Percy Pilcher

Percy Pilcher


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Percy Pilcher was born in Bath in 1867. He joined the Royal Navy in 1880 but resigned seven years later to become an apprentice with the shipbuilders, Randolph, Elder and Company, of Glasgow.

In 1891 Pilcher began work as assistant lecturer at Glasgow University. He took a growing interest in aviation and began building a glider called the Bat . This flew for the first time in 1895. Later that year Pilcher met Otto Lilienthal, who was the leading expert in gliding in Germany. These discussions led to Pilcher building two more gliders, the Beetle and the Gull .

Otto Lilienthal was killed on 10th August, 1896, while flying one of his gliders in Berlin. Pilcher now became the favourite to be the first person to build a powered flying machine.

Pilcher's fourth glider, the Hawk , was influenced by the ideas of Otto Lilienthal. This glider had lightweight wheeled landing gear and broad wings. In 1897 Pilcher broke the world record for flight when his glider covered 820 feet (250 m). Pilcher now developed a new triplane with a 4 h.p. engine that drove two propellers.

On 30th September, 1899, Percy Pilcher planned to make his first test flight of his new triplane at Stanford Park in Leicestershire. The weather was bad and Pilcher was forced to postpone his attempt to become the first man to make a powered flight. In order to appease the large crowd that had turned up to see the show, Pilcher decided to take up his glider, the Hawk. .

Pilcher reached a height of nearly 30 feet (9.1 m) when the wire in the tail snapped. Percy Pilcher crashed to the ground and died two days later. As there was no one to carry on Pilcher's work his new powered triplane was never flown.

© John Simkin, May 2013


The man who almost had the Wright stuff

The Hawk was the work of the Scottish-based pioneer Percy Pilcher. The glider was a record-breaker 120 years ago and was flown by the first woman pilot.

According to many sources, Pilcher was born on 16 January, 150 years ago.

His plane will to be a key exhibit when new galleries open this summer at the National Museum in the capital's Chambers Street.

It is a thing of fragile beauty, both a historical artefact and a work of art.

Pilcher's Hawk currently resides at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) collection centre near the Forth shore in Edinburgh.

Think of it as the museums' cupboard under the stairs: a complex of buildings where exhibits are prepared for display or at the very least preserved for future generations to study.

The Hawk looks a bit like a giant bat - if you could build a bat out of bamboo poles, iron wire and cotton sailcloth.

It really flew - there are photographs to prove it - and at 120 years old, it is Britain's oldest surviving aircraft.

It was designed, built and flown by Pilcher. He also died in it.

This was all before the dawn of the 20th Century. Becoming an aviator was not widely regarded as a career option. Barring the odd balloonist or gliding pioneer there weren't many of them about.

Instead, Pilcher became a nautical engineer. He was born in Bath and served his time in a Govan shipyard.

By the time the 19th Century was drawing to its close, he had become an assistant lecturer at Glasgow University. It was during that time that his interest shifted from the waves to the air.

He became fascinated by the way in which some other animals could fly. Why not humans?

That fascination took physical form in a series of gliders of increasing sophistication: The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull.

He rented a farmhouse near Helensburgh where he could fly them. The concept of control surfaces had not yet been developed so he piloted each aircraft like a hang glider pilot does now, twisting his body to shift his weight.

The Hawk was to be his last glider before he moved on to powered flight.

"He was building it in his lodgings in Hillhead in Glasgow," said Louise Innes, the principal curator of transport at the NMS.

"When this one [The Hawk] was completed in March 1896 you can see him on Kelvingrove Park, assembling it with his sister Ella."

The photos show Ella in the fashion of the day - long skirt, heavy jacket, hat piled with flowers. She is looking somewhat disapprovingly at the camera.

It was Ella who sewed the sailcloth to create the Hawk's wings. So far, so in line with the gender stereotyping of the day.

But Ms Innes says Ella and another member of the Pilcher family have a more important place in the history of women in aviation.

"When he flew it in June 1897, his cousin Dorothy became the first ever woman to fly in a heavier-than-air aircraft.

"That's not a balloon, that's an aeroplane. It was a world first.

"His sister Ella also flew it. So two women flew this aircraft in the 19th Century."

There's an understandable note of pride in her voice. Ms Innes is a glider pilot herself.

Several replicas of Pilcher's hang gliders have been built but the NMS has the real Hawk.

