When we think of their first aircraft, a lot of us think of the hot air balloon. But the helicopter actually predated it by thousands of years. As early as 400 BC, people understood that inkjet devices could fly.
Perhaps the earliest helicopter-like device was an early Chinese children’s toy made from bamboo. It consisted of a propeller attached to a stick in a T-formation. When the stick was rolled quickly between the palms and then released, it flew a short distance.
The ancient Chinese might have gotten the idea for their toy by viewing nature. Many trees distribute”helicopter” seeds, which are single seeds using a rigid, membranous wing on one end. The wing has a small pitch, causing the atmosphere to move beneath it in such a way as to make the seed spin as it falls. This causes the seeds to scatter more widely than they would if all the seeds on the tree simply fell straight down.
The Chinese bamboo-copter made its way to Europe through medieval and Renaissance trade routes, and undoubtedly inspired one of the greatest minds ever, Leonardo Da Vinci, to take the design to the next level.
In 1493, Da Vinci diagrammed an”aerial screw” with one spiral blade attached to a platform. According to his own writing, Da Vinci never meant to design the apparatus for practical flight; instead, he used it as a means to check a propeller’s”tractive efficiency.”
In theory, this ancient helicopter could be powered by four guys standing on the platform and pumping bars in front of them. Da Vinci notes the potential for building a paper model with a little spring as a power source.
Centuries later, two French inventors, Launoy and Bienvenu, designed a helicopter with two rotors on either end of one shaft. This device had two contra-rotating blades which moved in opposite directions. This counteracts torque, which causes the body of the helicopter to rotate in the opposite direction as the rotor. With two contra-rotating blades, torque is canceled out. The blades are placed on the same shaft, which makes them coaxial.
In practice, however, helicopters needed adequate force to turn the propeller in front of a boat large enough to carry a person could truly take flight. When the steam engine was developed, inventors at last saw potential in the old designs of Da Vinci. The first to build a working helicopter with a motor was the French inventor Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt. He designed a steam-powered flying apparatus made from lightweight aluminum. While it never flew, the version was the first to use an engine.
It was the internal combustion engine, however, which gave the helicopter its real power.
In 1907, the Gyroplane No. 1, invented by two brothers, Louis and Jacques, Breguet, lifted a person a few feet off the ground for a minute. This was considered the first manned helicopter flight, but it was not unassisted–that the craft was extremely unstable, and required assistants on the ground to keep it steady.
In the 1920’s, the helicopter as we know it today began to take shape. Inventors developed craft with cyclic pitch, allowing each blade to be angled individually to control the craft’s movement forward and backward; a rotor hub that tilted, allowing the craft to move side to side without another propeller; and autorotation, which permits the propellers to be turned by the surrounding air if the motor fails, making a safe landing possible.
The helicopters of the time managed flights of around fourteen minutes, and reached maximum heights of fifty feet. Mass production didn’t occur until World War II. In this time, Nazi Germany developed the most high-tech helicopter of its time, used in limited quantities during the war.
In 1942, the U.S. Army started mass-producing a helicopter used for rescue missions. The British Royal Air Force set up a helicopter training school.
Today, helicopters can hover, move forwards and backwards, and perform a number of other aerial maneuvers impossible to replicate in a plane. Their extreme maneuverability makes them perfect for military assignments, dangerous rescue missions in diverse and wilderness terrain, use as flying ambulances, and much more. There’s no question that ideas from thousands of years ago have given us one of our most useful and versatile flying machines.