This guy flew before the Wright Brothers

Here’s a guy that never got much recognition for a pretty big achievement: Richard Pearse, the first person to successfully(ish) build a flying machine.


Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the wonderfully pompous Brits in “Those magnificent men and their flying machines”, Pearse was far from magnificent. He was pretty eccentric (aka mad), and eventually ended up going off his rocker.

Makes for a good story though.

His flying machines were “successful” in that they flew – kind of. According to eyewitness accounts, he ended up stuck in hedges more often than not, meaning he only get about 4 or 5 metres off the ground. To be honest though, I wouldn’t want to be any higher than that in in a contraption like this! His flight was far from controlled. But still, it was flight. Image

Replica of Pearse’s flying machine in Timaru Museum. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Pearse flew his machine around 9 months before the Wright brothers took to the air. His best attempt took him about 1000 yards, flying alongside the Opihi River in Canterbury, before the engine overheated and he crash-landed in the dry riverbed.

The engine in his plane was 15 horsepower. If you consider that an average modern car is about 200 horsepower, then it really is amazing that his machines had enough power to take to the air at all. This engine was good enough to lift him, but not enough to control his turning.

If the wings on his plane had been designed with aerofoils, then it may have been a lot more efficient, which would have allowed him more control. Cross sections of modern plane wings, bird wings and dolphin flippers are all shaped like this, with a rounded front edge, and a tapered back. Pressure difference created as air (or water) flows past gives an aerofoil shaped wing more lift and less drag.


Wikimedia Commons

Pearse never really spoke out about his machines, and certainly wasn’t seeking recognition for his work. There are no documented newspaper accounts from the time and he never received recognition during his lifetime.

It seems that he was pretty keen to keep his machines a secret, because later in life, he became reclusive and paranoid that foreign spies would recover his work. He was admitted to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch, where he died in 1953.