Is it a bird? Is it a plane? oh wait, It is a plane…


George Cayley

George Cayley (1773-1857) fig.1


Designing the first ever glider to successfully carry a human in the air, creating the foundation theories of aerodynamics  and coining the four forces of flight – three of the many breakthroughs made by our father of aeronautics, George Cayley. And there you were thinking that it was the Wright brothers that were first to be airborne, wrong!


Shooting for the stars, soaring in the clouds

He is known to many as one of the most important figures in aerodynamics, being credited with discovering and identifying the four forces of flight – weight, lift, drag and thrust. Sir George Cayley, 6th baronet of Brompton was born December 27 1773 just outside the Yorkshire town of Scarborough, and inherited Brompton Hall and Wydale Hall and other estates on the death of his father, the 5th baronet. Captured by the optimism of the times, he engaged in a wide variety of engineering projects.


Cayley’s Medallion (fig.2)

Cayley was said to be an avid engineer from an early age, designing and creating prototypes for a number of different subjects – but by far his most famous was the first glider to become airborne whilst carrying a human passenger. In 1799, Cayley designed a structure that showed vast similarities to the designs used in modern aeroplanes with a main body and wings. Engraved on a silver medallion (fig. 2), this design shows a similar idea to the flying machines designed by the Wright brothers of more than a century later. On one side of the disc he demonstrated the forces that rule flight. On the reverse, he engraved an aircraft that showed how said forces worked.

It had a fixed main wing, a body, a cruciform tail unit which had a capacity for vertical and horizontal control, a cockpit for the pilot, and a means of propulsion that consisted of revolving vanes, an originator to the propeller. Surprisingly to find, one hundred years before the Wright brothers flew their glider, Cayley had established the basic principles and configuration of the modern airplane and had constructed a series of models to demonstrate his ideas.

Degrees such as mechanical engineering, physics, electrical and electronic engineering, computer science/software engineering and mathematics can help you find a career in aeronautics in today’s age, but just like in Cayley all that is needed to take you high in to the sky is a passion for flight and how it works.

George of all trades

Although Cayley was credited with two fundamental discoveries in aviation, these discoveries were great spurs of aeronautic creativity separated years apart – in which during the time between both discoveries he did not do much in the subject. During this aeronautic downtime he was dipping in and out of other avenues of engineering, designing many products which are used or have been adapted for use in the modern day.

Which, when mentioning self-righting lifeboats, tension-spoke wheels, caterpillar tractors, automatic signals for railway crossings, seat belts, small scale helicopters and internal combustion engines fuelled by gunpowder we may think numerous people were involved in their design and development – we would be wrong, our very own George Cayley was behind them all. With an intense interest in general engineering he was able to conceptualise all of the above products with the belief that all of these advancements should be freely available to the public.

He is also noted for his contributed in the fields of prosthetics, air engines, electricity, theatre architecture, ballistics, and optics.

With all of this in mind, what is stopping you in trying your hand at engineering? George Cayley proved that if you have the determination and drive you can singlehandedly change the future. The Cayley legacy lies in aviation and will be forever used in the development of aeronautics, what will your legacy be?

Student number: 509526



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