The word ‘helicopter’ is adapted from the French ‘hélicoptère‘, and is said to have been coined in 1861 by experimental aeronautics engineer Gustav de Ponton d’Amecourt (1825-1888). The machines are defined as being able to take off and land vertically by the means of a rotor. The first design for a helicopter is generally attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452– 1519), in the 15th century, although it is believed that the idea was known to the Chinese from about 400BC.
Leonardo’s design involved a vertical screw but the adaptations ran into the continual problem of not being able to stop the whole machine rotating at the same time as the blades. The 18th-19th century saw the idea refined by a series of engineers and inventors but it was not until 1877 that Enrico Forlanini (1848-1930) managed to get his steam powered machine 43 feet (13 meters) off the ground for 20 seconds. The year before, in Dover, the town had been invited to see what Ralph Stott advertised as the world’s first powered, sustained and controlled vertical takeoff. This did make it into the history books but not for the reasons that Ralph Stott hoped.
Ralph was born in Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1839, an important British naval base from 1782-1952. His father was the Reverend Ralph Stott, a Methodist minister who was transferred to Durban, South Africa in 1862, taking his family, including Ralph and his brother Simon with him. The year before Natal has started to import Indentured Indians and Rev. Stott’s job was to serve their spiritual needs as he spoke fluent Tamil. Although a thankless task, Rev. Stott was eventually given the post of Protector of Indian Immigrants in Durban and for them, he introduced formal education. His son Simon carried on the work of his father after the latter’s death in 1879.
It has been said that Ralph came to England as young man about 1860 claiming to be a gymnast but soon after trained as a mechanical engineer. The latter is true and he was fascinated by the work of Gustav Amecourt. As a successful engineer Ralph, by 1876, was residing at Crabble House, opposite the then Crabble paper mill, where he was carrying out trials on a ‘vertical takeoff flying machine’.
Confident with his experimentation Ralph announced, through the local press, that he planned to make an ‘aerial voyage’ from Dover to Calais and back in one-hour, ‘whatever the force or direction of the wind.’ When asked about the details about how he was going to accomplish this feat, Ralph was evasive, only saying that he was not prepared to sell his prototype for ‘less than half a million pounds!’ As his work progressed, he did offer one-twentieth share of the profits from the sale of the machine, as long as the investor paid £4,000 before the public trial!
At the time, there was a great deal of interest in aviation as the competition hotted up to be the first person to make a powered flight*. Dover, with its high cliffs, the Channel and France beyond, attracted a considerable number of would be aviators. However, because of the various lucrative prizes put up by newspapers and the like, the world of experimental aeronautics was also highly competitive to the point of being cutthroat. Therefore, it is not surprising to read that Ralph was soon complaining that there had been attempts at stealing his invention and of being ridiculed.
Albeit, Ralph decided to bring his machine into the public spotlight and ran off numerous posters, which were plastered all over Dover. The Dover Museum still has one in which the reader is told that, ‘After twelve years of experiment I have made an apparatus whereby action and reaction are rendered opposite but unequal and continued rectilineal motion is produced without expenditure of motive force.’
Ralph went on to say that he hoped that all sceptics ‘and especially my traducers,’ would attend and judge for themselves whether ‘I deserver the strictures and epithets, the indifference and apathy that have been so freely bestowed upon me and my Discovery.’ The proposed flight was to take place on 9 October 1876 from the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club, then further up the seafront on Marine Parade.
The poster shows two drawings, one with two men in the machine giving the indication of size, the other is just of the machine. It was shaped like a bathtub and, according to Ralph, ‘fitted with an arrangement acted upon by a spring compressed by a large screw and a wheel.’ The spring, he said, was pressed against the frame at one end, and the screw, which is in the middle, at the other end. Apart from the screw and wheel, the machine had no moving parts – such as a rotor – and relied on ‘pressures produced.’
What he meant by this is unclear but in press statements Ralph cited many uses for his ‘engine’, especially as it did not use steam – those were the days before the internal combustion engine. His recommendations for the engines use included trains, trams and ships. Concerning the latter, Ralph said that the engine would ‘prevent any risk of floundering.’ For, ‘the force’, which the machine produced could ‘in a moment direct (the ship) vertically instead of horizontally.’
Excitement, fuelled by anticipation, grew but on 3 October 1876, Ralph wrote from Berlin saying that, ‘in consequence of unavoidable delay in seeing certain personages here,’ the flight was postponed. He claimed that a Russian nobleman had seen the machine who had ‘left at once with full particulars for St Petersburg whence he will return to accompany me in the … aerial voyage.’
Ralph returned to England early in 1877 and took up residence in Marine Cottage, East Cliff. He immediately publicised a flight that was to take place on 5 March. However, it was again cancelled as, Ralph said, he had been invited to the St Petersburg’s Imperial Russian Naval Academy. He returned to England a sick man and entered a nursing home at Egloshayle, north Cornwall. There he died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 26 December 1877 age 39 years. At the time he was recognised as an brilliant engineer.
It was not until 17 December 1903 that the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight. That year, Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) began studying at the St Petersburg’s Imperial Russian Naval Academy where, apparently Ralph went. There Sikorsky ‘learned enough to recognise that with the existing state of the art, engines, materials, and – most of all – the shortage of money … he would not (have been) able to produce a successful helicopter at that time.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
In 1933, although a successful helicopter prototype had still not been produced, Ralph Stott’s 1876 experiments were ruthlessly described as a ‘caper’ and he was supposedly ‘unmasked as an elaborate fraud,’ but the writer lacked details. Nine years later, the first helicopter, designed by Igor Sikorsky, went into full production.
- Dover Mercury: 09 July 2009