Classic History Books


William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

Early writers of the fourth century saw the possibility of aerial navigation, but those who tried to put their
theories in practice were beset by so many difficulties that they rarely succeeded in leaving the ground.

Most of the early pioneers of aviation believed that if a man wanted to fly he must provide himself with a
pair of wings similar to those of a large bird. The story goes that a certain abbot told King James IV of

Scotland that he would fly from Stirling Castle to Paris. He made for himself powerful wings of eagles'

feathers, which he fixed to his body and launched himself into the air. As might be expected, he fell and

broke his legs.

But although the muscles of man are of insufficient strength to bear him in the air, it has been found
possible, by using a motor engine, to give to man the power of flight which his natural weakness denied

him.

Scientists estimate that to raise a man of about 12 stone in the air and enable him to fly there would be
required an immense pair of wings over 20 feet in span. In comparison with the weight of a man a bird's

weight is remarkably small - the largest bird does not weigh much more than 20 pounds - but its wing

muscles are infinitely stronger in proportion than the shoulder and arm muscles of a man.

As we shall see in a succeeding chapter, the "wing" theory was persevered with for many years some two
or three centuries ago, and later on it was of much use in providing data for the gradual development of

the modern aeroplane.

 

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.

 

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