This story does not have a happy ending.
Well, that’s not exactly true. For most of us, the story turns out to be terrifically happy, with no end in sight. It’s just that the protagonist died tragically young, and didn’t live long enough to realize the impact he’d have.
Alphonse Pénaud was born in Paris, France, in 1850, and it was assumed that he’d join the navy like his father, an admiral who’d served with some distinction in Crimea and in the conflict known alternatively as the Maximilian Affair, the Mexican Adventure, or the Second Franco-Mexican War. As it turned out, a hip injury that started simply and then got complicated kept him out of the navy, casually changing history in the process.
Alphonse was one of those guys who was interested in everything. I’ve already told you that he died too young, but it’s also safe to say that he was born too soon. As a young man he was fascinated by and dabbled in high-speed photography, rocketry, and aerodynamics, along with ballistics, hydrodynamics, and meteorology. It’s tough to imagine what it meant to be interested in things like these in the 1870s. It’s like meeting a teenager today whose hobbies include cold fusion, teleportation, and time travel.
For our purposes, the most interesting of Alphonse’s interests is, of course, aerodynamics. In 1870, he built a series of successful toy helicopters. The overall design wasn’t all that new, as it was based on experiments that had been around a staggering 86 years at that point. A working toy helicopter was demonstrated in France in 1784, just a year after the Montgolfier brothers made their first flights.
But Alphonse’s helicopters were more efficient and flew better because of their powerplant: a twisted rubber band, just like the free flight models most of us have grown up with and some of us have never grown out of. He wasn’t the first person to use rubber to power a flying model, nor did he claim to be. He was, however, the first to figure out how to power a model by twisting strands of rubber, instead of using a complicated and inefficient mechanism that involved a strip of rubber wrapped around a spool as others had. Put another way, while his contemporaries used tension, Alphonse used torsion, and it made all the difference. His toy helicopters were simpler and lighter than anything anyone else had come up with, and were known to fly for nearly half a minute.
From there, Alphonse moved on to fixed wing models, developing a number of sophisticated little airplanes he called planophores. As he experimented, he derived and implemented the concept of dihedral, and also built wings and horizontal stabilizers with varying angles of incidence. Many of his designs also included vertical stabilizers, but for some reason they were rarely included in illustrations at the time. Even without them, his designs are instantly recognizable to us nearly a century and a half later. In 1871, a planophore made the first flight of an inherently stable aircraft.
Think about that for just a moment. Alphonse’s charming little “toy” — an elegant if quirky looking contraption built of wood, paper, feathers, steel wire, and goldbeater’s skin, which is a peculiar euphemism for the outer membrane of a calf’s intestine — was the first inherently stable aircraft. The planophores delighted and impressed everyone who saw them demonstrated, flying as far as 200 feet and as long as 13 seconds.
It’s no surprise that success in small-scale aviation had Alphonse thinking big. After a few more years of experiments, funded in part by the commercialization of his helicopters and, later, ornithopters, both of which proved to be popular toys at the time, he patented a design for a full-scale airplane. It was a two-seater, with a glass-enclosed cockpit and single control column integrating elevator and rudder. It used counter-rotating propellers to eliminate torque effects and shock absorbing wheeled landing gear that, oh, by the way, was retractable because this airplane just happened to be amphibious.
Alphonse filed this patent in 1876, 10 years before Karl Benz started building the first production cars. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find an engine that was both lightweight and powerful enough to work. Over the next few years, he struggled to find financial backing, and found his work publicly criticized, often by lesser inventors, who tried to dismiss him as “just” a toy maker. Desperate, he reached out to one of his countrymen, Henri Giffard, an aviation pioneer who made the first powered, controlled flight of anything when he flew a steam-powered dirigible over Paris in 1852.
Giffard refused to help. Alphonse, despondent and overwhelmed, built a small wooden casket that he then filled with his designs and delivered to Giffard’s doorstep.
Then he returned home and, at the age of 30, took his own life.
Alphonse died, but not without making a lasting impact. In addition to seriously impressing fellow pioneers like Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute, his toys introduced the idea of heavier-than-air-flight to countless thousands of people. He showed them that flight wasn’t just an age old dream to be relegated to the imaginations of tinkerers and wild-eyed heretics; he made flight available to the public, at least in a small sense. He inarguably made it believable.
In 1878, a Bishop of the United Brethren Church bought a Pénaud toy helicopter as a gift for his two youngest sons, ages 7 and 11. They were instantly enthralled, and played with it until they wore it out. Then they copied it and started building small flying machines of their own, machines that got progressively bigger as their lifelong obsession grew.
The Bishop’s name was Milton Wright and his sons, of course, were Orville and Wilbur.
It’s heartbreaking to think that Alphonse died without making more headway on his own designs, or at least without realizing that one of his creations would so thoroughly inspire the two most important inventors of the 20th century. We know now that depression is a disease, and, tempting as it may be, it’s disingenuous if not actually offensive to suggest that Alphonse could have been “cured” with some good news. But whether or not the ultimate impact of his legacy could have silenced the demons that took his life, the best we can do is the most we can ever do: learn and remember.
The models Alphonse built may have been small, but the principles behind them were massive, and we live and fly by them to this day.