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British Industrial History

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George Cayley

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Sir George Cayley, 6th Baronet (1773-1857) "Father of Aerodynamics" was a prolific English engineer from Brompton-by-Sawdon, near Scarborough in Yorkshire.

1773 December 27th. Born on in Scarborough, Yorkshire, the only son of Sir Thomas Cayley (1732–1792), and his wife, Isabella Seton (d. 1828); there were also four daughters.

He was a pioneer of aeronautical engineering, though he worked over a century before the development of powered flight. He served for the Whig party as Member of Parliament for Scarborough from 1832 to 1835, and helped found the 'Royal Polytechnic Institution' (now University of Westminster), serving as its chairman for many years. He was a founding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and was a distant cousin of the mathematician Arthur Cayley.

Cayley inherited Brompton Hall in 1792 and its estates on the death of his father, the 5th baronet.

1795 July 9th. Married Sarah (d. 1854), the daughter of his first tutor, the Revd George Walker; they had three sons and seven daughters, of whom three children died young.

He engaged in a wide variety of engineering projects. Among the many things that he developed are self-righting lifeboats, tension-spoke wheels, the "Universal Railway" (his term for caterpillar tractors), automatic signals for railway crossings, seat belts, small scale helicopters, and a kind of prototypical internal combustion engine fuelled by gunpowder. He also contributed in the fields of prosthetics, air engines, electricity, theatre architecture, ballistics, optics and land reclamation.

He is mainly remembered for his flying machines, including the working, piloted glider that he designed and built. The discovery of cartoons in Cayley's school notebooks (held in the archive of the Royal Aeronautical Society Library in London, England) reveal that even at school Cayley was developing his ideas on the theories of flight. It has been claimed that these images indicate Cayley having modelled the principles of a lift-generating inclined plane as early as 1792. To measure the drag on objects at different speeds and angles of attack, he later built a "whirling-arm apparatus" - a development of earlier work into ballistics and air resistance.

He also experimented with rotating wing sections of various forms in the stairwells at Brompton Hall. These scientific experiments led him to develop an efficient cambered airfoil and to identify the four vector forces that influence an aircraft: thrust, lift, drag, and gravity. He discovered the importance of dihedral for lateral stability in flight, and deliberately set the centre of gravity of many of his models well below the wings for this reason. Investigating many other theoretical aspects of flight, many now acknowledge him as the first aeronautical engineer.

By 1804 his model gliders appeared similar to modern aircraft: a pair of large monoplane wings towards the front, with a smaller tailplane at the back comprising horizontal stabilisers and a vertical fin.

1804 He began experiments on the lifting properties of aerofoils. His aim was to learn enough aerodynamics (the word itself was not in use until 30 years later) in order to build himself a flying machine. In order to obtain systematic data on the lifting power and the weight of various wings, he measured and weighed many representative birds and then undertook a series of tests using an aerofoil on a whirling arm. His results showed a remarkable correspondence with modern theory of aerofoils at low angles of incidence. Caley followed these tests by building and flying the first known model glider, which flew but the results were not fully comprehensible to Caley.[1]

1808 He built a larger model glider.

1838 George Cayley, Bart., of Yorkshire, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[2]

At some point prior to 1849 he designed and built a triplane powered with 'flappers' in which an unknown ten-year-old boy flew.

1853 Later, with the continued assistance of his grandson George John Cayley and his resident engineer Thomas Vick, he developed a larger scale glider (also probably fitted with 'flappers') which flew across Brompton Dale in 1853. The first adult aviator has been claimed to be either Cayley's coachman, footman or butler: one source (Gibbs-Smith) has suggested that it was John Appleby, a Cayley employee - however there is no definitive evidence to fully identify the pilot.

