Human beings have always dreamed of following birds into the air, achieving the grace of effortless gliding. History is littered with stories of men fashioning wings, then diving from a hill or tower and usually plunging to their deaths. A soaring bird still inspires, so it’s easy to see how readily people imagined the idea of flight.
But, what—if anything—inspired the ungainly helicopter with its loud rotors spinning wildly above a human cargo?
Some suggest that the idea may have come from watching the seeds of sycamores or maples twirling to the ground. It’s certainly possible. But, these seeds spin to slow descent and catch the breeze, not to rise from the ground.
Where did the idea for the helicopter come from? In fact, the helicopter is child’s play.
On the morning of September 14, 1939, the 59-year old Igor Sikorsky took the controls of his new helicopter. He wore a drab business suit and tie, his bald head covered by a gentlemanly fedora. Powered by a 75 horsepower engine, Sikorsky and his helicopter rose a few feet, hovered for 10 seconds and then gently descended. It is not known if his hat blew off.
It was the first functional helicopter. Within five years, the Sikorsky helicopter was serving US troops on the battlefield and by 1953, in the Korean War, the helicopter was integral to combat and was considered the future of civilian transportation.
Sikorsky began designing helicopters in 1909 after being unimpressed by the rickety canvas and wood flying machines at a Paris airshow. Returning to his native Kiev, Sikorsky built many unsuccessful helicopter prototypes before finding success with fixed wing airplanes. He fled the Russian revolution arriving in the United States with $100 in his pocket. He built successful airplanes earning wealth and respect. In 1937, he raised $300,000 to return to his original dream: the helicopter.
His dream began when he was a boy reading the science fiction of Jules Verne, particularly Verne’s 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror. In the novel, Robur kidnaps the leading aviation scientists, taking them on a three-week trip around the world in Robur’s helicopter, the Albatross. Verne strived for scientific accuracy: the fictional Albatross looked like a clipper ship with stern and bow propellers and 37 masts each topped with rotor blades. One hundred feet long and 12 feet wide, the “clipper of the clouds” was made of hydraulically compressed paper and reached a top speed of 120 mile per hour.
Jules Verne had been researching his novel since he became an early member of the Parisian Societe d’Aviation. Founded in 1862, the original members included two helicopter “inventors” and the first aerial photographer. Gabrielle de la Landelle, a sailor, drew a design for the great “Steam Air Liner” and Vicomte de Ponton d’Amecourt built a working model of a steam-powered helicopter and coined the word helicopter. The Societe d’Aviation published a magazine, the Aeronaut, to receive helicopter designs and ideas from all over the world. Verne acknowledged that his “clipper of the clouds” was inspired by at least 70 different designs, including the work of Sir George Cayley.
In 1809, Cayley wrote an article “On Aerial Navigation” for a London magazine in which he propounded the results of 17 years of studying what he called “rotary wafts” or “elevating fliers.” His principles of flight were influential and were even cited by the Wright Brothers 100 years later. He illustrated his elevating flyer: a helicopter model with two propellers of corks and feathers at opposite ends of a stick powered by a whalebone bow drill. By 1835, his model could rise 90 feet. His design was based on a toy that he played with as a child—a Chinese top.
But, Cayley was not the only one inspired by a toy. In 1784—one year after the first hot-air balloon ascent—naturalist Christian de Launov and his mechanic Bienvenu amazed the French Academy of Sciences with a small helicopter with two feather propellers on a coaxial shaft and a bent bow with twisted strings for propulsion. It was the same Chinese top.
Thirty years earlier, 1754, the “Father of Russian Science,” Mikhail Lomonov, tried to dazzle the Russian Academy of Sciences with a box attached to a stick with two propellers—the Chinese top—to convey measuring instruments into the sky. Its flight was indeed inspiring until someone noticed that it was suspended in part by a string from the ceiling.
Tracing the origin of the helicopter now brings us to Leonardo da Vinci—famous for so much including his design for the “helical air screw” drawn in 1493. Da Vinci had a life-long love of birds. He studied their anatomy and musculature. He developed mechanical wings. He tried to glide out over a lake. In one of his notebooks, he wrote that the kite (the bird) seemed to be his “destiny [as it was] …among the first recollections of my infancy… I was in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.
Though his air screw could never fly, surely Da Vinci is the source of all helicopter ideas. However, his notebooks—including his drawings of orinthopters, birds and helicopter—were lost for centuries and not available until the second half of the 19th century.
So, how did the Chinese top come to influence Russians, French, English and Italians?
The Chinese top first appears as a children’s toy in Europe in a 1320 Italian painting. In 1460, another Italian painter places the Chinese top in the hands of the infant Jesus with the Madonna. Children’s Games, painted by Pieter Breughel in 1560, features 250 children playing 64 different games. In the lower left corner, you can see a boy playing with a Chinese top.
Chinese tops were sold in the United States in the 19th century. In fact, the father of the Wright Brothers gave the boys an improved Chinese top designed Alphonse Pénaud in 1870—the first powered by a rubber band. They called it “the bat” and they told the story of the 50 cent flying toy long after they were famous.
The famous Chinese top is documented in China as far back as 400 BCE. No one knows who invented it. It’s just a toy. The helicopter grew from the imagination of simple child’s play.