The Home of Monarchy – The History of Buckingham Palace

For nearly two hundred years, from the late 1830s until today, from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, in the heart of London, has been the seat of the British monarchy. The building is a symbol of power, tradition, a source of nationral pride and a place of national gathering during times of joy and grief. How many of us remember the photographs and newsreel-pictures of people crowding outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in May of 1945 to celebrate VE Day? How many of us remember the dozens of bunches of flowers which were laid against the gates, stacked up against the walls or tied to the railings by Britons mourning the death of Princess Diana in 1997?

But how much do we really know about Buckingham Palace? How old is it? How big is it? How many toilets does it have? How did it get its name and when was it built?

This article will look into the history of one of the world’s most famous royal palaces, from its humble beginnings as a lavish townhouse, to its grand finale as the home to the current queen.

Buckingham House

Does this building look vaguely familiar? It might. Behold Buckingham House, 1809.

The building which is today Buckingham Palace was originally a townhouse named Buckingham House, named after the Duke of Buckingham and Normanby and was constructed starting in 1703. The building was designed by Capt. William Winde, a notable architect of the day who was famous for designing several grand manor-houses. Unfortunately for Winde, few of his original structures survive today, either renovated, intergrated into other buildings or destroyed by fire over the two hundred plus years since his death.

Buckingham House did not last long in private hands, though. After being built for the Duke of Buckingham, it was then passed to his descendant Sir Charles Sheffield in the 1760s and thereafter into royal hands, starting with King George III.

Throughout the next sixty years, Buckingham House was gradually renovated, improved and enlarged. King George IV and his younger brother, the later King William IV, had Buckingham House extensively renovated and improved. In 1834, the British Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster, burnt to the ground in a spectacular fire…

…The destruction of Westminster prompted William IV to turn Buckingham Palace into the new Houses of Parliament, but Parliament turned down the king’s offer, which allowed for the palace’s further renovations until the king’s death in 1837.

Buckingham Palace

It had been the wish of King William IV, who had been a popular and well-liked public figure, to turn Buckingham Palace from a mere noble townhouse into a palace and residence fit for royalty. Although renovations and building had been ongoing since the time of George IV, William, George’s younger brother, died before these renovations were completed.

On the 20th of June, 1837, Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom, and became the first monarch to move into the new palace and so Buckingham Palace entered on its role which we know it for today – being the London home of the British monarch.

If you expected a palace fit for a queen to be glamorous and wonderful…think again. Victoria (then aged only 18) moved into her new house so fast that the renovations were barely completed! The palace hadn’t been cleaned properly, there were heating problems due to malfunctions with chimneys (which meant that fires couldn’t be lit in the fireplaces) and probably most dangerous of all, the newfangled ‘gas’ lighting wasn’t working properly, which could turn Buckingham Palace into the world’s most luxurious time-bomb!

Another problem with the new palace was space. If you’ve read my article on classical makeup of domestic servants, you’ll know that grand houses built during this era took a small army to keep them primped and proper and neat and tidy and running smoothly. Any grand house would have up to a dozen or more servants. In a royal palace, this number skyrocketed to a few hundred! Footmen, butlers, waiters, chefs, cleaners, laundresses, courtiers, valets, ladies’ maids, chambermaids…and then you had to consider the space needed for courtiers, guests, family…and all of their servants! There simply wasn’t enough room!

Originally constructed with a central building and two wings, it was decided that Buckingham Palace would require an extension. London’s famous Marble Arch, built to commemorate great naval victories, was originally the ceremonial entranceway to the palace. But it was only ceremonial, and little else. It was decided that Marble Arch took up too much space, and so it was moved to the corner of Hyde Park where it is today. In its place, a third wing was constructed, joining up the two other wings and enclosing a central courtyard that is the quadrangle that we know today. It is this last addition to the palace that makes it begin to resemble what we recognise today.

Buckingham Palace as it appeared in 1910, at the end of the Edwardian era

The enclosing of the quadrangle was completed in 1847 and this was one of the last major construction-efforts taken out on the palace until the early 20th century.

