruins’ after the fire remains a high point of KAP achievement, it is unlikely any aircraft of the day could have lifted his 46lb large format camera as solidly as his train of 17 of Silas J Conye’s kites.
Lawrence’s stunning image marks the pinnacle of kite achievement prior to its eclipse by the aeroplane as an aerial platform for photography, 2 years later Wilbur Wright was shooting movies from his Flyer over Rome.
Leon Levavaseur’s elegant Antoinette IV depicted in Andre Devambez’s 1910 painting ‘The only bird that flies above the clouds’ shows how the aeroplane’s kite lineage faded as engines became ever lighter and stronger: the need for a wind powered lifter had passed and the kite returned to its place as plaything until another materials revolution triggered a new dawn for kites as traction….the age of the parafoil, micro-light and kite surfer was in the distant future!
It’s odd to think the bicycle and the kite are the origins of powered flight and amid the swirl of invention in the late 19th and early 20th Cent there were many ideas that never developed and many which the world has left behind but the persistence of the bike is remarkable and its impact on manufacturing was significant. As for the kite: it has been with us for thousands of years and its utility is still expanding: Sky Sails are with us and their traction is cutting fuel costs and carbon emission on a grand scale!5