Thursday, August 8, 2013
Thursday, August 8, 2013
Long before the Wright Brothers, the earliest pioneers of aviation relied on the wind to carry them into the air, whether in the gondolas of hot-air balloons, or, in a few disastrous examples, through feather-and-canvas wings. But one English visionary imagined an entirely different kind of wind-blown travel.
George Pocock (1774-1843), a schoolteacher, evangelist, and inventor from Bristol, was fascinated by kites as a way of harnessing the power of the wind. His experiments - one involved a kite-propelled chair that lifted his daughter over 270 feet into the air! – led him to design the "Charvolant"(flying or kite-carriage), lower right. Patented in 1826, the Charvolant was the first true horseless carriage. Relying on a pair of large kites on long lines for power, the Charvolant could carry six passengers at speeds of up to 25 mph. In his 1827 book, The Aeropleustic Art, or Navigation in the Air by the Use of Kites, or Bouyant Sails, Pocock recorded that on a straight road, the Charvolant could cover a mile in under three minutes. Pocock's prose certainly flies along, too:
This mode of travelling is of all others the most pleasant: privleged with harnessing the invincible winds, our celestial tandem playfully transpierces the clouds, and our mystic moving car swiftly glides along the surface of the scarcely indented earth; while beholders, snatching a glance at the rapid but noiseless expedition, are led to regard the novel scene rather as a vision than a reality.
Pocock and his Charvolants became popular sensations, and on one run between Bristol and Marlborough, a Charvolant passed the famously fast royal mail coach. But such break-neck speed could also lead to social disaster. One racing Charvolant showed abominable bad manners by passing the elegant horse-drawn coach of the Duke of Gloucester, a breach of etiquette that required the Charvolant's driver to come to a hasty, contrite stop to let the Duke pass.
Alas, the Charvolants had considerable drawbacks. They were difficult to control, and even a carefully-trained driver could find them challenging and unpredictable. Despite Pocock's best efforts, they never developed into a practical method of transportation. But in the idealized drawing from his book, above, showing a balmy landscape with fashionable passengers, Charvolants seem to be the perfect way to travel.
Above: Charvolants travelling in various directions with the same Wind
Below: Patent Kite and Charvolant
Both plates from The Aeropleustic Art, or Navigation in the Air by the Use of Kites, or Bouyant Sails, London, 1827
If you're interested in reading more - there's a slightly later edition of the book available to read for free on Google Books here.