A New Palace for a New Century

With a new century came a new king. Edward VII, famous for being fat and friendly and for forgetting to button up his waistcoats, was well-known for being something of a party-animal. He loved entertaining. Dinners, balls, hunting-parties and dances were always on Eddie’s calender and the palace was modernised and renovated to suit the king’s needs and taste.

London is famous for a great many things. One of these is the notorious London fog. Fog or smog in London was not just low-hanging clouds. It was everything. Ash. Dust. Soot. Moisture. Smoke. Grit from the streets. Oil and grease from factories. On especially bad days, London’s smog was so bad, you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. This unsightly and nasty fog caused terrible cosmetic damage to the palace. In the end, the damage of the smog to the palace’s stonework was so extensive that the stonework had to be entirely replaced…a process that took well over a year in 1913.

A Wartime Palace

As a symbol of Britannic pride, of monarchy, of patriotism, Buckingham Palace has long been a target in times of war. In the 1910s with the outbreak of WWI, George V was encouraged to lock the palace’s wine-cellars so as not to set a bad example to his subjects by enjoying himself and guzzling down wine while the country was in dire straits.

Warfare took a bigger toll on the palace in WWII, though. The Blitz on London, from 1940-1941 caused massive amounts of damage throughout the British capital and the palace was not spared. Hitler knew that he could seriously hurt British morale by destroying the palace and the Luftwaffe made it a specific target. It was bombed no less than seven times in the Second World War. One bomb detonated in the palace quadrangle, blowing out all the interior windows in the process! This particular attack made the front page of local newspapers and served as a morale-booster to the British public, glad that their monarchy had not deserted them in this time of national crisis.

The Palace Today

The palace in the 21st Century is still very much a working royal institution, just as it was when it was first inhabited by Queen Victoria over a hundred years ago. Events such as grand dinners, meetings and press-conferences still continue within its chambers and garden parties for everyone from adults to grandparents to children, now take place in the palace gardens on a regular basis.


Top Floor: The History of the Modern Skyscraper

These days, the challenge to build the biggest, highest, tallest, strongest buildings is everywhere. Everyone wants to build the tallest building in the city, county, state, province, country…and of course…the tallest building in the world! In our modern megacities, where we’re surrounded by towering masses of glass, steel, concrete and wood, it’s very easy to forget that the building which makes our modern lives possible…the skyscraper…is only just over a hundred years old! In the scope of construction-technology, the skyscraper is but a child, something that we probably don’t think about very much, but it’s true.

Before the Skyscraper

It’s hard to imagine our cities without skyscrapers, isn’t it? The tallest fully-inhabitable structures were usually no more than five or six storeys tall. There was no elevator, there were no big, glossy windows and there were no handsome, artistically-carved facades of stonework to drool over. Without the invention of the elevator, the only way to move between floors was through dozens of staircases. People were unwilling to go up more than a few flights of stairs and so stairs normally stopped after only a few floors. Water-pumps were unable to build up enough water-pressure to force running water up pipes and into bathrooms and other rooms where water was necessary, beyond a certain height, and this too limited how high a practical building could be.

But the biggest thing restricting the construction of tall buildings was the lack of steel.

Although steel had existed for centuries, at the time it was difficult to mass produce. The shortage of this strong wonder-metal meant that it was too expensive to use steel to build frameworks and scaffolding for buildings. Without a strong frame to hold the building up and take the strain, the weight of the buildings was transferred to the walls. To combat the crushing weight of tons of masonary, glass and metal, early buildings which were to be built to what were then considered significant heights, had to have walls that were incredibly thick. In some extreme cases, as much as six feet of solid stone and brick!

The Development of the Modern Skyscraper

Cheap Steel

The skyscraper as we know it today was the result of several inventions and developments. Probably the first of these was the creation of a method for the mass-production of steel, which, prior to the mid 19th century, was an expensive metal and difficult and expensive to manufacture in large quantities.

