Giving Thanks to Bicycles in Aviation History

Whenever I bomb the downhill stretch of Beacon St. from Cleveland Circle to Kenmore Square on my bike through Brookline, I feel like I’m flying, and imagine the airborne feeling of cruising above the height of automobiles and past the blur of pedestrians to be the same feeling that inspired Wilbur and Orville Wright to take their bicycle-building expertise to the skies.

As an avid bike-advocate, there are many things I could give thanks to this year for Thanksgiving, like the success of Boston’s great new Hubway bike-share system, the new bike lanes on Mass Ave, or the coming on-street bike parking coming to Somerville, my current place of residence. But this year I gave thanks to the founding fathers (and crazy inventors) of aviation history who gave lift to what was then a seemingly absurd idea.

In 15th century Italy, a man known by the name of Leonardo Da Vinci sketched his idea of a human-powered flying machine. Perhaps you’ve seen his sketch of the aerial screw, now known as one of the earliest inspirations of the helicopter as we know it.

What makes this sketch great is that it was truly ahead of its time; 15th century Da Vinci had the right idea in using the concept of a screw to lift a human in the air, but it wasn’t until almost five centuries later in the 1940s did the first engine-powered helicopter become a reality, and not until 1994 did a bunch of smarty-pants physicists at Cal Poly actually make the closest thing to a working human-powered helicopter, rightly-named the “Da Vinci III” that uses, you guessed it, cycle-power (Look at the size of that chainring!):

So it took almost five centuries to build a working helicopter and airplane as we know it, and even longer to really build a working human-powered flying machine. But in the time between 1540 and 1994, bicycles and flying machines have had quite a history.

Aviation history started with a bunch of adventurous inventors who literally tried strapping wings to themselves and trying to glide off tops of hills. At some point people started figuring out basic principles of fluid dynamics, and that lift doesn’t happen on its own; perhaps what was needed was more forward motion than what the power of human legs allowed.

At the turn of the century, a community of inventors attempted to build all sorts of contraptions for suspended human flight, including some gliders built on bicycles (photos below are from great library of them here). It wasn’t just the famous Wright brothers who tried inventing a working flying machine. For example, these guys were on the right track when they thought that this machine would need wings and forward motion to propel it, so a bicycle with giant wings would seem to make sense:

Maybe it didn’t really fly, but apparently these bicycles with wings became known as “aviettes,” and people would compete to see who could sustain the longest hop-flights. (Like track-stand competitions in today’s fixed-gear culture world) And where there’s competition, why not kick it up a notch? like these guys did with their aviette sporting twice the number of wings:

or this one, with three times the number of wings and twice the number of cyclists:

because there is no better idea for a first date than “hey baby, wanna fly like an eagle with me on my tri-fold tandem plane? Laws of gravity? pshhhhhh”

These human-powered gliders did glide, but only for short periods of time. It didn’t take long for bicycle-builders Wilbur and Orville Wright to realize thatwhat they needed to focus on first was wing-control and balance in order to make their gliders really take off into the skies. Then they would add a combustion engine and design their first “airplane,” the Kitty Hawk.

So bicycles and aviation technology took a long break after working airplanes as we know it were invented, but every once in a while the two vehicles do reunite, like in 1994 with the human-powered helicopter above, or in 2007 when Red Bull sent this guy out of an airplane with a bicycle because landing on it from thousands of feet up would be awesome:

A little while ago a comment appeared under a video I posted of me drumming on the Urbana bike I reviewed for

And to that I have this to say: Birds probably think humans are idiots for trying to jump off cliffs with wings to try and fly into their airspace, but that didn’t stop the few people who dared try and who eventually figured it out, resulting in something truly great. So ask yourself this: Do we need kids mimicking the behavior of people engineering how to fly giant chunks of metal in the sky?

Maybe strapping drums to bicycles makes me is just as bad as the guys who strapped wings to their bikes in an attempt to fly like birds, and maybe playing drums on a bike is as dangerous as flying an airplane. Or maybe it’s just a skill like driving any vehicle that requires an understanding of physics, a lot of coordination, and safe practice.

In any case, I’m thankful of the bicyclists like the Wright brother and other inventors who dared take bicycles to the next level to see what could be possible, and I’ll continue to dare take my drumming to the next level. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be taking a stroll and see an entire band of bicyclists flying down Beacon St. in Brookline.

Or trying to break the record for longest hop flight down Beacon St:

So the next time you find yourself near Cleveland Circle, or even in Coolidge Corner, I invite you to also fly down Beacon street (downhill and inbound towards the Citco sign) on your bicycle and imagine(but don’t close your eyes); imagine your bicycle had wings; imagine breaking the lindy-hop record; imagine those first eureka! moments the fathers of aviation must have had; imagine the awesome feeling of human flight.

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3 Responses to Giving Thanks to Bicycles in Aviation History

  1. John Dorcey says:

    Great post.

    Beyond the Wright Brothers – aviation pioneers Glenn Curtiss and Hugh Robinson were also bicycle folks. There were others of course as your link shows. Many aspects are shared – chain drives and balance are just two. The Wrights tell of how they “saw” their idea of wing warping when twisting the box a bicycle tube came in.

    As an aviator I am thankful that they moved on and succeeded in aircraft development as well.

  2. greg says:

    Thanks John, I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

    I had no idea about the connection between wing warping and bike tube boxes, but that’s really interesting, thanks for sharing that tidbit.

  3. Pingback: Flying Stories for December 2nd |

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