Thomas Walker (active early 1800s)

A History of Aeronautics
by E. Charles Vivian, III., Thomas Walker

Practically contemporary with Cayley was Thomas Walker, concerning whom little is known save that he was a portrait painter of Hull, where was published his pamphlet on The Art of Flying in 1810, a second and amplified edition being produced, also in Hull, in 1831. The pamphlet, which has been reproduced in extenso in the Aeronautical Classics series published by the Royal Aeronautical Society, displays a curious mixture of the true scientific spirit and colossal conceit. Walker appears to have been a man inclined to jump to conclusions, which carried him up to the edge of discovery and left him vacillating there.


Thomas Walker's Flying Machine of 1810

The study of the two editions of his pamphlet side by side shows that their author made considerable advances in the practicability of his designs in the 21 intervening years, though the drawings which accompany the text in both editions fail to show anything really capable of flight. The great point about Walker's work as a whole is its suggestiveness; he did not hesitate to state that the 'art' of flying is as truly mechanical as that of rowing a boat, and he had some conception of the necessary mechanism, together with an absolute conviction that he knew all there was to be known. 'Encouraged by the public,' he says, 'I would not abandon my purpose of making still further exertions to advance and complete an art, the discovery of the true principles (the italics are Walker's own) of which, I trust, I can with certainty affirm to be my own.'

The pamphlet begins with Walker's admiration of the mechanism of flight as displayed by birds.

'It is now almost twenty years since I was first led to think, by the study of birds and their means of flying, that if an artificial machine were formed with wings in exact imitation of the mechanism of one of those beautiful living machines, and applied in the very same way upon the air, there could be no doubt of its being made to fly, for it is an axiom in philosophy that the same cause will ever produce the same effect.'

With this he confesses his inability to produce the said effect through lack of funds, though he clothes this delicately in the phrase 'professional avocations and other circumstances.' Owing to this inability he published his designs that others might take advantage of them, prefacing his own researches with a list of the very early pioneers, and giving special mention to Friar Bacon, Bishop Wilkins, and the Portuguese friar, De Guzman. But, although he seems to suggest that others should avail themselves of his theoretical knowledge, there is a curious incompleteness about the designs accompanying his work, and about the work itself, which seems to suggest that he had more knowledge to impart than he chose to make public--or else that he came very near to complete solution of the problem of flight, and stayed on the threshold without knowing it.

After a dissertation upon the history and strength of the condor, and on the differences between the weights of birds, he says:

'The following observations upon the wonderful difference in the weight of some birds, with their apparent means of supporting it in their flight, may tend to remove some prejudices against my plan from the minds of some of my readers. The weight of the humming-bird is one drachm, that of the condor not less than four stone. Now, if we reduce four stone into drachms we shall find the condor is 14,336 times as heavy as the humming-bird. What an amazing disproportion of weight! Yet by the same mechanical use of its wings the condor can overcome the specific gravity of its body with as much ease as the little humming-bird. But this is not all. We are informed that this enormous bird possesses a power in its wings, so far exceeding what is necessary for its own conveyance through the air, that it can take up and fly away with a whole sheer in its talons, with as much ease as an eagle would carry off, in the same manner, a hare or a rabbit. This we may readily give credit to, from the known fact of our little kestrel and the sparrow-hawk frequently flying off with a partridge, which is nearly three times the weight of these rapacious little birds.'

After a few more observations he arrives at the following conclusion:

'By attending to the progressive increase in the weight of birds, from the delicate little humming-bird up to the huge condor, we clearly discover that the addition of a few ounces, pounds, or stones, is no obstacle to the art of flying; the specific weight of birds avails nothing, for by their possessing wings large enough, and sufficient power to work them, they can accomplish the means of flying equally well upon all the various scales and dimensions which we see in nature. Such being a fact, in the name of reason and philosophy why shall not man, with a pair of artificial wings, large enough, and with sufficient power to strike them upon the air, be able to produce the same effect?'

Walker asserted definitely and with good ground that muscular effort applied without mechanism is insufficient for human flight, but he states that if an aeronautical boat were constructed so that a man could sit in it in the same manner as when rowing, such a man would be able to bring into play his whole bodily strength for the purpose of flight, and at the same time would be able to get an additional advantage by exerting his strength upon a lever. At first he concluded there must be expansion of wings large enough to resist in a sufficient degree the specific gravity of whatever is attached to them, but in the second edition of his work he altered this to 'expansion of flat passive surfaces large enough to reduce the force of gravity so as to float the machine upon the air with the man in it.' The second requisite is strength enough to strike the wings with sufficient force to complete the buoyancy and give a projectile motion to the machine. Given these two requisites, Walker states definitely that flying must be accomplished simply by muscular exertion. 'If we are secure of these two requisites, and I am very confident we are, we may calculate upon the success of flight with as much certainty as upon our walking.'

