Perhaps he got further than we now know. There is more than one old church tower in England about which lingers the tradition of some daring soul, hundreds of years ago, who launched himself with wings from the summit, generally with disastrous consequence. There are well-authenticated stories of monks and others on the Continent who did likewise, one as far back as the days of Nero. Leonardo da Vinci, who, by the way, is said to liave invented the parachute, made notes and sketches of marvel-lously ingenious wing-driven flying machines which foreshadowed the inventions of to-day. Probably there were many others, whose names and deeds are now for ever hidden in the mists of ages, who came nearer than we guess to the great discovery.
The wonderful nineteenth century dawned. The balloon had already shown its limitations. It had been proved conclusively that man's muscles alone, no matter how employed, could never give him the power of flight. Flying was universally regarded as one of those things from which man was for ever debarred by an all-wise Providence. But before ten years had passed there arose a pioneer in the person of a Yorkshire baronet of scientific tastes Sir George Cayley. In those days the steam-engine, with all its untold possibilities, was just coming into existence, and to Sir George, gifted with a foresight a hundred years ahead of his time, it seemed that here lay the solution of the problem. Man could not fly by his own unaided strength, because his power was so small in comparison to his weight; but directly he could build an engine that would generate more power in proportion to its weight than a man could produce with his muscles, then there was no real reason why he should not fly with it.
This conception is the bed-rock of the whole matter, and Sir George Cayley was the first to arrive at it. Looking onward into the future, he outlined the principle of the gas-engine which was not to be invented for another fifty years. Studying the birds, he argued that the wings of a flying machine must be curved and not flat, that an elevator in the tail would be needed as well as a rudder. A true seer, he pointed out facts and discoveries that later generations have toiled laboriously to find out anew. He himself experimented with flying machines which incorporated, it is said, every single important principle now accepted by the aeronautical engineer. About his old Yorkshire home, near Scarborough, there survives the tale that one day he fitted some crude form of internal-combustion engine, driven by gunpowder cartridges, into one of these flying machines, and then put his coachman into it to run it along the ground. But presently, to everybody's surprise, the thing began to lift, and the poor aviator was so scared that he hastily jumped out and broke his leg in so doing. True or not, it is a pleasant little legend, and one would fain believe in the humble coachman pilot of a hundred years ago who was the nameless first victim of aviation.
But the light engine which was to make flight possible was long in coming. Nearly forty years elapsed before we arrive at the next couple of pioneers, Henson and Stringfellow, two engineer friends living at Chard in Somersetshire, who entered into partnership to make a flying machine, Henson being chiefly responsible for the design of the aeroplane, String-fellow for the light steam-engine which was to drive it. Enthusiastically they strove to run (or should we say fly' ?) before they could walk, took out a patent,and formed a company while yet their invention had not even materialized. The model refused to fly, the public declined to subscribe, Henson married his landlady's daughter and emigrated to America discouraged and impoverished, and the company ignominiously collapsed. But still in old print-shops, village inns and cottages, can be seen pictures of the machine in full flight, with Union Jack at the helm, proudly sweeping its way across the sea to distant lands.
Ridiculous no doubt, and yet this old print is well worth studying, and so is the copy of the actual machine that hangs in the South Kensington Museum, for there we have the prototype of the modern monoplane, with its long and narrow wings, elevator tail containing the rudder, pointed prow and wheels for starting. In almost uncanny fashion the suspension of the wings anticipates the famous Antoinette aeroplane of seventy years later, which machine indeed the quaint old model irresistibly suggests. But in one particular the design fell behind the discoveries of Cayley—the wings were flat and not curved, a fact which helped largely to account for its lack of success.
After the departure of Henson, Stringfellow still continued his flying experiments, and actually succeeded in producing the first engine-driven aeroplane that ever flew. True it was only a model of 10 feet span, driven by a tiny steam-engine, the whole weighing but 8 lbs.; but the triumph was none the less on this account, and its flight of 40 yards arks another milestone in the history of aviation. And so does the work—still another twenty years of Francis Wenham, an English engineer who had spent some time in Egypt, and while there had studied the flight of certain of the African birds to such good effect that he arrived at new facts of the very utmost importance. For he it was who first pointed out that the effective part of a wing in flight is at the front, that the strongest flying birds possess long narrow wings instead of short broad ones, and that it is in length and not breadth of plane that increased lifting power must be sought for in a flying machine. Moreover he showed that because extremely long and narrow planes are difficult to deal with and to build strongly, the long planes can be cut into two or even more lengths and mounted one above< the other, at a suitable distance apart, with practically no loss of efficiency. Here at once in Wenham's discovery we have the inception of the biplane, even as Henson's model shadowed forth the monoplane, while Sir George Cayley's prophetic brain fathered both. Let us English men and women, who love to carry self-depreciation to such a hysterical pitch that we consider it bad form to own to any national triumph whatsoever, and who take it as a matter of course that the foreigners have beaten us in the great discovery of flight—let us nevertheless in all justice recollect that although, somehow, we allowed the consummation to escape us, they were English brains in the first instance who made that discovery possible.