Remarkably, it's survived for 120 years and Gemma Thorns has spent well over a year making it fit for the 21st Century.

She's an assistant conservator in the engineering and furniture department which, given it's an aircraft made of bamboo and cotton, brings together those two otherwise contrasting disciplines.

Her work has involved removing years of grime and treating corrosion of the iron wires.

It has also meant correcting the mistakes of previous restorers.

"The sails that were on it weren't the original sails. They were put on in the 60s," Ms Thorns says.

"We decided they were too deteriorated to be placed safely on display. So we decided to remove them and make new sails.

"Which is also good because the sails were actually not on correctly."

An earlier restoration had put the sails underneath the wings' bamboo ribs. Ms Thorns has put them back on top.

That means the original Hawk is now correctly rigged but replicas that imitated the earlier restoration job still have them the wrong way up.

By the time he was 32, Pilcher was a record breaker. He had flown The Hawk to a world distance record for a heavier than air machine, a whopping 250m (273yds).

He had built a new powered triplane he was planning to demonstrate to potential backers. But at the last minute the engine failed and Percy instead elected to take the now obsolete Hawk up for one final flight.

It had been a stormy day but Pilcher thought the conditions would be good enough. But The Hawk's tail broke off and he fell, dying of his injuries two days later.

We'll never know whether he could have beaten the Wright Brothers to the first powered, controlled flight.

Instead, he will remain one of aviation's great might-have-beens.

The Hawk has one final journey to make - to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh's Chambers Street. It'll be one of five historic aircraft hanging in the atrium when 10 new galleries open this summer.

Perhaps then, 150 years after he was born, it will be time to give Percy Pilcher the place he deserves in aviation history.


STANFORD HALL

The Pilcher Aviation display is situated in the Stable Courtyard. It’s principal exhibit is a working replica of ‘The Hawk’, the Flying Machine in which Lieutenant Percy Pilcher, RN, who is recognised as England’s Pioneer Aviator, was killed at Stanford in 1899. He flew successfully for four years before his death. The Hawk was his latest machine, its predecessors were The Bat, The Beetle and The Gull. Pilcher had built a tri-plane which was designed to be powered by an engine and there was also a design for a quadro-plane, never built, to be called The Duck. Pilcher had designed an engine which he had planned to fit into The Gull and The Hawk, as well as the tri-plane, but his early death prevented his official demonstration of powered flight.

On the fateful day in 1899, it is believed that Lord Braye and Pilcher had gathered a number of investors to witness the first powered flight in the world, three years ahead of the Wright Brothers. Unfortunately the engine had some problems and Pilcher felt compelled to at least demonstrate glided flight instead. The tow rope was heavy with dew having been laid out on the ground overnight. The glider was towed into the air by the estate’s coach horses, but the weight of the dew soaked tow rope pulled the glider’s nose down before it could be released. The tail plane also snapped and Pilcher crashed and sadly died two days later of his injuries. A monument to his memory was erected by the Royal Aeronautical Society on the other side of the river from the house, on the spot where he crashed.


The man who almost had the Wright stuff

The Hawk was the work of the Scottish-based pioneer Percy Pilcher. The glider was a record-breaker 120 years ago and was flown by the first woman pilot.

According to many sources, Pilcher was born on 16 January, 150 years ago.

His plane will to be a key exhibit when new galleries open this summer at the National Museum in the capital's Chambers Street.

It is a thing of fragile beauty, both a historical artefact and a work of art.

Pilcher's Hawk currently resides at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) collection centre near the Forth shore in Edinburgh.

Think of it as the museums' cupboard under the stairs: a complex of buildings where exhibits are prepared for display or at the very least preserved for future generations to study.

The Hawk looks a bit like a giant bat - if you could build a bat out of bamboo poles, iron wire and cotton sailcloth.

It really flew - there are photographs to prove it - and at 120 years old, it is Britain's oldest surviving aircraft.

It was designed, built and flown by Pilcher. He also died in it.

This was all before the dawn of the 20th Century. Becoming an aviator was not widely regarded as a career option. Barring the odd balloonist or gliding pioneer there weren't many of them about.

Instead, Pilcher became a nautical engineer. He was born in Bath and served his time in a Govan shipyard.

By the time the 19th Century was drawing to its close, he had become an assistant lecturer at Glasgow University. It was during that time that his interest shifted from the waves to the air.

He became fascinated by the way in which some other animals could fly. Why not humans?