Walker appears to have gained some confidence from the experiments of a certain M. Degen, a watchmaker of Vienna, who, according to the Monthly Magazine of September, 1809, invented a machine by means of which a person might raise himself into the air. The said machine, according to the magazine, was formed of two parachutes which might be folded up or extended at pleasure, while the person who worked them was placed in the centre. This account, however, was rather misleading, for the magazine carefully avoided mention of a balloon to which the inventor fixed his wings or parachutes. Walker, knowing nothing of the balloon, concluded that Degen actually raised himself in the air, though he is doubtful of the assertion that Degen managed to fly in various directions, especially against the wind.

Walker, after considering Degen and all his works, proceeds to detail his own directions for the construction of a flying machine, these being as follows:

'Make a car of as light material as possible, but with sufficient strength to support a man in it; provide a pair of wings about four feet each in length; let them be horizontally expanded and fastened upon the top edge of each side of the car, with two joints each, so as to admit of a vertical motion to the wings, which motion may be effected by a man sitting and working an upright lever in the middle of the car. Extend in the front of the car a flat surface of silk, which must be stretched out and kept fixed in a passive state; there must be the same fixed behind the car; these two surfaces must be perfectly equal in length and breadth and large enough to cover a sufficient quantity of air to support the whole weight as nearly in equilibrium as possible, thus we shall have a great sustaining power in those passive surfaces and the active wings will propel the car forward.'

A description of how to launch this car is subsequently given:

'It becomes necessary,' says the theorist, 'that I should give directions how it may be launched upon the air, which may be done by various means; perhaps the following method may be found to answer as well as any: Fix a poll upright in the earth, about twenty feet in height, with two open collars to admit another poll to slide upwards through them; let there be a sliding platform made fast upon the top of the sliding poll; place the car with a man in it upon the platform, then raise the platform to the height of about thirty feet by means of the sliding poll, let the sliding poll and platform suddenly fall down, the car will then be left upon the air, and by its pressing the air a projectile force will instantly propel the car forward; the man in the car must then strike the active wings briskly upon the air, which will so increase the projectile force as to become superior to the force of gravitation, and if he inclines his weight a little backward, the projectile impulse will drive the car forward in an ascending direction. When the car is brought to a sufficient altitude to clear the tops of hills, trees, buildings, etc., the man, by sitting a little forward on his seat, will then bring the wings upon a horizontal plane, and by continuing the action of the wings he will be impelled forward in that direction. To descend, he must desist from striking the wings, and hold them on a level with their joints; the car will then gradually come down, and when it is within five or six feet of the ground the man must instantly strike the wings downwards, and sit as far back as he can; he will by this means check the projectile force, and cause the car to alight very gently with a retrograde motion. The car, when up in the air, may be made to turn to the right or to the left by forcing out one of the fins, having one about eighteen inches long placed vertically on each side of the car for that purpose, or perhaps merely by the man inclining the weight of his body to one side.'

Having stated how the thing is to be done, Walker is careful to explain that when it is done there will be in it some practical use, notably in respect of the conveyance of mails and newspapers, or the saving of life at sea, or for exploration, etc. It might even reduce the number of horses kept by man for his use, by means of which a large amount of land might be set free for the growth of food for human consumption.

At the end of his work Walker admits the idea of steam power for driving a flying machine in place of simple human exertion, but he, like Cayley, saw a drawback to this in the weight of the necessary engine. On the whole, he concluded, navigation of the air by means of engine power would be mostly confined to the construction of navigable balloons.

As already noted, Walker's work is not over practical, and the foregoing extract includes the most practical part of it; the rest is a series of dissertations on bird flight, in which, evidently, the portrait painter's observations were far less thorough than those of da Vinci or Borelli. Taken on the whole, Walker was a man with a hobby; he devoted to it much time and thought, but it remained a hobby, nevertheless. His observations have proved useful enough to give him a place among the early students of flight, but a great drawback to his work is the lack of practical experiment, by means of which alone real advance could be made; for, as Cayley admitted, theory and practice are very widely separated in the study of aviation, and the whole history of flight is a matter of unexpected results arising from scarcely foreseen causes, together with experiment as patient as daring.

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