A century before the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered flight, a Hull man invented a flying car.
Thomas Walker was so confident that his mechanical plane would work, he envisaged building a fleet of thousands.
He hoped that his machines would one day criss-cross the United Kingdom and beyond, delivering letters and mail at the speed of 40 to 50 mph, rescuing mariners in distress and exploring newly discovered lands.
Walker, who made his living as a portrait painter, published his theories in 1810. His book, A Treatise on the Art of Flying by Mechanical Means, included instructions for building a flying machine in which a person could “ascend and soar through the air with the facility of a bird”.
His design was based on a detailed study of birds and featured large wings and a tail made of silk. The pilot would sit in a cockpit and achieve lift by cranking a lever back and forth in order to flap the wings.
He said: “I have obtained a true knowledge of the mechanical principles by which they fly; a knowledge which I do not hesitate to declare has hitherto remained undiscovered.
“When a man is furnished with a pair of wings large enough enough, and can apply them in the same manner as a bird does, and with sufficient power, there can be no reason to doubt of a man being able to fly as well as a bird.
“The machine which I have planned is as close a copy of the natural mechanism of a bird as artificial means will admit of.”
Unfortunately, he had been unable, due to circumstances, to put the idea into practice.
“I have not the least doubt of being successful in the art of flying, if I had it in my power to give it a fair trial,” he said.
Walker was particularly interested in the flight of the “enormous” and “powerful” condor, which he noted was able to lift a whole sheep off the ground.
Human flight would be possible if a person was attached to wings of a sufficient size, and had the power to strike them with sufficient force.
He wrote: “The two greatest requisites for accomplishing the art of flying, are these; first, expansion of wings large enough to resist, in a sufficient degree, the specific gravity of whatever is attached to them; second, strength enough to strike the wings with a sufficient force to complete the buoyancy, and give a projectile motion to the machine.”
This he had demonstrated with models made of paper and wood, with which he carried a small weight.
“Although I think that a pair of wings seven or eight feet each in length, would be sufficient; still if I could make it convenient to try the experiment of flying … I would cause the wings to be made of as large dimensions as I could possibly move with ease.”
In order to take off, the car would be placed on a 12ft-long ramp, four feet high at one end and six feet at the other. The pilot would get into the cockpit and then briskly flap the wings with the lever.
When airborne, airflow across the wings would create lift and thrust, similar to the effect caused “by the wind blowing against a mill sail”.
To turn the aircraft, the pilot would simply shift their weight to the left or the right.
Landing would be rather more difficult, however.
“To descend, he must desist from striking the wings, and hold them on a level with their joints; the car will then gradually come down, the man must instantly strike the wings downwards, and sit as far back as he can; he will by this means check the projectile force, and cause the car to alight very gently with a retrograde motion.”
Walker was a contemporary of Scarborough-born George Cayley, who is considered one of the fathers of modern flight.
Cayley identified the four forces which act on a heavier-than-air flying vehicle: weight, lift, drag and thrust. He designed the first glider that successfully carried a person in flight, crossing Brompton Dale in 1853.
By comparison, Walker’s long-forgotten effort appears little more than a flight of fancy. Nevertheless, his book, which can be downloaded from archive.org, provides a fascinating insight into the dreams and theories of the pioneers of aviation.
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Thomas Walker flying car designs taken from A Treatise on the Art of Flying by Mechanical Means (1810). Main image composite by the Hulltimes blog.