We take helicopters today largely for granted, but for the vast majority of human history, being able to take to the skies on a whim was something that people could only dream of. We’ve always had a fascination with flight, and it’s why certain flying machine designs have been around for a lot longer than most people realise.
Helicopters are a particularly interesting topic when it comes to historical design – our ancestors were putting together primitive helicopter designs for the better part of the last 2000 years.
The First References
China is often considered a country of many firsts, and several world-changing innovations found their genesis within ancient China, including helicopter design. In fact, the very earliest reference to helicopters can be found from around 400 BC, in the form of a toy that Chinese children would often play with, known as a “bamboo-copter.” The toy would be spun via a stick that was attached to a primitive rotor, which then generated lift. The people at the time knew of rotator-powered aircraft, although so far, no evidence has been found that one capable of carrying a person was ever created.
By The Time Of The Renaissance
The Chinese bamboo-copter had an enormous impact on how people approached flying machines; so much so that many Renaissance paintings used these machines as inspiration. One of the most famous polymaths of all time, Leonardo da Vinci, was not just a gifted artist, but an innovative engineer and inventor.
He had a fascination with the machine, and he described his own drawings as an aerial screw. It’s believed that his works were some of the most important when it comes to having a flying aircraft that a person is able to use. Da Vinci’s notes suggest that he had built a number of small models, but never took the theories beyond this. But it was the beginning of something, and over the next few centuries, aircraft-related sciences would continue to be refined and better understood.
In the mid 1700s, many years before our modern world of smartphones, the internet, and online golf betting, a Russian named Mikhail Lomonosov had created a primitive machine based on the Chinese bamboo top, except Lomonosov’s device was powered by a spring, and then rubber bands some decades later. It would only be the late 1800s that helicopters would really see major progress.
In fact, the word itself, “helicopter”, was only coined in 1861 by a French inventor, who demonstrated his work using a small model that was powered by steam. It was little more than a proof of concept at the time, but it did prove that vertical flight was possible, and started the trend of more and more engineers working toward vertical lift generation at scale.
The very first true helicopter to fly in the air was in 1901 and was created and flown by German Hermann Ganswindt. By 1906, Louis and Jacques Breguet would make the Gyroplane No.1 which is believed to be the earliest known quadcopter, and from then on, helicopter design and engineering would continue to advance alongside planes at a rapid pace.