What’s on : Lectures

George Cayley 250th Anniversary Symposium

5 Dec 2023
Start time
7:00 PM
Yorkshire Museum
George Cayley 250th Anniversary Symposium

Event Information


Introduction and Chair, Professor Andy Marvin, MEng, PhD, FREng, IEEE Life Fellow

Cayley “A Curious Man”, Dr Mary Jones, FRCPCH, Biographer

“An Aeronautical Engineer Ahead of his Time”,  Stephen Blee, C.Eng MRAeS, Aeronautical Engineer

“Sir George Cayley as a public man”, Dr Kathryn Rix, FRHistS, History of Parliament Trust

Click on Cayley Symposium below for further details about the speakers:


All welcome but please prebook your free tickets from Eventbrite:


George Cayley was born in Scarborough on 27th December 1773 and has been called both the “Father of the Aeroplane” and the “Father of Aerodynamics”. As a school boy he began his study of flight by observing birds and created a prototype helicopter. But unlike many inventors before him, Cayley quickly rejected the notion that an airship required flapping wings. He saw that seagulls changed the angle and shape of their wings to stay aloft, and realised that a man-made glider could do the same. In 1799 Cayley engraved a design for a manned glider on one side of a small silver disc. On the other side, he diagrammed the forces applied to flight. He continued to refine his invention off and on over the years and in 1853 he persuaded his coachman, John Appleby, to sit in this new machine, which then flew 900ft across Brompton Dale.  The legend is that John, aged 79, gave his notice with the words “I was hired to drive not to fly”.

Cayley served in Parliament and conducted various scientific experiments ranging from measuring the growth of his thumbnail to wetlands drainage systems. He was an early member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and this evening symposium will celebrate his life and work as the 250th anniversary of his birth approaches.

Lecture to be held in the Tempest Anderson Lecture Theatre, Yorkshire Museum,
YO1 7DR at 7pm.


Member’s report

Introduction and Chair – Prof Andy Marvin of YPS

Professor Marvin, a keen glider pilot himself, reminded the audience that Sir George Cayley (1773 – 1857) had been a very early YPS member, and a Vice President (1824 – 1826).

“Cayley: A Curious Man”, Dr Mary Jones, FRCPCH, Biographer 

Sir George was a polymath with very wide interests. He lived in Brompton by Sawdon, a village near Scarborough. He was a keen observer of nature from a young age, and applied the knowledge learned to many inventions. Examples are a self-righting lifeboat based on water-boatmen; improved cannonballs based on the streamlining of fish; and of course, major developments in aeronautics from herons being able to fly with hardly any flapping of their wings. He also invented caterpillar tracks, the precursor to spoked bicycle wheels, and improved wetland drainage ditches.

“An Aeronautical Engineer Ahead of his Time”, Stephen Blee, CEng MRAeS, Aeronautical Engineer

In 1795 Cayley engraved a silver disc with his earliest thoughts on a design for an aeroplane and the forces involved. He showed oars for propulsion, completely separate from the wings. Over the following years, he developed this concept and realised there were four problems that all had to be resolved – aerodynamics, stability and control, structure and propulsion.

In 1804 he devised experiments in an early form of wind tunnel. A 5 ft long whirling arm was rotated rapidly by dropping a weight down his stairwell, allowing him to estimate the level of lift obtained from the wings. He used this data to design an unpiloted glider with low aspect wings, believed to be the first successful heavier-than-air vehicle in history.

In 1808 he developed his structural ideas, and used hollow tapered tubes such as bamboo canes. He tried diagonal cross-bracing but was overoptimistic about air resistance. He also developed a ‘tension wheel’, a precursor of the bicycle wheel.

In 1809 came experiments on solids of least resistance, using a ‘well fed fish’ as a guide. This led to aerofoils, a mainstay of aerodynamics.

In 1818 drag was measured using a kite-based glider with a whirling arm.

In 1843 after a break for his other interests Cayley wrote a retrospective paper that described a ‘convertiplane’ – similar to modern drones. He also suggested a three-decker wing, which presaged biplane and triplane design.

In 1852 came the design of a ‘governable parachute’ including the detail of how it worked.

In 1853 he built a glider and persuaded his coachman to sit in it during the famous 900 ft flight across Brompton Dale.

The importance of Cayley’s pioneering work in Aviation was recognised by the Wright Brothers, and by Charles Dolfus, the co-founder of the Musee de l’Air.

“Sir George Cayley as a public man”, Dr Kathryn Rix, FRHistS, History of Parliament Trust 

As well as a polymath and scientist, Cayley was a parliamentary reformer with distinctive views as the following quotes demonstrate-

“I have ever been a moderate reformer” and “I am as great an advocate as anyone for leaning constantly towards an extension of the power of the people”.

He was elected as Whig MP for Scarborough in 1832 (as was another YPS member, Sir John Johnstone) at the time of the Great Reform Act. He was not an assiduous MP, and only spoke twice, both on scientific matters. He was beaten in the 1835 election. He helped found the National Gallery of Practical Science in 1832, and the Royal Polytechnic Institution in 1838.

Rod Leonard  

Event supported by.

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