The first flight of the Wright Flyer on 17 December 1903. RAeS (NAL).

The Aeronautical Society of Great Britain presents the Wright brothers with its first Gold Medal. RAeS (NAL).


With powered flight achieved at last, many more eminent scientists and engineers appeared on the lists of members of the Council – Prof G H Bryan, W H Dines and Sir Napier Shaw the meteorologists, and Lord Rayleigh, all members of the Royal Society.

The first authentic account of the flights of the Wright brothers to be published in the UK, ‘With the Power Flyer’, was contributed by Orville Wright and published in the April 1904 Journal. Names familiar today, such as F W Lanchester, J W Dunne, Handley Page, Moore-Brabazon, Santos-Dumont, appeared in the publications of the Society.

Lanchester read a paper on the Wright and Voisin machines. Moore-Brabazon was flying his Voisin biplane and, at the Aero and Motor Boat Exhibition at Olympia in 1909, Handley Page showed the monoplane designed by Jose Weiss. Samuel Cody exhibited his man-lifting kites and A V Roe his Triplane. Moore-Brabazon made the first circular flight of one mile in England; de Havilland was designing and flying at Farnborough; Dunne had demonstrated automatic stability and Grahame-White was becoming a public figure and popularising flying at Hendon and, most exciting of all, Blériot flew the English Channel.

The first award of the Society’s Gold Medal was made in November 1908, and presented in May 1909, to Wilbur and Orville Wright for “their distinguished services to Aeronautical Science”; this was followed in 1910 by a similar award to Octave Chanute “in recognition of distinguished service to Aeronautical Science.”

The Gold Medal is still the highest honour the Society can confer for work of an outstanding nature in aeronautics and it has been awarded only 78 times. The recipients have included Dr F W Lanchester, Prof Ludwig Prandtl, Juan de la Cierva, Dr Theodore von Kármán, Air Cdre Frank Whittle, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, Lord Hives, Marcel Dassault, Elon Musk and the Rosetta Mission Team.


On 3 May 1909 an agreement was signed between the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, the Aero Club of the United Kingdom (now The Royal Aero Club) and the Aerial League of the British Empire (now The Air League) which established the separate roles of each organisation:

“The Aeronautical Society shall be regarded as the paramount scientific authority on aeronautical matters, and shall be consulted on all questions dealing with the scientific side of the question.
“The Aero Club shall be recognised as the paramount body in all matters of sport, and the development of the art of aeronautics.
“The Aerial League shall be recognised as the paramount body for patriotic movements and for education.”

Later, in January 1917, an agreement was arrived at between the Society and the recently formed Society of British Aircraft Constructors [later Aerospace Companies] (SBAC) [now called ADS] embodying the following main clauses:

“The Aeronautical Society of Great Britain shall be, as hitherto, the recognised paramount and representative body of the scientific and technological aspects of Aeronautics, including Aircraft Engines.
“The Society of British Aircraft Constructors is the paramount and representative body of the British Aircraft Industry, including Aircraft Engines.
“The two bodies shall co-operate and support each other in their respective spheres in the development of the Science and Industry of Aeronautics.”


The Aeronautical Society of Great Britain's stand at the Olympia Aero and Motor Boat Exhibition, 11-19 March 1910. RAeS (NAL).

The Annual General Meeting in March 1910 was a stormy one because the members looked on the Council with much disfavour for spending money in 1909 on an experimental ground at Dagenham which was unsuitable and was much criticised. The ‘revolt’, if such it can be called, was carried through to 1911 when a Committee of Inquiry was appointed to report, not to the Council but to the members. The Society was on the way to becoming a professional and technical body. New rules were agreed. Previously the Council had been self-electing. Now the members elected the Council of whom half had to be technical.

Grades of membership were created – Fellow and Associate Fellow – and members elected to these were technical; the need to encourage younger members, as Students, was also recognised.

In the same year Aerial Science Limited was formed to limit the liability of members: new premises were leased at 11 Adam Street, Adelphi, and the Preliminary Report of the Technical Words Committee, forerunner of the BSI Glossary of Aeronautical Terms, was printed in the Journal; there was an early understanding of the difficulty of nomenclature which has bedevilled aeronautics – and other sciences – ever since. ‘Shed’ was preferred to ‘hangar’ and the ‘helmsman’ was in charge of the steering. Although these two examples have not stood up to the usage of time, many others listed before 1914 have done so and are still in current use, such as “aeronautics – the entire science of aerial navigation,” locomotion now being substituted by navigation; pitot tube, elevator and undercarriage are others.

At the beginning of 1912 the first list of Associate Fellows was published; it included Griffith Brewer, A R Low, J W Dunne, W O Manning, Mervyn O’Gorman, Frederick Handley Page, and Horace Short. The first eight Fellows of the Society were elected in October 1913 – Horace Darwin, FRS; W H Dines, FRS; J W Dunne; Dr R T Glazebrook, FRS; Sir George Greenhill, FRS; Col H C Holders, FRS; Alec Ogilvie, FRS; Dr W N Shaw, FRS. That same year it was announced that examinations for Associate Fellowship would be held. However, the 1914-18 war intervened before the examinations could be instituted and it was not until 1922 that the Society’s first examinations were held.


Following the death of Wilbur Wright in May 1912, an appeal was made so that the Wilbur Wright Memorial lecture might be established. This important lecture is still delivered, although since December 1965 it has been renamed the Wilbur and Orville Wright lecture.

Despite two wars, the blackouts and the bombs, there has been no gap in these lectures, from the first – delivered in May 1913 by Horace Darwin – to the 104th given in December 2015 by Nigel Whitehead; even in May 1940, just before Dunkirk, the sequence was not broken. Given by speakers distinguished in aeronautics from both the UK and the US, the titles of the lectures and speakers are in themselves a record of developments in aeronautics over the years and of many of those who have contributed to them.

THE 1914-18 WAR

Until 1912 the Society had been administered successively by Honorary Secretaries but, by then the finances were so improved that it was decided to appoint a full-time Secretary, paid from Society funds. From the 30 applicants the Council appointed Bertram G Cooper as from August 1912. He remained Secretary until 1916.

With the outbreak of war the Society’s activities were severely curtailed because many members were on active service. The finances, even with lessened activities, decreased, so much so that an appeal had to be made to members to pay their subscriptions.

As WW1 began to draw to a close, the lecture programme was revived and the Society began to return to normal activity. The membership had increased because many, through service in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, wished to stay in aviation. By 1917 there were almost 700 members and a credit balance of £700 and it seemed that the days of frugality and hardship were over. A move was made to new premises at 7 Albemarle Street and, from January 1918 the Journal was issued monthly at 2s 6d a copy instead of quarterly. In this same year His Majesty King George V granted to the Society the prefix ‘Royal’ and thereafter it became The Royal Aeronautical Society.

At first it appeared that the optimism about the future had been justified for, by 1919, the membership had passed the 1,100 mark. Alas, this proved but the crest of the wave and membership slipped back. There was a worldwide slump in aviation – the aeroplane was expensive even in those days and its strategic and tactical use in war or in peace was not understood, either by the military or political leaders. Flying was thought to be unsafe and it was considered somewhat foolhardy to risk a flight in a war-surplus aircraft flown by a barnstorming pilot who was selling his skill at 5s or 10s a time up and down the country. But from such flights was born a love of flying in many a youngster which was to mean a great deal in the years to come.

1 March 2016