Using a large, barrel-shaped device called a Bessemer Converter, English inventor Henry Bessemer was able to create a process for manufacturing steel cheaply and quickly. Molten pig-iron was poured into the open top of the Bessemer Converter and a fire which was made to burn hotter thanks to air injected into it by pipes at the bottom of the converter, allowed the pig iron to be superheated, burning or vapourising any impurities in the metal. Once the impurities had been burnt off, the huge Bessemer Converter (which, when full, could take thirty tons of pig iron!) was tipped over on the axle which attached it to a massive, secure frame built around it. When the converter was tipped over, pure steel poured out and ran into any moulds that were waiting for it. Once the metal had cooled, strong, preformed and perfect steel beams were ready for use!

A Bessemer Converter. Converters such as these lasted from the 1870s until the process was finally declared obsolete in the 1960s

The Bessemer Process was crucial for the development of the skyscraper. Without a way to quickly and cheaply manufacture steel, the skyscraper would never have existed. The thick, heavy, load-bearing walls of conventional buildings of the day would have to have been yards thick to be able to build buildings of the heights we know today. This all changed with steel.

With steel, buildings could now be built with frames first, each I-beam or girder held together by several red-hot rivets. These steel frames could be built quickly and they could be built high and they could be built strong! With the floors and the framework taking the weight of the building, the walls no longer had to be so thick. Now, walls could have more windows in them, they could have more decorative brick-and-stonework and…in the modern world…they could be made entirely of glass!

The Elevator

The modern skyscraper could not have existed without Bessemer steel. But even with Bessemer steel, it still would not have existed. In the 19th century, buildings were restricted in height due to the inconvenience of stairs! People were unwilling to go up endless flights of stairs. It was tiring, it was slow and stairwells and staircases took up an annoyiingly large amount of space inside a building. This changed when the electric safety-elevator was invented.

Elevators have been around for centuries. The Colosseum in Rome had lots of them! But these elevators were simple wood-and-rope affairs, driven by manpower or counterweights. Effective for rising up a few feet, but useless for rising up the dozens of storeys of the modern skyscraper. The electrically-powered safety-elevator allowed buildings and people to climb higher more efficiently, but these didn’t show up until the late 19th century.

An American named Elisha Otis is credited with inventing an elevator which people would feel safe on. Otis’s ‘safety elevator’ was so-called because in the event of the elevator-cable snapping, a pair of jaws and rollers at the top of the elevator-car would spring outwards and catch on the sides of the elevator shaft, thus preventing an accident. Of course, if the elevator was descending, this migh cause the safety-mechanism to trip accidently, so the elevator-brakes were speed-operated – they would only spring into action if there was a sudden drop of the elevator-car, consistent with a broken cable.

The first modern electrically-powered elevator came in the 1880s and, combined with Otis’s 1850s safety-elevator technology, the modern “lift” as we know it today, was born.

Lack of Land

People only build big and tall for two reasons: One, they can. Two, they have to. These days, skyscrapers are built because they can be built, but back in the turn of the last century, skycrapers were built because they had to be built. Cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Melbourne, London and Paris were becoming increasingly crowded due to factors ranging from the Industrial Revolution to immigration to gold-rushes. Cities were swelling up and unable to look down, city planners and architects started looking for ways to build higher. With cheap steel, elevators and a massive immigrant workforce, cities which made the skyscraper famous, such as New York, were born.

Where do we get the term ‘Skyscraper’ from?

Why ‘skyscraper’? Why not cloud-climber or sunkisser or moonhugger or man-mountain? Where did we get the term ‘skyscraper’ from?

The term ‘Skyscraper’ as we know it today, meaning a tall, thin building which is continuously inhabitable from the ground up, comes from the very lips of the men who built these massive structures. Many of the men who built skyscrapers around the turn of the century were sailors, men who spent weeks at sea climbing up and down the rigging of sailing-ships and who were therefore immune to the stomach-churning heights of hundreds of feet up in the air that skyscraper-builders had to face every day.

The sailors who made up the backbone of the skyscraper workforce named these new and fantastic buildings which they were constructing ‘skyscrapers’, which was the nickname for the very highest sail on a conventional, three-masted sailing-ship (the actual term is ‘Topgallant’). The name was amazingly appropriate, and it has stuck for the last a hundred and twenty odd years.

