When we think of the first aircraft, a lot of us think of this hot air balloon. But the helicopter really predated it by thousands of years. As early as 400 BC, people knew that rotary devices could fly.
Perhaps the oldest helicopter-like device was an early Chinese children’s toy made from bamboo. It consisted of a propeller attached to a stick in a T-formation.
The early Chinese may have gotten the idea for their toy by viewing nature. Many trees disperse”helicopter” seeds, which are single seeds with a stiff, membranous wing on one end. The wing has a small 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 undoubtedly inspired one of the greatest minds in history, Leonardo Da Vinci, to select the design to the next level.
In 1493, Da Vinci diagrammed an”aerial screw” with a single spiral blade attached to a platform. According to his own writing, Da Vinci never meant to design the device for practical flight; rather, he used it as a means to check a propeller’s”tractive efficiency.”
In theory, this early helicopter could be powered by four men standing on the stage and pumping bars in front of them. Da Vinci notes the potential for building a paper model with a little spring as a power supply.
Centuries later, two French inventors, Launoy and Bienvenu, designed a helicopter with two rotors on each end of one shaft. This device had two contra-rotating blades that moved in opposite directions. With two contra-rotating blades, torque is canceled out. 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 possibility in the previous 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, invented 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 wasn’t unassisted–that the craft was extremely unstable, and required assistants on the floor 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, allowing 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 motor fails, creating a safe landing possible.
The helicopters of the 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 time, Nazi Germany developed the most high-tech helicopter of its time, used in limited quantities during the war.
In 1942, the U.S. Army started mass-producing a helicopter used for rescue missions. 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 many other aerial maneuvers impossible to replicate in a plane. Their extreme maneuverability makes them ideal for military missions, dangerous rescue missions in varied and wilderness terrain, use as flying ambulances, and much more. There’s no question that notions from thousands of years ago have given us one of our most useful and versatile flying machines.