Early Helicopter History

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Early Concepts:

The helicopter is arguably one of the earliest ideas for achieving flight. Over two thousand years ago, the Chinese constructed what are known as Chinese Tops, illustrated below. These simple toys consisted of a propeller attached to a stick that would be spun rapidly through ones hands to spin the propeller and achieve lift. These toys are still common today.

Chinese top
Chinese top [from Gessow and Myers, 1952]

Later, in the 15th Century, famed inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci designed one of the more aesthetically pleasing concepts for a helicopter, but such a craft was never actually constructed.

Leonardo da Vinci's Helicopter, 15th Century
Leonardo da Vinci's "Helicopter", 15th Century [from Gessow and Myers, 1952]

First Successes:

In England in 1796, Sir George Cayley constructed the first powered models of helicopters that were driven by elastic devices. One of these models, shown below, attained an altitude of ninety feet.

Sir George Cayley's helicopter, 1796
Sir George Cayley's helicopter, 1796 [from Gessow and Myers, 1952]

In 1842, almost fifty years after Sir George Cayley, fellow Englishman W. H. Phillips constructed a model helicopter that weighed 20 pounds (9 kg) and was driven by steam. He proposed a full-sized three-propeller machine (one propeller for lift, and two for directional control), but it was never built. In 1878, Enrico Forlanini, an Italian civil engineer, also constructed a steam driven model helicopter that only weighed 7.7 lb (3.5 kg).

In 1880, Thomas Edison was the first American to perform any notable research on helicopters. Edison built a test stand and tested several different propellers using an electric motor. He deduced that in order to create a feasible helicopter, he needed a lightweight engine that could produce a large amount of power.





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