Most of us can roughly picture what the first real powered aircraft, the Wright Flyer, looked like: two big parallel and rectangular wings, held in a flimsy-looking structure of wire and slats that held a prone Wright brother and an engine with a propeller. It’s general look sort of makes inherent sense when we think about how aviation developed. If you’re trying to picture the first powered aircraft in England, though, it’s a very different story, because it looks like a mobile display for a Venetian blinds salesman.
Where the U.S. had the Wright Brothers and their powered flight in 1903, our British pals celebrate Horatio Phillips and his imaginatively-named Flying Machine of 1907. As you can see, the Philip’s Flying Machine represented something of a dead end in the history of powered flight, and while it’s tempting to laugh at it now, it’s worth remembering that old Horatio there did manage to make machine that flew 500 feet out of what looked like fencing materials, which is a hell of a lot more than what most of us have managed.
Phillip’s aircraft actually had a brains-boggling 200 wings (a ducentiplane, if you’re into that)—Phillips called these airfoils “sustainers,” and technically the 1907 machine had four banks of 50 wings each.
This mass of very narrow wings and supporting hardware was dragged aloft by a 22 horsepower petrol engine, and Phillips was able to fly it for over 150 metres—keep in mind, the very first hop by the Wright brothers was only 36 metres.
While this was the first powered heavier-than-air flight in the U.K., it’s not really clear if it should count as a “controlled” flight since it’s not clear just how steerable the Flying Machine would have been. It’s at least controllable regarding speed and altitude to some degree, though.
Philips had been experimenting with aircraft designs like this for years, including a number of 1890s-era tethered steam-powered machines that ran on a circular track and could lift themselves a few feet off the ground.
Phillips’ real contribution to flight was figuring out (and eventually patenting) the way curved airfoils work, proving that it’s the curved upper surface increases the speed of the upper airflow, reducing above-wing pressure and, as a result, creating lift.
A lot of Phillip’s research was conducting in a novel steam-based wind tunnel that used steam injection instead of just blown air.
Phillip’s Flying Machine is really remarkable to think about, just from the fact that it worked at all, and as an example of how wildly unknown the whole process of flight was at the turn of the century, even after the Wright brothers’ first flights. Phillip’s strange-looking machines tend to get made fun of a lot because of their bizarre appearance, but the fundamental principles behind them had a sound basis, and his work was absolutely important in the early history of flight.
They do look hilarious, though.