That fascination took physical form in a series of gliders of increasing sophistication: The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull.

He rented a farmhouse near Helensburgh where he could fly them. The concept of control surfaces had not yet been developed so he piloted each aircraft like a hang glider pilot does now, twisting his body to shift his weight.

The Hawk was to be his last glider before he moved on to powered flight.

"He was building it in his lodgings in Hillhead in Glasgow," said Louise Innes, the principal curator of transport at the NMS.

"When this one [The Hawk] was completed in March 1896 you can see him on Kelvingrove Park, assembling it with his sister Ella."

The photos show Ella in the fashion of the day - long skirt, heavy jacket, hat piled with flowers. She is looking somewhat disapprovingly at the camera.

It was Ella who sewed the sailcloth to create the Hawk's wings. So far, so in line with the gender stereotyping of the day.

But Ms Innes says Ella and another member of the Pilcher family have a more important place in the history of women in aviation.

"When he flew it in June 1897, his cousin Dorothy became the first ever woman to fly in a heavier-than-air aircraft.

"That's not a balloon, that's an aeroplane. It was a world first.

"His sister Ella also flew it. So two women flew this aircraft in the 19th Century."

There's an understandable note of pride in her voice. Ms Innes is a glider pilot herself.

Several replicas of Pilcher's hang gliders have been built but the NMS has the real Hawk.

Remarkably, it's survived for 120 years and Gemma Thorns has spent well over a year making it fit for the 21st Century.

She's an assistant conservator in the engineering and furniture department which, given it's an aircraft made of bamboo and cotton, brings together those two otherwise contrasting disciplines.

Her work has involved removing years of grime and treating corrosion of the iron wires.

It has also meant correcting the mistakes of previous restorers.

"The sails that were on it weren't the original sails. They were put on in the 60s," Ms Thorns says.

"We decided they were too deteriorated to be placed safely on display. So we decided to remove them and make new sails.

"Which is also good because the sails were actually not on correctly."

An earlier restoration had put the sails underneath the wings' bamboo ribs. Ms Thorns has put them back on top.

That means the original Hawk is now correctly rigged but replicas that imitated the earlier restoration job still have them the wrong way up.

By the time he was 32, Pilcher was a record breaker. He had flown The Hawk to a world distance record for a heavier than air machine, a whopping 250m (273yds).

He had built a new powered triplane he was planning to demonstrate to potential backers. But at the last minute the engine failed and Percy instead elected to take the now obsolete Hawk up for one final flight.

It had been a stormy day but Pilcher thought the conditions would be good enough. But The Hawk's tail broke off and he fell, dying of his injuries two days later.

We'll never know whether he could have beaten the Wright Brothers to the first powered, controlled flight.

Instead, he will remain one of aviation's great might-have-beens.

The Hawk has one final journey to make - to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh's Chambers Street. It'll be one of five historic aircraft hanging in the atrium when 10 new galleries open this summer.

Perhaps then, 150 years after he was born, it will be time to give Percy Pilcher the place he deserves in aviation history.


8 things you may not know about British history

Most of us are familiar with British history's landmark events: the Roman invasion, the battle of Hastings, Magna Carta, the Reformation and so forth. But what about the overlooked, lesser-known moments?

This competition is now closed

Published: January 3, 2019 at 4:15 pm

Boudica was not the only Briton to cause nuisance to the Romans

Pelagius was a British heretic who caused grief for St Augustine and the Christian Church of the late Roman empire.

Pelagius was born somewhere in the British Isles at the end of the fourth century. St Jerome described him as “Scottorum pultibus praegravatus” or “weighed down by Irish porridge”, so his origins may have been in Scotland or even Ireland.

Wherever he was born, Pelagius turned up in Rome at the turn of the fifth century and began preaching views that caused great offence to St Augustine, the theological superstar of the time. While St Augustine taught that sin was original, could not be avoided and could only be solved by God’s grace, Pelagius preached that Christians possessed an element of choice. Individual humans could choose whether to sin or not. Today, in an age of free will, this idea may not seem controversial, but in the fifth century such views were considered heresy.

However, in 410 the army of Alaric was a more dangerous threat to the safety of Rome than a British heretic. Pelagius fled to Africa and then Palestine, where he attempted to prove he was not a heretic. In 418 the emperor Honorius weighed in against him and he was banned from Italy. Things got worse when the wonderfully named Pope Zosimus excommunicated him. Pelagius fled to Egypt, where he disappeared from the records.

