Origins of the Helicopter

May 14, 2007 by  
Filed under Features

To understand the development of the present day helicopter we must first look at history to understand how this marvelous engineering feat was created.

It was around about 400 BC that the first concept for a helicopter was developed with the earliest designs found in a toy called the Chinese Top. It was a basic hand-held device, using feathers attached to the end of a stick, which was rapidly spun until released for a short period of flight.

This spinning motion of the Chinese Top would come to influence many designers such as Mikhail Lomonosov of Russia who in 1754 developed a coaxial rotor that would depend on a wound-up spring machine to create flight. The Chinese Top also influenced such inventors as the French naturalists Launoy and Bienvenu who would create quite a stir within the scientific circles with their fascinating and controversial theories.

However, it was in 1786 that the first scientific papers, entitled “Theorie de la vis D’Archimede”, would be published by A.J.P. Paucton on rotating wings. Later, Leonardo da Vinci would prove to be very much ahead of his time with the basic drawings of a helicopter-like machine and with great insight into the problems occurring with flight.

Sir George Cayley became renowned for his work on the simple law required for flight dating back to the 1790’s. It was in 1804, however, that the first scientific study of aerodynamic forces resulting from the lifting of wings took place. This would see a three-part paper being published by Cayley giving rise to more refined theories of modern aerodynamics. Sir Cayley’s greatest works were published in 1843 and contained details on a vertical flight aircraft called the “Aerial Carriage”. Many other helicopter and flight pioneers would follow in Cayley’s footsteps such as Horatio Phillips, Wilheim von Achenbach and Thomas Alva Edison.

The commercial development of the helicopter was the brainchild of Igor Sikorsky. Although he would start off slowly and with several set backs most notably when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, Sikorsky would immigrate the United States to form the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation on Long Island, New York.

Sikorsky’s first success occurred in 1928 with his amphibian aircraft called the “S-38” which would firmly place his name in the history books of the evolving “flying boats”. In 1929 Sikorsky Aviation Company would move to Stratford, Connecticut where it would be purchased by United Aircrafts and become the Sikorsky Division. Unfortunately, due to the prolonged Great Depression, United Aircrafts was closed in 1938.

Amazingly, Sikorsky retained a small team to work on a low budget helicopter project. Sikorsky based his concept on the single main rotor and small sideways-mounted tail rotor, which was needed to cancel torque. This was not a new approach, but had never been proven until Sikorsky successfully launched his “Vought-Sikorsky 300 (VS-300)” on 14 September 1939. Many changes ensued after the successful test of the VS 300 with such planes as the five seat helicopter called the S-53. In the United Kingdom, the Westland Company obtained a license for the Sikorsky S-51 and the “Westland-Sikorsky WS-51” would perform its first flight on 5th of December 1948.

There were many more developments and innovations that have led to the modern day helicopter- all of which have origins in the Chinese Top!

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