1857 December 15th. Died at Brompton Hall, and was buried at Brompton church


1859 Obituary [3]

Sir George Cayley, Bart., was born at Scarborough, on the 27th of December, 1773. He was the only son of Sir Thomas Cayley, Bart., of Brompton, Yorkshire, and Isabella Lady Cayley, daughter of John Seton, Esq., the representative of the ancient family of Seton, originally settled at Parbroath, in the county of Fife. The Cayley family was of Norman origin, and received considerable grants of land in the county of Norfolk, where its members occupied a prominent position shortly after the Conquest. These possessions however, gradually passed, through heiresses, into other families, and a younger branch settled in Yorkshire, and eventually fixed itself, about the year 1580, at Brompton, the present seat of the family. The first Sir William Cayley was knighted by Charles I, for his services during the civil wars, and was created a Baronet by Charles 11. on the Restoration.

The late Sir George Cayley succeeded at the age of twenty to the title and estates; the latter somewhat diminished by ancestral profusion and hospitality. This doubtless tended to direct his attention to agricultural improvements, in which he was very successful.

If not the very earliest, he was among the first promoters of the drainage of land in Lincolnshire, where one of his estates was situated. The greater part of it he found under water: this he embanked, drained, and grew wheat upon, for nearly thirty years, before his neighbours recovered their land, and grew other crops than rushes and coarse grass. He originated also the Muston arterial drainage, which embraced about 40,000 acres of land in the neighbourhood of his Yorkshire estates, upon a principle then new in this country. He was also the first promoter and adopter of the cottage allotment system, with the view of ameliorating the condition of the poor on his property.

Beginning life at a period when the French Revolution had induced almost universal liberalism, his early political opinions, were influenced by his intimacy with Horne Tooke, Tom Paine, and other members of the Corresponding Society. Reflection and calm observation of the selfish career of his associates modified his views, and he adopted the wiser course of striving to induce practical improvements in his own country, and eventually he exercised considerable political influence as Chairman of the Whig Club at York.

Through his instrumentality Mr. Wyvil was returned as the independent Member for that city, which had previously been a close borough in the hands of one, or two, noble houses. He also took an active part in favour of the Liberal candidate, during the celebrated contest of Wilberforce, Milton, and Lascelles, and subsequently in the election of Henry Brougham. Upon the passing of the Reform Bill, Sir George was returned as Member for Scarborough, but his political opinions had become much modified, and he had arrived at too advanced an age to enable him to assume a leading position in the House; hence, after one session, he retired to the more congenial pursuits of philosophical research and agricultural experiments.

He was an early contributor to The Philosophical Journal and the Mechanics’ Magazine, and like many inventors at that period, his attention was directed to aerial navigation, for which he designed an engine to be worked with heated air. He wrote several papers on the analysis of the mechanical properties of air under chemical and physical action, and pointed out the imperative necessity of obtaining a given power within a given weight, for the purposes of balloon propulsion. He experimented extensively with steam and with gases in endeavours to construct rotatory and disc engines, and he at length produced an engine, working by the expansive power of heated air, which attained some success, and subsequently doubtless encouraged Messrs. Stirling, at Dundee, and Captain Ericcson, in America, to pursue the subject practically on a larger scale.

Latterly he directed his attention to optics, and made some useful discoveries, which were followed by the construction of an instrument for testing the purity of water by the abstraction of light;- a process which has lately been used with success in the investigation of the waters of the Thames. He also attempted, by an ingenious combination, the application of electricity as a motive power.

He was one of the early promoters and patrons of the Adelaide Gallery and of the Polytechnic Institution, and was a Member of most of the scientific societies of the metropolis, having joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as an Associate in the year 1838. He was a constant attendant at the meetings when he visited London, and he frequently took part in the discussions, or made in writing useful communications on the subjects before the meetings.

His career was one of useful activity and well-directed energy; and his decease, which occurred on the 15th of December, 1857, at the advanced age of eighty-four years, was deeply regretted by a numerous circle of friends, by whom he was sincerely beloved.

He is succeeded by his only son, Sir Digby Cayley, Bart.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Flight Archive 22 October 1954
  2. 1838 Institution of Civil Engineers
  3. 1859 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries