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George Cayley

Full name: Sir George Cayley

Born: 27th December 1773

Invention/Achievement: Pioneer in aeronautics/Developments in heavier than air aviation

Date of introduction/Achievement: 1799-1853

Died: 15th December 1857

Everyone knows who pioneered heavier than air flight - it was the Wright Brothers in 1903, wasn't it? No, actually: it was an Englishman, Sir George Cayley who in 1799 first laid down the basic principles of aerodynamics on which the Wright brothers (and those who followed them) based their experiments.  

Sir George Cayley, 6th Baronet of Brompton, was born in Yorkshire in 1773 into an aristocratic family.  Notebooks from his schooldays, only discovered in 2007, show that even as a youth he was fascinated by the mechanics of flight.  

In 1796 he built his first aerial device, a model contra-rotating helicopter.  He rejected current theories of flight that mimicked bird flight by waving wings and instead set about devising workable principle of aerodynamics.  

His medallion of 1799 clearly illustrates the forces that affect flight.  He continued his research, discovering that dihedral wings (i.e., wings higher at the tip than at the root) improved stability and that a curved wing surface generated more lift than a flat one.  

In 1810 he published his classic treatise "On Aerial Navigation", stating that the three vital elements of heavier than air flight were lift, propulsion and control.  In 1816 he turned his attention to lighter than air machines, culminating in 1837 in a design for a streamlined airship powered by a steam engine.  

In 1849 he built a glider based on his 1799 design that made a short flight with a 9-year old boy aboard.  This was followed in 1853 by a larger glider which successfully carried one of Cayley's employees (variously reported as his coachman, footman or butler) on a flight across Brompton Dale.  The name of this first, understandably reluctant, heavier-than-air pilot has been lost to posterity.  

Cayley's fertile mind was active in other fields beside aviation, in his search for lighter weight he conceived a landing gear wheel using strings as spokes, a concept which is still used in tension spoke wheels today.  He also developed a self-righting lifeboat, a "universal railway" (caterpillar tracked vehicle) and an internal combustion engine powered by gunpowder, as well as making contributions to areas as diverse as prosthetics, electricity and land reclamation.