Though balloons were commonplace in 1866 - the Society already was looking ahead to powered, heavier than air flight (RAeS/NAL)

150 years ago the Royal Aeronautical Society was formed as the 'Aeronautical Society of Great Britain'. A look back at how it was formed and its early history.  

The Beginning

Fredrick W Brearey, Secretary of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, 1866-96, (RAeS/NAL) 

“At a meeting held at Argyll Lodge, Campden Hill, on 12 January 1866, His Grace The Duke of Argyll presiding; also present Mr James Glaisher, Dr Hugh W. Diamond, Mr F.H. Wenham, Mr James Wm. Butler and Mr F.W. Brearey. Mr Glaisher read the following address:

‘The first application of the Balloon as a means of ascending into the upper regions of the atmosphere has been almost within the recollection of men now living but with the exception of some of the early experimenters it has scarcely occupied the attention of scientific men, nor has the subject of aeronautics been properly recognised as a distinct branch of science ...’” and it was resolved “that it is desirable to form a Society for the purpose of increasing by experiments our knowledge of Aeronautics and for other purposes incidental thereto and that a Society be now formed under the title of the ‘Aeronautical Society of Great Britain’ to be supported by annual subscriptions and donations.”

So read the first pages of the first minute book of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain.

James Glaisher was a Fellow of the Royal Society and an astronomer and meteorologist of much distinction; Francis Wenham an engine designer with interests in scientific instruments, including microscopes, and Dr Hugh Diamond was a Doctor of Medicine and the Secretary of the London Photographic Society.

These men, of diverse interests, founded the Society, nominating Council and Office-Bearers. The eighth Duke of Argyll was elected President, with the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Richard Grosvenor as Vice-Presidents. Glaisher became Treasurer and Brearey was appointed Honorary Secretary, a post which he held until his death in 1896.

Rules were made quickly and presented for agreement and the objects of the Society were given as “for the advancement of Aerial Navigation and for Observations in Aerology connected therewith.” The subscription was fixed at one guinea a year, which could be compounded for life for ten guineas.

The first public meeting was held in the rooms of the Society of Arts (later Royal), Adelphi, on 27 June 1866, less than six months after the meeting at Argyll Lodge. Thus began an association with the Society of Arts which lasted for more than 70 years.

Francis Herbert Wenham (1824-1908). Wenham's paper, presented at the first general meeting of the Society on 27 June 1866 discussed the principles of mechanical flight. (RAeS/NAL) 

At this meeting a lecture was given by Wenham on ‘Aerial locomotion and the laws by which heavy bodies impelled through air are sustained’. Wenham’s lecture is now one of the aeronautical classics and was the beginning of the pattern of lecture activity which has survived to this day.

From the beginning, the Society aimed at heavier-than-air flight; it was concerned not only with balloons and kites and bird flight, although these played a part in the discussions.

At the end of the first year the Accounts were not difficult to render, for the income was £56 13s 0d, and the expenditure £46 18s 0d, a credit balance of just under £10. The total membership was 65. That year also saw the beginnings of the library of the Society, for the First Annual Report records that eight books had been presented, six of which were in French. In addition there were some 40 patent specifications.

The First Aeronautical Exhibition

The first Aeronautical Exhibition, Crystal Palace, 1868 showing the Stringfellow Triplane model and other exhibits. No fewer than 77 exhibits were collected togther including engines, lighter- and heavier- than air models, kites and plans of projected machines. (RAeS/NAL)

Although a combined exhibition with the French had previously been mooted Brearey, in August 1867, proposed that an “Exhibition of Machinery and Articles connected with Aeronautics should be held in 1868.” Brearey’s proposal was agreed by the Council, although the Society had been functioning for so short a time and had a balance of only 13s 6d. Members of the Council and others guaranteed the Society against loss.

The catalogue of the Exhibition, which was held at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, contained 77 entries. These were divided into seven classes – light engines and machinery; complete working aerial apparatus; models; working models; plans and illustrative drawings; articles connected with aeronautics; kites or other similar apparatus. In the last class a prize of £50 was offered by the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society for “the best form of kite for establishing a communication from a wreck on shore, or between two vessels at sea.”

The Duke of Sutherland, a Vice-President of the Society, offered a prize of £100 to the inventor of a machine which, being neither a kite nor a balloon, would “ascend with a man to the height of 120 feet.” This prize was not won.

Yet a third prize was offered “to the Exhibitor of the lightest engine in proportion to its power from whatever source the power may be derived.” This prize was won by John Stringfellow, who exhibited a steam-driven triplane model.

Early Inventions and Theories


Members of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain and other scientists and Baldwyn's 5 July 1895, with Hiram Maxim's 1894 biplane. Hiram Maxim is in the middle of the three seated figures. (RAeS/NAL) 

The use of aluminium became commonplace in aircraft construction but few realise that it was proposed as long ago as 1869 by D S Brown in a paper read to the Society.

In the Annual Report of 1870 a systematic study of the connection between the pressure and the velocity of air was proposed; it was believed that such experiments would afford the only data in which a true science of aeronautics might be founded. The Report goes on “for this purpose an instrument has been designed by F H Wenham and approved by the Experimental Committee, which is intended to submit to the action of a fan not less than 30 inches in diameter, capable of delivering about 3,000 cubic feet of air per minute. A clear space of 15 feet or more in front of the fan will allow room for a square wooden trunk to guide the blast, ascertain its velocity, and insert the anemometer ...”

This was the first wind tunnel in the world. The Experimental Committee consisted of James Glaisher and Charles Brooke, both Fellows of the Royal Society, and four engineers, F H Wenham, E W Young, D S Brown and La Feuvre. The tunnel was made at Penn’s Engineering Works at Greenwich but no drawings or details have been unearthed, although it is known to have been ten feet long and a foot and a half square, and to have had four flat plates. It aroused considerable interest when it was exhibited to members in 1872.

In 1871 Thomas Moy, a competent engineer and one of the enthusiastic pioneers, was elected a member of the Society; he was a confirmed believer in heavier-than-air flight and, with R E Shill, designed the Aerial Steamer. A model was shown to the Society in 1872 and in 1875 trials were made at the Crystal Palace. They were described by Moy in a paper read before the Society in 1875 – they were not successful. In this same year Brearey was awarded the Gold Medal of the Société Française de Navigation Aérienne, a Society which has not survived. Seventy-six years later, one of Brearey’s successors in the office of Secretary, Captain J L Pritchard, was also honoured by the French when, in 1951 at the fourth Blériot Lecture, he was presented with the Medaille Aeronautique. It was the first time this medal had been awarded to anyone in the UK.

Although powered flight was the goal towards which many were striving, one member, Artingstall of Manchester, was advocating man-powered flight, a study which, much later, was given a tremendous fillip by the Society’s Man-Powered Aircraft Group and the Kremer Prize.

The years which followed were somewhat sterile in the heavier-than-air field and it was Moy, in 1881, who voiced the thoughts of many when he said that the scientific progress of the Society appeared to be very slow. The reports contained translations of papers by Alphonse Penaud and, in 1876, a reprinting of the famous paper ‘On aerial navigation’ by Sir George Cayley who was recognised by many both in this country and abroad as the “Father of Aeronautics”.

Just 20 years after the formation of the Society, a paper by Captain Griffiths was read in 1886 on ‘Jet Propulsion for Aeronautical Purposes’ (the words “jet propulsion” had been used by Wenham in a paper in 1867); five years before, Scoffern had written “it is now definitely known that as this speed – 1,100ft/sec – is approached the resistance increases very rapidly.”


12 January 2016