When we think of the first aircraft, many of us think of the hot air balloon. However, the helicopter actually predated it by thousands of years. As early as 400 BC, people understood that inkjet devices could fly.
Perhaps the earliest helicopter-like apparatus was an ancient Chinese children’s toy made out of bamboo.
The early Chinese may have gotten the idea for their toy by watching nature. Many trees disperse”helicopter” seeds, which can be single seeds with a rigid, membranous wing on one end. The wing has a slight pitch, causing the atmosphere to move beneath it in such a way as to create the seed spin as it falls.
The Chinese bamboo-copter made its way to Europe via medieval and Renaissance trade routes, and definitely inspired one of the greatest minds in history, Leonardo Da Vinci, to select the design to another level.
In 1493, Da Vinci diagrammed an”aerial twist” with one spiral blade attached to a platform. According to his own writing, Da Vinci never intended to design the apparatus for practical flight; rather, he used it as a way to test a propeller’s”tractive efficiency.” He imagined the blade to be constructed of linen coated in a layer of starch to make it airtight.
In theory, this ancient helicopter could be powered by four guys standing on the stage and pumping bars in front of them. Da Vinci notes the possibility of building a paper model with a little spring as a power source.
Centuries later, two French inventors, Launoy and Bienvenu, designed a helicopter with two rotors on each end of one shaft. This apparatus had two contra-rotating blades which moved in opposite directions. This counteracts torque, which causes the body of the helicopter to rotate in the opposite direction as the rotor. The blades are put on the same shaft, which makes them coaxial.
In practice, however, helicopters needed sufficient force to turn the propeller before a boat large enough to carry a person could truly take flight. When the steam engine was developed, inventors at last saw potential in the old designs of Da Vinci. The first to construct a working helicopter with a engine was the French inventor Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt. He designed a steam-powered flying apparatus made from lightweight aluminum. While it never flew, the model was the first to use an engine.
In 1907, the Gyroplane No. 1, devised by two brothers, Louis and Jacques, Breguet, lifted a person a few feet off the ground for a moment. This was considered the first manned helicopter flight, but it was not unassisted–that the craft was extremely unstable, and required assistants on the ground to keep it steady.
From the 1920’s, the helicopter as we know it today started to take shape. Inventors developed craft with cyclic pitch, which allows each blade to be angled individually to control the craft’s movement forward and backward; a rotor hub that tilted, allowing the craft to move side to side without a separate propeller; and autorotation, which allows the propellers to be turned by the surrounding air if the engine fails, making a safe landing possible.
The helicopters of this time managed flights of around two minutes, and reached maximum heights of fifty feet. Mass production didn’t happen until World War II. In this period, Nazi Germany developed the most high-tech helicopter of its time, used in limited quantities during the war.
In 1942, the U.S. Army began mass-producing a helicopter used for rescue missions. The British Royal Air Force set up a helicopter training school. The first helicopter approved for commercial use was the Bell 206, which was made available to the public in 1946.
Today, helicopters can hover, move forwards and backwards, and perform a number of other aerial maneuvers impossible to replicate in a plane. Their extreme maneuverability makes them ideal for military assignments, dangerous rescue missions in diverse and wilderness terrain, use as flying ambulances, and more.