The first to fly? Wilbur and Orville Wright, right? At Kitty Hawk, in 1903. Maybe, maybe not. It depends on your definition of flying. So, let’s stretch the definition a bit, and pay homage to the great Professor Carl Myers. He was the inventor and pilot of the pedal-powered Aerial Bicycle, also known as the Air Velocipede and Sky-Cycle.
The balloon takes off
Man, and woman, first took to the air, in hot-air balloons, all the way back in 1783. Jump ahead a little more than a century, to the age of the bicycle, and: Let’s combine the two concepts and sling a bicycle underneath a balloon. The pilot will turn the pedals, which will turn the propeller, or propellers, and propel the machine forward. Or to the right or the left. Or in a circle, if you so desire. The balloon provides the lift; the bike and propellers provide the thrust. It’s simple physics. Let’s do it.
There were plenty of inventors who experimented with and tested this concept, as the entire world was fascinated by the possibility of flight, and, advances in technology made it seem more and more possible. Myers was the first, most successful and famous of the flying-balloon bicyclists. Born in 1842, he eventually became interested in the making and flying of hydrogen-filled balloons. His wife, Mary, helped with the manufacture of the balloons on their “Balloon Farm” in Frankfort, New York. She eventually joined the traveling act, became known as Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut, and jumped out of balloons … with a parachute.
This was a popular and frightening feat that was performed by daredevils at county fairs and parks back then.
Proof of concept
Prof. Carl Myers has made several satisfactory tests with his new invention, the air velocipede, which will soon be in shape to give public exhibitions of its workings. Altoona Times, Pennsylvania, April 17, 1889
Ah, a public exhibition. This all-important step, of going from describing your invention to a newspaper reporter, who then wrote about it, to actually building and demonstrating it was the step that tripped up many inventors. Not Myers.
The August 31, 1892 edition of the Hamilton Evening Journal, Ohio, described the upcoming performance of Myers’ wonderful air ship …
This is no hot air hocus-pocus where the so-called “aeronaut” goes up about as high as a church steeple and then comes down, but an actual flying machine, that speeds and spins in the air like a bird. It is worked by foot pedals like an ordinary bicycle, but goes through the air instead of on the ground, and is supported by a hydrogen gas spindle unlike any other form or creation. It has made numerous outdoor exhibitions before thousands of people, and has never failed to rise and move away at the will of the rider.
Myers and Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut, toured the country, performing all sorts of aerial feats. He also made balloons for the U.S. Army that were used, in Texas, to determine if man could make it rain … by setting off bombs, high up, in the air, in the midst of clouds. The results were inconclusive. By August 1895, Myers had improved his air ship, adding wings for greater stability and ease of turning. To drum up some publicity, he made his flying machine available to a reporter at The World, one of New York’s largest newspapers. To fly. Which the reporter did, of course, and wrote …
The World has settled the question that man can fly. A World reporter has succeeded in flying for hours here and there, backward and forward, up and down in the air. With the aid of a bicycle attachment and a pair of wings, the problem has been solved … No living human being on any other contrivance has ever done these extraordinary things in the air. No one else has succeeded in going against the wind. No other machine was ever able to stand still in the air … And no machine ever constructed could turn around in the air and travel backward. The wonderful flying machine does all these things.
There were several others who claimed to invent or improve the flying bicycle balloon. Such as Oscar F. Lewis, of Saratoga, New York, who came up with the “new airship.” There were articles about it in several newspapers in 1894 and 1895, none of which mentioned that Myers had already flown his sky-cycle. How did they not know? Anyway, in these articles, Lewis “claims” he can fly his machine 15 miles per hour and maneuver it quite easily. Claims is the key word, as there’s no historical evidence, such as first-hand newspaper accounts or photographs, of Lewis and his airship in action. Perhaps it flew, but, even if he did, Myers beat him into the air by several years.
Professor Arthur W. Barnard’s bicycle balloon did take to the air. Once, as far as we know. In Nashville, Tennessee, before officials from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition and a few hundred spectators and …
… rising as gracefully as a bird, he soared to a height of fifty feet, sailing against a somewhat stiff breeze, which would have born an ordinary balloon in the direction of Clarksville. He reversed his course twice and turned completely round, to show that he had the machine under control, then sped away in the direction of Memphis, and was soon out of sight.
Twelve miles from the city he was compelled to return to terra firma in consequence of the unavoidable accident to the propeller. He expressed himself as entirely satisfied with his trip. The Scranton Republican, Pennsylvania, May 8, 1897.
Professor Barnard promised to continue to perfect his airship, but there were no further newspapers articles that described any additional flights.
The next step … is down
Parachutes have been around just about as long as hot-air balloons and so, of course, some daring aeronauts decided to test them out … and jump out of a perfectly good balloon. Most of them survived. And then, this happened …
… at 3 o’clock a huge balloon with a canvas parachute, and Professor Kabrich of Sturgis, Michigan, astride a bicycle, hanging therto, shot two thousand feet up into space, and floated rapidly south over the town [of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania] and in full view of the multitude the drop was started. It was a thrilling moment, but to the relief of the timid people the parachute filled out with air, and in a minute or so the daring aeronaut dropped into the fields. Pottsville Daily Republican, September 10, 1896
Professor Kabrich wasn’t the only balloon-bicycle-parachutist, as it was a popular attraction at fairs. Professor Anthony “has accomplished a sensational descent at Luton by dropping from a height of 3,000ft. while ‘pedalling’ a bicycle,” wrote The Pall Mall Gazette, London, on August 10, 1897. And yes, a lot of the early aeronautical daredevils were professors, of some sort. Perhaps they had received honorary degrees in aeronautical daring.
Here are some details from Professor Anthony’s flight from the Pall Mall Gazette …
The parachute opened by an apparatus worked by “pedalling’ the bicycle. And the “Professor” afterwards stated that he dropped 50 ft. before it opened properly. During that time he had to pedal hard. The descent was very slow on account of the parachute being rather too large and the parachutist was carried by the wind to some farms near Caddington, from which place he rode back to Luton.
The Balloon Farm
As for Myers, he continued to harvest his crop on the Balloon Farm. He applied for and received a patent for his Sky Bike Dirigible on April 20, 1897. Here it is …
It is a joke in the neighborhood that the “professor,” as he is called, plants his balloon crop in the fall and gathers it in the spring. In the spring thousands of yards of balloon cloth are put out to dry, and the fields are made to look like Esquimau villages, with half inflated balloons looking like snow huts on the Northerners. Myers knows all about balloons, and he has a “skycycle” in which he has travelled many miles, going with wind currents, of which he has no fear. New York Tribune, December 20, 1901
And then, along came the Wright Brothers, and the public’s complete fascination with the airplane, which soon relegated balloons to the back burner of publicity and interest (as the automobile did to the car). Myers passed away on November 30, 1925, at the home of his daughter, in Atlanta.