On 10th May 2012 A Specialist from the BBC's ‘Antique Roadshow’ programme examined the original Sir George Cayley notebooks held in the archives of the National Aerospace Library at Farnborough.


Earlier this year the Society was tipped off that the Antiques Roadshow would be filming during May in the Heritage Quarter at Farnborough around the corner from the Society's National Aerospace Library (NAL). Since then the Society's staff have been most ably assisted by Air Cdre Bill Tyack, CBE FRAeS, Chairman of the Society's Learned Society Board, in their liaison with the BBC to determine which items, from the wealth of treasures held within NAL, would be of interest to the viewing public. In the end, the items of choice were Cayley's aeronautical notebooks which were originally rediscovered by J.E. Hodgson who for many years was the Royal Aeronautical Society's Honorary Librarian. The notebooks were presented on permanent loan to the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1946 by Cayley's grandson Sir Kenelm Cayley, the Society's Journal recording:- "These notebooks and papers are unique in the history of aviation". The Antiques Roadshow filmed a discussion between Justin Croft, their Specialist on Books and Manuscripts and Bill Tyacke FRAeS. This was staged in R52 - the oldest (constructed in 1916 ) of the wind tunnel buildings at IQ Farnborough, near to ‘The Hub’ - the former Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Q134 Weapon Aerodynamics building in which the National Aerospace Library is located. It is hoped that this clip will form part of a future Antiques Roadshow episode.

About Sir George Cayley's Papers

Born in Brompton in Yorkshire, Sir George Cayley's (1773-1857) understanding of the principles of heavier-than-air flight was first published in his paper 'Aerial Navigation' published over three parts in Nicholson's Journal 1809-1810. This work was a great advance over anything that had previously been written on the subject of aeronautics. Now widely regarded as 'The Father of Aeronautics', Cayley evolved the idea of an aircraft with fixed wings, in which the principle of lift was separated from the propulsion system, and in which inherent stability, as well as tail-unit control-surfaces, must be incorporated. Convinced of the future of heavier-than-air vehicles, he built and flew model and manned gliders in an attempt to demonstrate their potential. His work on aerodynamics was widely read and directly inspired others to investigate the problems of flight.

The National Aerospace Library has had in its care for many years a number of Sir George Cayley's original papers which relate to his aeronautical and other scientific researches - there is little in the Cayley papers that falls outside of these areas. In addition to this material there are 5 manuscript notebooks of Sir George Cayley (3 of which were filmed as part of the programme) and the dihedral parachute model which the leading aviation historian C.H. Gibbs-Smith described as "... the only surviving piece of his aeronautical apparatus". A large number of the original Cayley manuscript illustrations held in the archives of the National Aerospace Library have been digitally scanned and many are reproduced in Richard Dee's book ' The Man who Discovered Flight: George Cayley and the First Airplane' (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2007), the most detailed study of Cayley's work since J. L. Pritchard's 'Sir George Cayley: the Inventor of the Aeroplane' (London: Max Parrish and Co Ltd. 1961) and C.H. Gibbs-Smith's 'Sir George Cayley's Aeronautics 1796-1855' (London: HMSO / Science Museum. 1962).

The Antiques Roadshow Experience from the Chairman of the Learned Society Board

The day (and it did take a full day) spent with the Antiques Roadshow was much more interesting and enjoyable than I was expecting. Mark Wheeler and Brian Riddle had done a great deal of leg work with the AR team beforehand. The researchers had decided that either the Wright brothers’ correspondence or Sir George Cayley’s notebooks would be of interest and had given us an appointment at the reception desk at 11 am; so we did not have to join the queue - of up to four hours, according to the local press. Having arrived at reception at the appointed time we then went through a three-phase selection process, moving from one holding area to another holding area at each stage. The AR Expert, Justin Croft an antiquarian bookseller, decided to focus on the Cayley notebooks as they would be easier to display and Cayley’s story was not so well-known as that of the Wright’s. He was quite excited as he looked through the notebooks and as Brian and I explained their significance. We then were given a final appointment at 3.30 pm for filming. As an ex-military person, I am well used to ‘hurrying up to hang around’ and we had the sanctury of the National Aerospace Library, which was a boon on a rather wet and windy day. The high point of the day for me was the couple of quiet hours that I spent with Cayley’s notebooks. I was familiar with Cayley’s achievements in the field of aerodynamics, his gliders and his important place in aeronautical history. I had also seen several of the diagrams from the notebooks reproduced in various publications, but I had never before held the notebooks themselves. As I read them I got a tingle down my spine. The handwriting is easy to decipher and the language is direct and vibrant as, for example, when Cayley describes the camber and angle of incidence of a crow’s wing as it ‘skims’ (his word for glide). There is an immediacy to his descriptions of observations from nature and from his experiments; while his initial design sketches are clear and compelling. The other surprise was the scope of Cayley’s interests, apart from aeronautics, that the notebooks reveal. I saw, for example: notes on crop rotation and land drainage; a design for a tension spoke wheel (i.e. as used on modern bicycles), that would be light enough for an aircraft; discussions of the ‘health and safety of miners’ with a design for an anemometer to measure the air flow underground; a design for a heat-exchange engine and an internal combustion engine (powered by gunpowder) for an aircraft; and a design for a prosthetic hand and arm. I believe that he also designed a self-righting lifeboat and an automatic signalling system for the railway. He was involved in politics and he was one of the founders of the first Polytechnic Institute in the country, now Westminster University. He really was a genius, far ahead of his time. By the time we got to filming I was really fired up about the opportunity to introduce Sir George Cayley to a wider audience. The filming itself was a much less stressful experience than I had been expecting. This was entirely due to Justin Croft who was charming and very professional. I was very impressed with his ability to absorb information and then present it in a fresh and interesting way. I had been anticipating some sort of rehearsal, before filming, but that does not happen, so as to preserve the spontaneity of the conversation. It was a great privilege to be able to present one of the Society’s treasures (on permanent loan from the Cayley family) to a potential audience of many millions around the world. I am very grateful for all the hard work that Brian and Mark put in to create the opportunity. Let us hope that the recording does not end up ‘on the cutting room floor’.

Air Cdre Bill Tyack, CBE, FRAeS

Chairman, Learned Society Board

Faye Smith
17 May 2012