Saxon women did exercise political influence

Corfe Castle in Dorset was the scene of Edward the Martyr’s death, on 18 March 978. Some people assume his stepmother, Aelfthryth, was responsible.

Aelfthryth, meaning ‘elf-strength’, was the beautiful daughter of a powerful ealdorman [a high-ranking royal official and prior magistrate of an Anglo-Saxon shire] in 10th-century Wessex. King Edgar sent his friend Aethelwald to check her out. Aethelwald liked what he saw and himself married Aelfthryth, while telling King Edgar that she was not worth the king’s effort. However, Edgar must have suspected that his friend had betrayed him and decided to pay Aethelwald and Aelfthryth a visit.

Aethelwald panicked and told his wife to make herself look ugly, to hide his deception from the king. Aelfthryth ignored her husband’s instructions to hide her beauty, and instead set out to make the most of her charms. Edgar was transfixed. Subsequently, Aethelwald died in a mysterious (and somewhat suspicious) accident while hunting with Edgar, and Aelfthryth became queen.

This is the scandalous story written down by William of Malmesbury in the 12th century and it may contain elements that are untrue. However, it is clear that by 964/5 Aelfthryth had married Edgar and was queen.

Aelfthryth was an active queen. She took an interest in nunneries and became a forespeca – an advocate helping to mediate between people and the crown. However, it was in securing the interest of her two sons, Edmund and Aethelred, that she was to be most active.

The problem was that King Edgar had had a child, Edward, from a previous relationship, and Edward was older than Aelfthryth’s sons. When Edgar died in 975 it was Edward who became king. His reign was cut short when, during a visit to Corfe Castle to see Aelfthryth and her surviving son, Aethelred, he was killed (Edmund had died of natural causes). What role Aelfthryth played in the murder remains unclear, but Edward was increasingly viewed as a martyr.

Following Edward’s death Aelfthryth became regent and ruled until Aethelred came of age in 984. Aethelred, known by his nickname ‘unready’ – meaning ‘without counsel’ – is better known than his mother, but it is to his mother that he owed the throne.

Harold II (the one with the arrow in his eye) was not the last Saxon king

Between 14 October 1066, when Harold Godwinson was killed at the battle of Hastings, and 25 December, when William I was crowned at Westminster Abbey, England was ruled, at least in theory, by Edgar Atheling, who took the title Edgar II, the last of the Saxon kings.

Edgar was the son of Edward the Exile and his claim to the throne came from his grandfather, Edmund Ironside, the third son of the Saxon king Aethelred the Unready. Edgar was given the name ‘Atheling’, meaning heir or royal prince, by Edward the Confessor, which suggests that Edward was considering him as his successor.

When Edward died in January 1066, Edgar Atheling may have had the strongest blood-claim to the throne, but he did not have the political support in the witan [the council summoned by Anglo-Saxon kings] enjoyed by Harold Godwinson or the military strength of either Harald Hardrada or William of Normandy. Therefore, his claim to the throne was ignored.

However, following the death of Harald Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066 and Harold Godwinson at Hastings in October, Edgar was the obvious choice for those who still opposed William. The witan in London was quick to get Archbishop Stigand to crown Edgar. However, as William approached London and began burning villages to intimidate the Saxons, support for Edgar vanished.

Edgar did not give up and he was to spend the remainder of his life campaigning to become king of England, or at least to establish his influence over Norman England. He and his family headed north for Scotland, where its king, Malcolm III, was happy to give refuge to Saxons escaping from the Normans. Edgar’s sister Margaret married Malcolm III of Scotland in 1069 and as a result Scotland was to provide a safe haven for Edgar for much of the rest of his life. It was often from Scotland that he campaigned to influence events in England.

When William died in 1087 he left his land in Normandy to his eldest son, Robert Curthouse, and his younger son William Rufus became William II, king of England. In the subsequent power struggle between William’s sons, Edgar backed Robert, hoping that the elder son would win. Once again, Edgar ended on the losing side, as in 1096 Robert went off to Crusade, which he financed by mortgaging Normandy to William Rufus.

Edgar went on to outlive William II, who died in a hunting accident in 1100, and the throne of England passed to Henry I. Edgar continued to support the claims of Robert Curthouse, Duke of Normandy. He was imprisoned when Henry I defeated Robert at the battle of Tinchebray. However, he was released thanks to his Scottish connection. His niece Edith, daughter of his sister Margaret and Malcolm III, had married Henry I of England.

