George Cayley

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Sir George Cayley

Sir George Cayley (27 December 1773 - 15 December 1857) was an exuberant polymath from Brompton-by-Sawdon, near Scarborough in Yorkshire. He designed and built a working, piloted glider, nearly fifty years before the Wright Brothers. He served for the Whig party on Parliament, and helped found the Polytechnic Institution, serving as its chairman for many years. He was the uncle of the mathematician Arthur Cayley.

Sir George inherited Brompton Hall and its estates on the death of his father, together with the title of Baronet. Captured by the optimism of the times, he engaged in a wide variety of engineering projects. Among the many things that he invented are self-righting life-boats, tension-spoke wheels, caterpillar tractors (which he called the Universal Railway), automatic signals for railway crossings, seat-belts, experimental designs for helicopters, and a kind of prototypical internal combustion engine fuelled by gun-powder. He also contributed in the fields of prosthetics, heat engines, electricity, theatre architecture, ballistics, optics and land reclamation.

He is mainly remembered, however, for his flying machines. To measure the drag on objects at different speeds and angles of attack, he built a "whirling-arm apparatus." He also experimented with free-flying model gliders of various wing sections, in the stairwells at Brompton Hall. These scientific experiments led him to develop an efficient cambered airfoil and to identify the four vector forces that influence an aircraft: thrust, lift, drag, and weight. He discovered the importance of dihedral for lateral stability in flight, and deliberately set the centre-of-gravity of many of his models well below the wings for this reason. Investigating many other theoretical aspects of flight, many now acknowledge him as the first aeronautical engineer.

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By 1804 his model gliders appeared similar to modern aircraft: a pair of large monoplane wings towards the front, with a smaller tailplane at the back comprising horizontal stabilisers and a vertical fin. Eventually he designed one large enough to carry a pilot. After demonstrating that animals could fly in it safely, in late June or early July 1853 he persuaded his coachman to fly it. Launched from a hill on the Brompton Estate by teams of estate workers, Sir George Cayley's coachman flew the machine 130 metres across Brompton Dale, landing safely into a meadow on the other side. This was the earliest recorded manned, heavier-than-air flight.

A replica of the machine was flown at the original site in Brompton Dale in 1974 and in the mid 1980s by Derek Piggott. Another replica flew there in 2003, first piloted by Allan McWhirter and later by Richard Branson.

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External links

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