Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) English amateur scientist and aviation pioneer

The year 2003 is the one hundredth anniversary of the flights of the Wright Brothers in 1903. Orville managed a powered flight of 120ft in 12 seconds and Wilbur 852ft in 59 seconds.

Although the Americans can claim the first powered flight, the first aeroplane flight was made in 1853 in Yorkshire.

Sir George Cayley was acknowledged by the Wright Brothers and is commemorated in the Smithsonian and San Diego museums as "the Father of Aeronautics". He is, however, almost unknown in his own country apart from Blue plaques in London, Brompton-by-Sawdon and Scarborough.

A tiny dale on the southern border of the North York Moors has an important place in history. It was the scene of the world's first aeroplane flight. Some people are still amazed by this claim, but the event is beyond dispute. Across the shelving meadowland of Brompton Dale, near Scarborough, from the high east side to the west, Sir George Cayley in 1853 launched a machine that embodied all the basic features of what was to become the aeroplane. The flight was most spectacular and is now regarded as the first man-carrying flight by a heavier-than-air machine the true birth of the aeroplane. Cayley's coachman was selected for the flight and on landing he is reported to have shouted: 'Please Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive, not fly.' 

A definite paper by Sir George had been published in the Mechanics' Magazine on 25th September 1852 and it was this aircraft that was flown. Only the lack of a suitable engine, for which Sir George could hardly be held responsible, prevented the Yorkshireman beating the Wright Brothers by a clear fifty years to the first powered flight. Flying did not become practical until the Wright brothers' flight of 1903 but it is worth re-emphasising that the machine the brothers flew was an advance on Cayley's only in the addition of an engine and Cayley happens to be the first man who suggested that an internal combustion engine could be used to power an aeroplane!

In 1799, still in the eighteenth century, he had the idea of the aeroplane. Until then, efforts at flight, except by balloon, had been based on imitating the flapping wings of a bird. Cayley preferred the image of a bird with its wings kept still, as if gliding. In 1804, by fixing a kite face downwards across a pole, with a movable cross-shaped tail, he constructed a model glider. 'Technically, this glider is the world's first aeroplane, although it did not offer flight to man. There is little doubt that Brompton Dale was the setting for this experiment. In 1809 Cayley built, and flew, a large, 300sq ft glider. This is the first known flight by a full-size scientifically designed aeroplane. 

Cayley had already used a 'whirling arm', or propeller, as an aid to flight. Unfortunately, he abandoned this idea, probably because of the all-important absence of an engine. But in 1818 Cayley designed the first wheeled undercarriage. The particular problem was to combine lightness with strength, and this led Cayley to produce the tension wheel, later adopted by the bicycle. Meanwhile, in three historic papers written in 1809-10, Cayley set out for the first time the modern theory of aerodynamics: he was the first person to observe such important principles as the superior uplift given by a cambered wing to a flat one. 

Cayley also put forward another alternative, a "convertiplane" incorporating four helicopter rotors that would provide vertical takeoff; the rotors were: then rotated to play the role of circular wings, while pusher airscrews provided the forward propulsion. In 1852 Cayley published a glider design showing every basic feature of the modern aeroplane except wing flaps. More important, in 1849 and 1853 he built tri-plane gliders largely conforming to this design. Besides fixed main wings they had an adjustable tailplane-cum-fin, a pilot-operated elevator-cum-rudder, and a light three-wheel undercarriage. 

What the local people thought of Cayley is perhaps indicated by his comment that, to the public, 'aerial navigation is a subject rather bordering on the ludicrous'. His farmer neighbours were probably more impressed by a drainage scheme he devised, which remains his most lasting monument in the moors. To prevent flooding around Malton, he suggested cutting an overflow channel for the Derwent. Controlled by a lock and now known as the Scalby Cut, this channel follows the pre-Ice Age course of the Derwent, reaching the coast at Scalby, near Scarborough.(This doesn't seem to have been very effective in the last few years). 