Edgar is thought to have died in 1125. His rule, as the last of the Saxons, may have been a matter of weeks, but he was to outlive both William and his sons.

Henry VIII was never intended to be a king of England

Prince Arthur was the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and was the legitimate heir to the Tudor throne, rather than his younger brother Prince Henry.

Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in August 1485 and installed the Tudor dynasty. In January 1486 Henry Tudor strengthened his claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster.

Almost exactly nine months later, on 19 September 1486, Henry and Elizabeth’s first son was born at St Swithun’s Priory in Winchester. The proud parents chose the name Arthur, hoping his reign would introduce a new ‘Arthurian age’. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur [telling the legends of King Arthur and his knights] was hot off the Caxton press, published the previous year.

In 1490 the young Arthur was invested as Prince of Wales and, at the grand age of six, was appointed keeper of England and king’s lieutenant when his father was away in France. In 1497 Henry VII arranged for Arthur to marry Princess Catherine, the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Catherine and Arthur were married in St Paul’s cathedral in October 1501. Shortly afterwards they left for Ludlow, where they established their residence. However, the couple’s happiness was short-lived and, according to Catherine, their marriage was never consummated. Arthur fell ill and died on 2 April 1502 at the age of 15. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral.

Catherine of Aragon, of course, stayed in England and became the first wife of Arthur’s younger brother Henry.


Scientist of the Day - Percy Pilcher

Percy Pilcher, a British inventor and aviator, was born Jan. 16, 1866. Pilcher built and flew his first glider, the Bat, in 1895. The Bat was a hang-glider, like the craft that were being flown in Germany by Otto Lilienthal. Pilcher built and flew three more gliders, the last of which he called The Hawk. As you can see from the photos, a hang glider is basically a pair of wings extending out from a lozenge-shaped opening with a bar across it, from which the aviator hangs his body. Control is achieved by swinging one’s body right and left, back and forth. The Hawk had no ailerons, and, while it did have a tail, there were no elevators on the tail.

Reproduction of the Hawk, built in 1930, now in the Air Space Museum, Duxford (pilcher-monument.co.uk)

With The Hawk, Pilcher achieved a glide of over 800 feet, which was a world record at the time. His first flights took place in Eynsford in Kent, and then he moved his base of operations to Leicestershire, to the grounds of an estate known as Stanford Hall. Several surviving photographs show Pilcher in flight in The Hawk (third image). In 1899, Pilcher turned his attention to powered flight, and he equipped a tri-plane glider with a low-power engine, which he hoped to demonstrate for potential investors. When the demonstration day of Sep. 30 arrived, and his powered plane was not ready, Pilcher decided to wow his audience with a flight in The Hawk instead. He was only 30 feet off the ground when the tail broke away, and The Hawk plummeted to earth. Pilcher was severely injured in the fall and died two days later. He was 33 years old.

Pilcher in flight in the Hawk, ca 1899, Stanford Hall (monash.edu.au/)

Of all the early aviators – Lilienthal, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Octave Chanute, Samuel Langley – Pilcher is by far the least known. Has he been unjustly overlooked? He was the first person in Britain to design, build, and fly heavier-than-air craft. Should he be getting more credit? Some think so, and his fans have erected monuments at Eynsford and Stanford Hall to commemorate his achievements and his death. The monument at Stanford Hall marks the spot where Pilcher fell to earth in 1899. The sheep do not seem to be an appreciative audience.

Pilcher monument marking the place where the Hawk crashed and Pilcher died in 1899, Stanford Hall (leicestershirefootpaths on wordpress)

Pilcher has attracted a biographer, Philip Jarrett, who thirty years ago published Another Icarus: Percy Pilcher and the Quest for Flight (1987). In his book, Jarrett did not try to turn Pilcher into a neglected hero rather, he pointed out why the Wright brothers succeeded and others, including Pilcher and Lilienthal, did not. It basically came down to this: before they ever attempted to put any engine on a glider, the Wrights sought first to master the problem of control. Only when they were confident that they could fully control their gliders, did they seek to add power. The hang-glider people, on the other hand, paid little attention to the problems of control, perhaps because, if you are gliding in a straight line down a slope, shifting your weight is sufficient. But it clearly is not when things go wrong, as both Pilcher and Lilienthal discovered the hard way. Three years before Pilcher fell to his death, Lilienthal had met the same fate.

