August Werner carved furniture in his woodworking shop on Main Street in Imogene, Iowa, a town of 400 or so in 1886. As furniture maker, Werner became the de facto undertaker because he could build caskets. And, he carved toy helicopters.
He became obsessed with his helicopters and was rewarded by flight: his toy models worked in the shop. Captured by his idea, Werner built a life-size version of his toy model out of wood and invited the world—that is anyone within gossip distance of Main Street—to witness the first human to fly.
On July 4, 1886, the two-person helicopter was carried to the top of the tallest hill in Imogene. A crowd of hundreds gathered, compelling Werner to deliver a speech to honor the inaugural flight of man. He proclaimed that he would dine with President Cleveland on July 5 and mit der Kaiser Wilhelm in Berlin on July 6.
Werner fits our romanticized image of inventors and creators—an eccentric tucked away in a shop, exploring the unknown and then bursting forth with a revolutionary invention. But, of course, Werner was not alone in pursuing what Igor Sikorsky said was the closest thing to “fulfillment of mankind’s ancient dreams of the flying horse and the magic carpet.”
By 1886, dozens of European scientists and engineers had been debating, experimenting and failing to create a helicopter since 1754.
Yankee helicopter ingenuity began in 1861 with Mortimer Nelson of New York City who—the moment he finished his design on paper—dashed off immediately to submit his patent claim. He planned to use lightweight aluminum, a sail canopy for extra lift and matched propellers that looked like petunia petals. But, like most 19th century designs, there was no “first mover,” an engine strong yet light enough to instigate flight. Nelson’s helicopter never left the drawing board.
The Civil War prompted inventors to carry the battlefield into the skies. Luther Crowell of Massachusetts called for hollow propellers filled with lighter-than-air gas. The Union Army could “employ this aerial machine as an engine of war, it could be elevated, loaded with shell, and when arrived over the desired spot the shell could be discharged.” But, he had no engine to power his bomber to the “desired spot.”
Captain William C. Powers of the Confederate Army designed a contraption to bypass the Union naval blockades. It appeared to have posthole drills strapped to each side and two spiral augers on top. It never flew. It never even moved. Wisely though, Captain Powers destroyed his plans lest they fall into the hands of the Union Army.
By 1863, the word helicopter entered the language courtesy of Viscomte Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt. One of his designs looks like a stack of beach umbrellas standing on a scissors tire jack. In 1871, two other Frenchmen concocted a fantasy to rival Don Quixote: a windmill contraption on top of a gunpowder engine.
A California helicopter looked like a flying pipe organ. Another Frenchman tried to power his invention with ether and an Italian powered his with a cylinder of steam, debuting his helicopter at La Scala in Milan. It rose 42 feet (13 meters) and stayed aloft for 20 seconds,
This is just a partial list of diverse ideas growing from the obsession to fly. But, they do share one common thread: each idea seemed to hold promise and then failed. Each inventor drew inspiration from their imagination, devoted themselves to their idea and then presented it to experts for recognition. Some went right to the top—French and Russian academies of science—others presented to whomever was around to independently judge for creativity: Was the idea original, valid and useful?
Naturally, the idea would seem original to the inventor, but only someone knowledgeable can confirm originality. Imagination is in your mind and on the drawing board; creativity—originality, validity and utility—is verified only when you present your idea. The validity and utility of a helicopter is obvious: it either flies or it doesn’t.
Which brings us back to August Werner at 3 pm on the 4th of July, 1886 on the tallest hill in Imogene, Iowa. After announcing his glorious dinner plans in Washington and Berlin, Werner and a friend climbed into the wooden rotorcraft. They began furiously turning the hand cranks, the wooden gears transferring the power to a propeller above their heads. The propeller began to spin.
Even with a crowd of several hundred, what happened next remains in dispute. Some say the wooden craft didn’t budge; others say it rose as much as 4 feet. A wooden cog gave way and Werner’s helicopter shattered—perhaps from a fall. The crowd laughed.
Werner’s ideas were imaginative; but failed to be creative—useful and valid—to his peers. His work was deemed folly.
Yet, Werner’s insights progressed as far as many of his helicopter competitors. Even Edison failed to design a helicopter—even though he spent ten years and was commissioned $1,000. Why doesn’t the name of August Werner stand in the lineup of 19th century inventors who contributed to the helicopter?
Sikorsky built the first usable helicopter in 1939 after 30 years of thinking, designing fixed wing planes, drawing sketches, and building models and failed prototypes. For Sikorsky, failure was a detour, a road sign to recalibrate his path. For Werner, failure was a dead end.
Werner’s fall from grace ended his dreams and may have robbed him of his sanity. By November 1886, he was often found sitting in his shop in a stupor interrupted by bouts of frenzy when he would proclaim himself “Lord of Lords.” In the first week of December, a judge committed him to the insane asylum, where he died 44 years later.
Perhaps Werner was a 19th century Icarus whose hubris melted his wings. But, he wasn’t alone. His dream was shared by at least 26 others between 1754 and 1889 who built or designed a helicopter that failed. Each inventor built on the ideas of others, and then added their distinct visions to help others eventually solve the questions.
We all fail. We can fail and sink. Or, we can fail and learn.