The History of the Helicopter (Part I – Early Attempts at Vertical Flight)

In addition to his work with companies such as Kingsley Management Corp in Provo, Utah, York Galland enjoys flying helicopters in his free time. Although the helicopter in its modern form remains largely a 20th century invention, the mechanics of vertical flight trace their origins back as far as China during the 4th century B.C. Written records from this time suggest that early engineers created a system of rotating bamboo blades powered by leather straps.

In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci designed a machine that used rotating overhead blades to power vertical flight. Da Vinci never built a full-sized copy of his machine, largely because there was no way to stop the whole machine from rotating during flight rather than just the blades. Many ensuing designs for vertical flying machines drew upon the Chinese spinning top example rather than da Vinci’s aerial screw.

In the mid-18th century, Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov developed a new tandem rotor and presented it to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Lomonosov suggested that the rotor, which used a spring to power its rotation, be used to lift meteorological equipment into the air. In 1782, French inventor Christian de Launoy and his mechanic used turkey flight feathers as blades in two counter-rotating rotors, an invention they soon presented to the French Academy of Sciences. Sir George Cayley used a design similar to Launoy’s to create a feather model powered by rubber bands. Although all of these early attempts did produce vertical flight, they relied on a small scale and energy sources unsuitable for sustained flight.

The word “helicopter” came about in 1861, when French inventor Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt operated a small steam-powered machine made of aluminum. In 1878, Enrico Forlanini developed an unmanned helicopter that reached a height of some 40 feet and a flight time of about 20 seconds. Shortly thereafter, American inventor Thomas Edison received a considerable grant to study vertical flight, which he used to create a machine powered by an internal combustion engine. Edison’s prototype met an explosive end, severely burning one of Edison’s assistants in the process.

The History of the Helicopter (Part II – The Modern Helicopter)