Percy Pilcher, photograph, ca 1899 (wright-brothers.org)

We were surprised when the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame opened to the public in 2011 and announced their inaugural class of seven inductees. There, amidst the likes of Thomas Telford, Lord Kelvin, and James Watt, was Percy Pilcher. I am not sure what surprised us more – the suggestion that Pilcher was in the same league as Telford and Watt, or the implication that Pilcher was a Scot. He did spend four years in Glasgow, 1891-95, as an assistant at the University, and he did fly the Bat during this time, but he was born in Bath and died in England, did all the rest of his gliding in Kent or Leicestershire, and is buried in London. The only other Scottish connection we could discover is the location of the original Hawk, which is in the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian (although no longer on display). If that is all you need to establish citizenship, then we might as well induct sculptor Henry Moore into the Kansas City Hall of Fame. Which, now that we raise the point, is not such a bad idea.


Aviator

There are many fascinating overlaps between the early histories of motion pictures and powered flight. Aside from the fact that both histories feature a pair of brothers given pride of place in the history of their respective inventions (the Lumières and the Wrights), the chronophotographer Etienne-Jules Marey studied bird flight and collaborated with flight pioneers Victor Tatin and Alphonse Penaud Antoine Lumière, father of Auguste and Lumiere, was taught photography by balloonist and aviation visionary Nadar the German aeronaut Otto Lilienthal was inspired by the photographs of storks taken by the chronophotographer Ottomar Anschütz and had his glider experiments photographed by Anschütz and Octave Chanute, who played a major part in encouraging Orville and Wilbur Wirght's aviation experiments, was a keen follower of Marey.

Motion pictures on film were achieved ahead of powered flight, and a few of the efforts towards the latter were captured by the early cinematographers. The very first, so far as is known, was taken of the British aviator Percy Pilcher. Pilcher was an engineer and a lecturer at the Department of Naval Architecture at the University of Glasgow who became interested in aviation and built his first glider ('The Bat') in 1895. Inspired by the work of Lilienthal, he developed other gliders, and with 'The Hawk' in 1897 achieved a record distance of 820 feet. It was at this time that Pilcher was filmed, probably by the aviation enthusiast and photographer William J.S. Lockyer, who wrote for Nature about the first publicly-witnessed flight of 'The Hawk', at Eynsford on 20 June 1897. The article was illustrated with seven frames taken from a cinematograph film. While the film is lost, the frames reproduced in Nature show us the glider at the point of taking off on a hillside, with a towline being pulled and the aviator leaving the ground. Pilcher's cousin Dorothy flew using 'The Hawk' that day as well, and according to anecdote she crashed into the cinematographer when landing.

Percy Pilcher was killed just two years later, aged thirty-two, when he crashed flying the same glider. He had dreamed of adding an engine to his glider, but it was the Wright brothers in America who were to make the successful transition from gliding to engine-driven flight, in 1903, though it would not be until 1908 that any film would be made of the Wright Flyer. Other aviators were filmed in the Victorian era: the Lumières filmed an unnamed balloonist taking off in 1898 with a view of the ground below filmed from the balloon, and on 19 September 1900 filmed the Brazilian balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont standing beside his dirigible. The following year the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company filmed Santos-Dumont airship flying around the Eiffel Tower. In 1906 Santos-Dumont would become the first person to be filmed in an aeroplane in flight. But it is Percy Pilcher, who died (as did his hero Lilienthal) pursuing the dream of flight, who first took to the air before the irreproachable witness that was the motion picture camera.


1895 article on Percy Pilcher

SATURDAY January 16 2010 was the 144th anniversary of the birth of aviation pioneer Percy Sinclair Pilcher, whose early experiments in gliding were undertaken in fields at Cardross.

Percy used the fields of the thriving Wallacetown and Auchensail Farms for his experiments with three different gliders between 1893 and 1896.

He could well have become the first person to achieve controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight well before the Wright brothers, had he not been tragically killed in a glider accident.

His story is told on this website in an article entitled ‘A pioneer of flight', but recently a much older article about him came to light.

It appeared on September 28 1895 in the UK weekly newspaper The Black and White: A Weekly Illustrated Record and Review, headlined ‘New Flying Machine', and included photographs Percy had provided.

“ OUR readers will recollect that we devoted some attention in the past to Herr Lilienthal of Berlin and his experiments in soaring.

