The Royal Aeronautical Society holds many early letters between the Honorary Secretary and some of the great men in nineteenth century aeronautics. In this 150th year, National Aerospace Library Volunteer, Eur Ing MIKE STANBERRY MRAeS, has been uncovering some the stories and personalities recorded in these letters.  

It has been a most interesting insight into those early days to read the original letters of the Society, however it has been a nightmare trying the read the handwriting of these early aeronauts. Whilst many of the letters cover purely administrative matters of the day, others give an insight into the naïve designs and studies that were going on. Many gliders were built to develop theories. Motive power was either rubber band, which we have all used in our formative years, or light steam engines which many were convinced were the way forward in the 1860s.

So far five boxes of correspondence have been catalogued. Three boxes contain the correspondence of the Society’s first Honorary Secretary, Frederick Brearey, who was Hon Sec of the Society from its founding in 1866 to his death in 1896. What comes across in these letters is that all knowledge gained from these early studies and experiments was disseminated though the Society by Brearey and others at the regular Society meetings.

Many of these letters discuss John Stringfellow's steam engine which was shown there. Stringfellow was recognised as a pre-eminent designer of steam engines and spent his life developing to achieve a power/weight ratio capable of supporting manned flight. He did not succeed, but after his death his old engines were still in demand.

The letters between Major Baden Fletcher Smyth Baden-Powell and Brearey show how the letters combine the championing of aeronautics with the everyday work of the Society. Major Baden-Powell was a military aviation pioneer and the brother of Robert Baden-Powell. In the mid-1890s Baden-Powell was eager to persuade the Society to repeat its 1868 exhibition as it would enable the great aeronaut names to excited the public. The older, campaign-weary Brearey stopped this suggestion, noting the apathy of many members and a lack of interest in the 1868 Crystal Palace exhibition. He pointed out that even the managers of Crystal Palace were not enthusiastic because they wanted events that would attract thousands of visitors and an aeronautical exhibition would only attract hundreds. Contrasting Baden-Powell’s attempts to publicize aeronautics, was an earlier exchange in which Brearey tells him membership is one guinea a year, and membership of the dining club is an extra half guinea.  However, being away on active service, Baden-Powell does not join the dining club.

The letters show that the Society was an organisation with global coverage. Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute in America were able to tap into the knowledge and give it further distribution on their side of the Atlantic. I am not sure that without this knowledge that the Wright Brothers, Blériot or Samuel Cody would have achieved their flights.

The National Aerospace Library of the Royal Aeronautical Society holds a collection of 65 letters from Octave Chanute, most of which were sent to members of the Society over the period 1893 to 1910 when he died. In his day, Chanute provided many early aeronauts - including the Wright brothers - with help and advice, and helped to publicize their flying experiments. At his death he was hailed as the US father of the heavier-than-air flying machine. Chanute first became interested in aviation in 1856 after watching a balloon take off. When he retired from his railroad career in 1883, he devoted some retirement time to furthering aviation. Applying his engineering background, Chanute collected all available data from flight experimenters around the world and combined it with his own engineering knowledge, for example, he designed wing bracing using his railroad knowledge of girder bridge design.

Chanute was too old to fly himself, so he helped others. He freely shared his knowledge about aviation with anyone who was interested and the letters held by the Society show how this was well deserved through the way he disseminated information. His open approach led to friction with the Wright brothers, who believed their ideas about aircraft control were unique and refused to share them. The National Aerospace Library collection shows his correspondence and determination to share knowledge. In 1910 the Society awarded Chanute its Gold Medal and the Society was keen to confer "the highest award in the world of aeronautical science" at a banquet.  the last few letters in the Chanute Collection were between his daughter and the Aeronautical Society as they tried to organise the presentation for this medal while he was in Europe, but in very poor health. Eventually the Society had to send it to him and he died back in Chicago a short time later.

The collection also includes 37 letters from Samuel Langley to members of the Society. Langley was an American astronomer and pioneer of aviation. He began experimenting with rubber-band powered models and gliders in 1887, then using flash-boilers engines. He would launch from a boat in the Potomac River and he achieved a few hundred yards' flight. Eventually he achieved 5,000ft, though he was unable to scale this up to manned aircraft. The Wright brothers had already patented the flight control design, but despite having the Smithsonian Institute on his side, the US courts upheld the Wright patent. Nevertheless the Smithsonian displayed his flyer as the first man-carrying aeroplane. The dispute went on for a decade and resulted in a fit of pique shown by the Wrights to the Smithsonian, with the original Wright flyer being displayed in the London Science Museum, and not in America. The Society’s collection of correspondence continues after Langley’s death and up to 1928, with letters stoking the controversy on the design of the Langley Flying Machine with allegations by Griffith Brewer in the UK, and refuted by the Smithsonian Institute.

The early letters to and from the Aeronautical Society can be read at the National Aerospace Library in Farnborough. Over two hundred early letters have been listed on the library’s online catalogue and more will be added in the months ahead. More information on the early days of the Society can be found in part 1 and part 2 of the new edition of the Society's history.

Mike Stanberry
23 June 2016