Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Cayley, George (1773-1857)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United Kingdom, England

Subject: biography, technology and manufacturing

English baronet who spent much of his life experimenting with flying machines, particularly kites and gliders. He eventually constructed a glider capable of carrying people, but never ventured into the realms of powered flight.

Cayley was born in Brompton, Yorkshire on 27 December, the son of wealthy parents. He received a good education and from an early age showed a keen observation and an enquiring mind. Throughout his life he could turn his attention to almost any problem with a degree of success. He is particularly associated with aeronautics and the teaching of engineering, and in later life he helped to found the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. Cayley died in Brompton on 15 December 1857.

Cayley first began experimenting with flight after patiently observing how birds use their wings. He realized that they have two functions: the first is a sort of sculling action by the wing tips, which provides thrust; the second is the actual lift, achieved by the shape of the wing, which we now refer to as an aerofoil. Air rushing faster over the curved surface of the upper wing creates low pressure and a sucking effect. As a result, the higher pressure on the undersurface of the wing gives lift.

His first attempt at a flying invention was a kite fitted with a long stick, a movable tail for some control, and a small weight at the front for balance. His idea was to create a design that would glide safely but with enough speed to give lift. Spurred on by the success of his first design, he wrote in his diary of how nice it was to see it in flight and ‘it gave the idea that a larger instrument would be a better and safer conveyance down the Alps than even a sure-footed mule’.

In 1808, Cayley constructed a glider with a wing area of nearly 28 sq m/300 sq ft, and was probably the first person to achieve flight with a machine heavier than air. During the next 45 years he worked on many aspects of flight, including helicopters, streamlining, parachutes, and the idea of biplanes and triplanes. Eventually, in 1853, he built a triplane glider that carried his reluctant coachman 275 m/900 ft across a small valley - the first recorded flight by a person in an aircraft. Although delighted with the results he had attained, he realized that control of flight could not be mastered until a lightweight engine was developed to give the thrust and lift required.

The developments from Cayley's experiments are plain for everyone to see in the modern world, with the use of the aeroplane as a common means of transport. The first successful sustained flight was made by du Temple's clockwork model in 1857 (the year Cayley died) and the first actual crew-carrying powered flight was in 1874, but the plane did take off down a slope. It was another 16 years before a piloted plane managed a level-ground take-off, and this was Clément Ader's Eole; it hopped about 50 m/160 ft. True success came with the Wright brothers and the key to their success was, as Cayley had predicted, a lightweight engine.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article Cayley, Sir George (1773 - 1857)
The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists

Cayley belongs to the group of gentleman amateurs, able to use their wealth and the peace of country life to advance a...

Full text Article Cayley, Sir George (1773 - 1857)
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

He studied the effects of streamlining, the properties of different shapes of wings, and the basic shape of heavier-than-air...

Full text Article Cayley, Sir George
Philip's Encyclopedia

1773-1857 English inventor who founded the science of aerodynamics . He built the first glider to carry a man successfully, developed the...

See more from Credo