Now it is Mr Percy S.Pilcher, Lecturer on Marine Engineering at Glasgow University, who, basing his inventions upon that of Herr Lilienthal, has produced two winged creations, and by their aid has taken sundry flights in mid-air.

At times he has risen to an altitude of twenty feet, occasionally hovering kite-like for a space and then descended on the spot he left while, upon other trials, he has hastened before the breeze for considerable distances ere regaining his feet.

Mr Pilcher's machines are light structures of wood and steel supporting a vast spread of wing and braced with piano wire.

The wings themselves which are made of nainsook — a sort of muslin originally manufactured in India — have an area of one hundred and fifty square feet and each machine, as our pictures indicate, possesses a vertical and horizontal rudder of circular shape, the one cutting the other at right angles.

The former, which is rigid, serves to keep the machine's head to the wind, while the latter arrests an inclination to pitch sideways — a common vice in all like inventions.

The great difficult with winged aeronauts is the uncertain quality of the wind, for a steady, unvarying breeze is never to be calculated upon. Indeed the sudden, unexpected side-puff often brought disaster in its train to Mr Pilcher until he hit upon a means of circumventing it.

He now draws his wing-tips in with a bend, which renders a flying machine safer and more stable.

Speaking generally these experiments in flying or soaring are being made with a view to master the art of aerial balance and safe landing.

Then, when the golden era dawns, when a screw propeller or flapping wings are introduced, and a power discovered to work them, gentlemen like Messrs Lilienthal and Pilcher will spring gaily aloft to emulate the carrier or tumbler pigeon, and put a girdle round the earth in a morning.

May the necessary discovery of a new power be speedily made.

Meantime Mr Pilcher, on a fresh pair of wings with a sail area of no less than three hundred feet, pursues his plucky experiments at Cardross in Dunbartonshire before numerous admirers. ”


Life beyond bars: Living in a penitentiary community

There were also tragedies — five guards died, four of them killed on the job and one in an accidental explosion — and riots. Those were the instances that impacted the people who lived in the Stony Mountain community and whose families worked behind the bars.

"I can remember being on a holiday and the RCMP coming and telling my dad he had to report back to work because there was a riot," said Wendy Pilcher.

Her father worked at the penitentiary for nearly three decades, retiring in the late ❰s. She said he had a nose for hooch, or liquor made in prison, and was known for always finding it.

He didn't talk much about working behind the bars, but occasionally the reality of her dad's job would come through and she was proud of the work he did.

"As a kid it was just so proud that they needed him to protect others, but it was also scary too, not knowing because once he was out there you had no contact," she said.

"A lot of the time you didn't know what went on on the other side of the walls."

In 1982 four inmates in a maximum security range — armed with homemade knives — jumped four guards, bringing them into a cell block with more than 30 other prisoners. After 35 hours of negotiation it ended peacefully, but Pilcher said there was a ripple effect outside of the institution.

"I can remember when they were doing negotiations and everything and the men that were working there and taken hostage, they were never the same," she said.

But it wasn't always high-stress, she said. When she was growing up her family would get bread made by inmates, their car would be fixed by inmates and the guards themselves were like a family unit — fishing and camping together.

"Every Canada Day the Canada Day cake comes from the penitentiary," she said, adding this year they made hundreds of cupcakes.

Like many in the town of Stony Mountain, Pilcher has pride in its history, including that of the penitentiary. She recalled how the community would tell tales about how during its construction there was a strike because of the overwhelming number of snakes, which was spooking the horses.

But the penitentiary also instilled lessons in everyone in the community, she said.

"You don't want to be on the other side. It gave me a strong sense of right and wrong," she said.

It still provides a lot of jobs and even though there had been talk of closing the giant institution down, it has continued on.

"Over the years there was discussion about closing down the institution and whatnot, and thankfully the decisions didn't go that direction. We chose to renovate and modernize the institution as much as possible," said J.L. Meyer, assistant warden of operations at Stony Mountain Institution.

He said while the culture of corrections and the building itself have changed in many ways over the past 140 years, the staff at Stony Mountain Institution continues to feel like family and work hard.

"We are really proud of the work that we do there. I can't say enough about the staff that we work with," he said.

If the day were to come that Stony Mountain Institution changes location or closes, Meyer and Pilcher agree that its history needs to be kept up, possibly as a museum.

Either way, the community will remember.

"The penitentiary has been part of my life forever and without it, my life would have been so different," Pilcher said.


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