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6/19/1894: Frederick W. Lanchester's Airflow Theory

DALLAS – Today, in 1894, English Polymath and Engineer Frederick W. Lanchester presented his theory of circulatory airflow to the Birmingham Natural History and Philosophical Society.

The theory would later become pivotal in aerodynamics and modern aerofoil theory.

Lanchester was born on October 23, 1868, in Lewisham, London. After completing his education, Lanchester developed an interest in engineering.

Lanchester’s notebook. Photo: Lanchester Interactive Archive

Nautics to Aeronautics

His idea of circulatory airflow was born during a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Lanchester studied the herring gulls that followed the ocean liner during the long days at sea. He watched how the birds could fly visually motionless, soaring along up-currents of air. He would measure various birds to understand how the center of gravity contrasted with the center of support.

Once Lanchester had returned home, he began working on his theory of flight, some eleven years before the Wright Brothers took the world’s first successful powered flight. In 1894 he built several models and began to test the theory in his garden in Birmingham, UK.

Lanchester is pictured experimenting with his glider in Birmingham, UK. Photo: Lanchester Interactive Archive

“A Dream of Madmen”

However, disappointment followed. His ideas were immediately discouraged, despite Lanchester’s belief in his aerodynamic hypothesis. He later explained how he was “seriously warned that my profession as an engineer would suffer if I dabbled in a subject that was merely a dream of madmen!”

Lanchester pressed on. He pursued his aeronautical passion while making numerous pioneering developments in the automotive industry, such as the petrol engine.

Condensation vortices seen above wing. Photo: Dominik Csordás/Airways

He would later discover the air ‘vortex’ effect from the friction of air moving over the wings and offer the first detailed description of lift and drag.

As aircraft design developed over the years, Lanchester’s contributions were finally recognized. Sadly, this was not before his death on March 8, 1946.

Photo: Roberto Leiro/Airways

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