When we think of their first aircraft, a lot people think of this hot air balloon. However, the helicopter really predated it by thousands of years. As early as 400 BC, people understood that inkjet devices could fly.
Perhaps the oldest helicopter-like apparatus was an early Chinese children’s toy made from bamboo.
The early Chinese might have gotten the idea for their toy by viewing nature. Many trees distribute”helicopter” seeds, which can be single seeds using a rigid, 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 through medieval and Renaissance trade routes, and definitely inspired one of the greatest minds ever, Leonardo Da Vinci, to select the design to another level.
In 1493, Da Vinci diagrammed an”aerial twist” with one spiral blade attached to a platform. According to his own composing, Da Vinci never meant to design the apparatus for practical flight; rather, he used it as a way to check a propeller’s”tractive efficiency.”
In theory, this ancient helicopter could be powered by four guys 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 historians, Launoy and Bienvenu, designed a helicopter with two rotors on each end of one shaft. This apparatus had two contra-rotating blades which moved in opposite directions. The blades are put on the same shaft, which makes them coaxial.
In practice, however, helicopters needed sufficient force to turn the propeller in front of a boat large enough to carry a person could truly take flight. When the steam engine was developed, inventors at last saw potential in the previous designs of Da Vinci. The first to construct a working helicopter using a engine was that the French inventor Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt. He made a steam-powered flying apparatus made from lightweight aluminum. While it never flew, the version was the first to use an engine.
In 1907, the Gyroplane No. 1, devised by two brothers, Louis and Jacques, Breguet, lifted a person a few feet off the floor for a moment. This was considered the first manned helicopter flight, but it wasn’t unassisted–that the craft was extremely unstable, and demanded 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 another propeller; and autorotation, which permits the propellers to be flipped 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 period, Nazi Germany developed the most high-tech helicopter of its period, used in limited quantities during the war.
In 1942, the U.S. Army started mass-producing a helicopter used for rescue missions.
Now, helicopters can hover, move forwards and backwards, and perform a number of other airborne maneuvers impossible to replicate in a plane. Their extreme maneuverability makes them perfect for military assignments, dangerous rescue missions in diverse and wilderness terrain, use as flying ambulances, and much more.