Those magnificent men in their flying machines.

We all know the Wright brothers performed the first powered flight on December 17, 1903. (technically, on December 14, 1903, Wilbur Wright made an attempt that did in fact get off the ground, but the airplane stalled immediately after takeoff and the flight lasted less than three seconds. So they didn't count it.)

We also know man has been dreaming of flight for, well.....ever. Look at the story of Icarus. And no less than da Vinci himself speculated on flight, and how to build a heavier than air machine.

As early as the ninth century, people were experimenting with manned glider flights.

In 1799, Sir George Caley proposed a design for a fixed wing aircraft that utilized different mechanics for lift, propulsion and control. By 1803 he was flying models of his design. In 1853 he successfully flew a manned glider.

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In 1856, in France, Jean-Marie Le Bris made the first powered flight. He didn't utilize an engine, though. He had his brother pull him and his glider along a beach with a horse until he got into the air.

In 1883, John Montgomery made the first controlled glider flight.

So, by the time the Wright brothers started tinkering, they had a lot of previous research to use. Fortunately, they didn't use the ideas proposed by the subject of todays post.

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R. Finley Hunt was a dentist in Richmond Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, he couldn't go and fight because of his age and health. So, he started thinking about how he could help the Confederacy.

One of his ideas utilized technology already in use by both sides. He came up with a design, and actually received a patent for, a method of dropping bombs from reconnaissance balloons.

The idea wasn't used for a couple of reasons. Confederate generals didn't want the Union to copy the idea, and also, the bombs were dangerous. They were just as likely to blow up in the balloon as they were to blow up on the Union.

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So he kept working. By 1863 he had a plan. He had come up with a design for wings, a propellor, a control system and a multi cylinder steam engine to power it.

He felt that when assembled, it would allow a man to fly over enemy territory. Long range reconnaissance, bombing, or even transporting soldiers to attack locations.

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He had been in communication with the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Davis in turn referred his to General Robert E. Lee. Lee in turn referred him to Col. Jeffery Gilmer who was the head of the Engineer Bureau.

And it was with Gilmer that things stalled. Gilmer was an engineer, after all, and he and his team looked at the plans and came to the conclusion that Hunt had overestimated the power the engine would put out. They felt the engine would be too heavy for the meager power it provided to get the lift needed. (remember, the basics of flight were known by then)

As we know, nothing ever came of Hunts design. Which is good. Modern aeronautical engineers have looked at his plans and have said, "Hunt didn't have a snowballs chance in hell of flying." (Tom Couch, Senior Curator for Aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.)

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Hunt wasn't alone, though. In Mississippi, Doctor Richard Oglesby Davidson came up with something he called "Artis Avis". Basically it was a giant, steam powered duck. It flapped it's wings, and Davidson said it could be used to bomb the Union and turn the tide of the war. (he didn't get as far as Hunt, though).

And even the north got into the act. Edward Serrell, Cheif Engineer for the Army of the James, had almost completed a full scale model of a powered flying machine by the time the war ended. It's not known if it would have flown, as it was destroyed shortly thereafter. But I doubt it would have.

As it worked out, balloons were the only thing to fly during the war. Both sides used them to gather intelligence about enemy movements and positions.

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I'm not expert, but looking at Hunts plans, I'd say he had as much chance of flying as Wan Hu had of reaching space. (you all know the story of Wan Hu, right? Chinese civil servant in the 16th century? Put rockets under his chair to try and get to space? If you don't let me know, and if enough people have never heard of him, I'll post a link to the Mythbusters episode where they tackled his myth.)

Heh....you all thought I was going to do a Wan Hu follow up, didn't you? Nope. Can't be predictable. You'll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out the subject of the next post.