Cayley did not confine himself to aeroplanes. In 1825 he invented caterpillar traction, the basis of all tracked vehicles today. He also proposed an amphibious vehicle - the forerunner of the DUKW .Earlier, when Napoleon was menacing Britain, he produced finned missiles, very like the shells of today. If these had been used instead of being ignored they might have saved Nelson at Trafalgar, for they could out-shoot any cannon. Cayley also did much work on railway safety (he lobbied for the introduction of seat belts on trains); he designed the first machine for testing streamlined shapes; he suggested the use of sloping floors for theatres, a fire-curtain and door; and it is to him and his aeroplanes, that we owe the light-tension wheel (forerunner of the bicycle wheel) and the expansion-air engine (hot-air engine) . Among other fields in which he did research were scientific education, land reclamation, acoustics, railway equipment, lifeboats, ballistics, optics, electricity, allotment agriculture, a new type of telescope and artificial limbs. He suggested a new railway line from Scarbough to Malton, York and Tadcaster to link with the Leeds-Selby Railway at Sherburn and the growing national network. The Scarborough-York line follows almost his suggested route today.

You to whom it may concern when I am gone, may find seeds of thought in these scrawls. 
(from the cover of his early notebook)

There is a special Cayley weekend at Brompton and Elvington, July 5th and 6th 2003, so please make a note in your diaries.



Re-enactment of the first manned flight at Brompton Dale in 1853. The actors and supporters will wear period dress. You are invited to join in the spirit of the day. Do dress up if you wish. A representative micro-light aircraft will land in the Dale. The pilot and aircraft handlers will also be in representative dress.

Cayley model glider competition sponsored by BAE Systems. Children will build and fly the Cayley gliders over Brompton Dale and there will be prizes for the best performances. pm Unveiling of a commemorative monument to honour the life of Sir George close to the site where he defined and tested the aeroplane for the first time. To salute the memory of Sir George modern day aircraft will fly over Brompton Dale after the unveiling of the monument.

First Day Postal covers will be sold and stamped in Brompton Post Office before being taken by helicopter to Elvington aerodrome for onward carriage to London by HAWKER Hunter Jet or BA Concorde or other airliner for posting.

First Day Covers will also be sold at the Yorkshire Air Museum and other outlets.

There will be an exhibition of Cayley artefacts, video, film and memorabilia in Brompton Hall/village Hall . A Cayley lunch/supper will also be served in Brompton Hall /village hall before a talk to be given by Mr. Derrick Piggott the pilot who flew the Cayley replica for the Anglia television film in 1974 and over Brompton Dale in 1984.

Sunday 6th July, 2003
At the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, Nr York there will be an exhibition "A Century of Flight" to commemorate the coincident anniversaries of Sir George's manned flight in 1853 and of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight in 1903. NB title does not reflect intention to commemorate flight to Cayley's 150th anniversary but Rev' Leonard Rivett confirms displays will extend to cover the period.

morning service with guest preacher the Right Reverend Lord Habgood former Arch Bishop of York or The Right Reverend David Hope Arch Bishop of York. A bronze bust of Sir George will be dedicated during the service in All Saints Church Brompton. The Cayley Lunch based on mid Victorian Menu and will be served in Brompton Village Hall hosted by The High Sheriff of North Yorkshire, Mark Evans. Cost (to be announced).

York, Elvington Aerodrome, 40 minutes away by road will be open for aircraft to fly in for all the above events.

EXHIBITIONS - At All Saints Church, Brompton Hall and in the village hall, Brompton.

Cayley bust will be on view, miniatures and commemorative holograms of Sir George and the Wright Brothers will be on sale at Brompton, Yorkshire Air Museum.

Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington, York, "A Century of Flight" (Sunday 6th July only - Cost to be announced)

TICKETS for the events are available from: The Tourist Information Centre, Pavilion House, Valley Bridge Rd. Scarborough and TI York (in person only) Royal Aeronautical Society, Hamilton Place, Mayfair, London. Elvington Park Ltd by Visa credit cards.

An all-event ticket is also available (prices to be announced). Any remaining tickets will be sold at the respective venues on the day.