A little while ago, I wrote an imaginary tale based on a possible meeting between two historical characters, some people found it amusing, so here is another one.
“It’s impossible!” Bursts of laughter echoed round one end of the table. At the other end the young poet looked up, curious to know what was happening. Everybody was looking at a middle aged gentleman with a round, tanned face, he looked like a prosperous farmer. But the poet was not so sure, he had seen this ‘farmer’ make a rapid, very rapid, calculation, he was a serious mathematician. Who was this farmer? And what were they laughing about?
“I am perfectly serious, I feel perfectly confident that the art of aerial navigation will soon be brought home to man’s convenience, and that we shall be able to transport ourselves and our families, and our goods and chattels, more securely by air than by water, and with a velocity of from twenty to one hundred miles per hour.”
“But Sir George, you mean flying, and that is impossible.”
“You have seen balloons, I am just saying that other means will be available, as soon as engines of suitable power can be developed.”
The poet listed for some time as Sir George made fantastic suggestions, trade would be carried through the air, that warfare would be fought there, that there would even be harbour masters and controls over ‘aerial navigation’.”
The rest of the diners listened in amusement. One said with a laugh.
“But for all that you need machines that can fly, and that is an impossibility.”
“So you think it is impossible to build a machine that can fly?”
“Of course,” the man looked around in amusement, “I could as just as easily walk on the ceiling like a fly.”
The man hadn’t seen what Sir George was doing with his hands, he had taken something from his pocket and was wrapping a cord around it. He leaned forward, pulled the cord, and the little machine buzzed and soared up into air. It sailed across the table and dropped down in a corner of the room. There was silence, Sir George smiled and pointed at the ceiling.
A reconstruction of Sir George’s glider of 1804 – in flight
That evening the poet sat and thought, aerial navigation, now that was a wonder. He sharpened his pen and began to write;
For I dipt into the future, Far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, And all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, Argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, Dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, And there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies Grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper Of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples Plunging thro’ the thunder storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, And the battle-flags were furl’d
In Parliament of man, The Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most Shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, Lapt in universal law.
Sir George Cayley(1773 – 1857), the ‘father of aviation’, was an incredible man. A Yorkshire landowner, as a teenager he worked out the physics of heavier that air flight and built and developed the first gliders, models then man carrying aircraft. His notebooks make it clear that, if he had had a powerful enough engine, he would have been able to build a man carrying aeroplane.
He always referred to ‘aerial navigation’ as people laughed when he talked about flying machines, and he carried a model flying machine in his pocket which he would launch at dinner when people talked of the impossibility of flight, Sir George’s words are his own.
Alfred Tennyson lived about a hundred miles south of Sir George Cayley, and wrote Locksley Hall, from which his description of flight comes from, in 1835. I don’t think they ever met, but perhaps?