The main topgallant (‘E’ in the picture above) was colloquially called the ‘skyscraper’ by sailors, who made up the main workforce which constructed many famous early skyscrapers, and the name just stuck

Building a Tower Up to the Sun

By the first quarter of the 20th century, the skyscraper had changed the global cityscape forever. Skyscrapers were big business and they were shooting up all over the world. How big a business? Fat cats were so into building these massive structures that they did almost anything to entice construction-workers to work on their latest projects. The average construction-worker could earn twice what he usually did by agreeing to help build a skyscraper!

Although the pay for construction workers and general unskilled labourers who wanted to work on skyscrapers was double the usual rate, the work was easily a hundred times more dangerous. Construction-workers – riveters, crane-operators and general labourers, risked death every single day working at heights of a hundred, five hundred, a thousand feet and even higher up in the air!

But people do that today all the time so it’s no problem. Right?


From the 1890s-1940s, construction-safety as we know it today did not exist at all. At 900ft up in the air, a riveter or a general construction-worker was entirely on his own. He had no ropes. No cables. No harnesses. No winches. And certainly no hard-hat. Safety-nets? Forget it! One wrong step or one gust of wind while walking on a steel girder less than half a foot wide…and it was a freefall drop to certain death nearly a mile below. Working on a skyscraper was called “treading the steel” or “walking the steel”…because you literally had to walk around on those skinny steel beams to move around the building with absolutely no safety-gear. Experienced workers were called ‘roughnecks’ while new and inexperienced workers were nicknamed ‘snakes’. ‘Snakes’ because working with them was extremely dangerous. One wrong step, one distraction or one miscalculation…and the snake (and possibly other workers) were dead.

A famous photograph by Lewis Hine. It shows construction-workers on their lunch-break in the early 1930s. Note the lack of any safety-equipment. This photo isn’t staged and it hasn’t been retouched. The building they’re constructing is the Crysler Building, the building of which, Hines was commissioned to document with his camera

Even in the days before welding, skyscrapers were built phenomenally fast. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in New York City could rise up two or three floors a day (with a total of 102 floors!), which was amazingly fast when you consider that all the positioning, bolting, screwing and riveting was done entirely by hand! Due to the restricted size of the Manhattan streetgrid, girders which arrived at the Empire State Building would leave their delivery trucks still hot from the forge and would be winched up right away. There was nowhere on the ground to let the hot steel cool off before it was used, so instead the construction workers just hauled it up the moment it arrived and let the wind blow on it to cool it down as it rose.

The Skyscraper Today

These days, the skyscraper is a symbol of the modern world, the modern city, it’s a staple of our lives. To have a 21st century without the skyscraper is to have one without telephones, automobiles, the computer or the iPhone. And yet, while we may sometimes think of the skyscraper as a modern invention, one should also remember that it both is, and isn’t. Is it modern? Certainly. A hundred years is an eye-blink in the pages of history, but is it also old? Yes. To think that this icon of the modern city had its roots in the crowded, noisy, congested and choked streets of the late 19th century and that it has survived for so long.


“A Boy’s Best Friend is His Mother…” – Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield

Running water. Shadows. Screams. Dark, dark, red, red, rich, strong, running, dribbling, gushing blood. Screeching violin music. Clasping fingers. Shower-curtains. Broken rings. Curtains falling. Crumpled in a heap…

In 1960, famous British film-director Alfred Hitchcock created one of the most amazing horror films in history about a woman and a man and an isolated, family-run motel in the middle of nowhere. The ‘Shower Scene’ from the film ‘Psycho’ and its infamous high-pitched, screeching violin music is known the world over and has been parodied in countless TV shows, cartoons and movies. Norman Bates, a deluded, psychotic young man slashes a young woman in the bathroom of her motel cabin and leaves her to bleed to death.

While “Psycho” has gone down in history as one of the most famous horror films of all time, few people today would guess that the character of Norman Bates was actually based on a real person. Robert Bloch, the author who wrote the original novel “Psycho” which Hitchcock adapted to film, based the character of Norman Bates on a man which the press called the Butcher of Plainfield.

Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield

Plainfield, Wisconsin is a small, quiet little village. So small that in 2000, just under 900 people lived there. It was the Plainfield of the early 1950s that caught the world’s attention with a series of crimes that shocked the world and which made the murderer, a man named Edward Gein, a household name throughout America and the world, inspiring countless horror films, TV series and books to be written about him, based on him or which alluded to him over the next sixty years.

So who was Ed Gein and why was he called the Butcher of Plainfield? What was it that he’d done? Those with weak stomachs should not continue. Those with hardier constitutions…read on…

The Gein Family

Edward Theodore Gein was born on the 27th of August, 1906. His parents were George Gein and Augusta Gein. Ed had one older brother, Henry Gein. As is typical of stories of this kind, Mr. Gein was a violent father. He frequently abused his two sons Henry and Edward and was constantly drunk and often unemployed. George’s wife and Henry and Ed’s mother, Augusta, was a strong Christian. The only reason their marriage survived as long as it did was because they didn’t believe in divorce.

Augusta supported her family through the grocery store that she ran. Before long, the family decided to move from LaCrosse County to Waushara County in Wisconsin and a small village called…Plainfield.

In Plainfield, the Gein family lived in a primative farmhouse where Augusta sought to control her two sons’ every movement. Apart from school, the Gein brothers were not allowed to leave the farm. They spent their time doing chores and working the land. Augusta kept her boys in line by reading them passages from the Old Testament of the Bible, usually passages dealing with murder, immorality, forgiveness, retribution and the fact that all women (sweet, loving Mother Gein, of course, tactfully excluded from this mire of immorality and filth) were sluts, prostitutes and whores.

The Gein family farmhouse, on the outskirts of Plainfield, Wisconsin

Augusta’s domination over her sons had highly damaging affects. Constantly abused by their parents, the two Gein brothers became silent, introverted and mentally unbalanced. Edward was often picked on in school because of his strange behaviour which included bouts of random and totally unexplained laughter.

In 1940, George Gein died from a heart-attack. Because of the necessity for money, Augusta gave her sons a limited degree of extra freedom, which they used to become handymen, helping out around the village. Ed occasionally did some babysitting for the local villagers while Henry helped in various labourer-type jobs around Plainfield. Edward, probably due to the constant abuse he received at home, wasn’t able to relate to adults and appeared to bond better with children. It was at this time that Henry started getting detatched from his mother, wanting to leave the farm and make his own way in life. He feared the connection that Edward and mother had with each other and considered it unnatural. He began to speak out about this relationship to Edward, who refused to hear a single bad word against their mother, despite the fact that she once poured boiling water over Edward’s genitalia after she caught him masturbating…

In mid-1944, Henry and Edward were busy putting out a grass-fire near their farm. The story goes that Edward and Henry got separated as night fell. Apparently worried for his brother’s safety, Edward contacted the police who sent out a search-party. Edward led the police-officers through the shrubs and trees right to Henry’s body, despite claiming not knowing where he was. Although it was strongly suspected that Edward had murdered his brother, due to the head-injuries found on Henry’s skull, probably inflicted by Edward after another argument about their mother, the police wrote the death off as an accident. Cause of decease: Asphyxiation.

By now, alone and fully under the influence of his dominating mother, Ed’s mind began to become increasingly warped. As the months passed, he became more and more unstable until on the 29th of December, 1945, Ed’s mother Augusta finally died from a stroke.

Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield

The death of his beloved, abusive and highly-controlling mother was the last straw for Ed. Traumatised, brainwashed and abused since birth, isolated from people his own age and living on a mental diet of lies and deciet, Ed Gein’s mind finally snapped. Once Augusta had died, Gein lost the last tiny and weak grip that he had on any sense of the term ‘normality’ and he descended into a twisted and obsessive world of his own making and entrapment.

Such was Gein’s attachment to his mother, as well as the state of his incredibly warped, damaged and degenerated mind, that shortly after 1945, Gein, by now 39 years old began to unravel, taking on the persona which we would now readily identify with Norman Bates.

Augusta’s death shattered Gein in ways that many people can only imagine. The perverted relationship that they shared together meant that, despite everything she had done, Gein missed his mother. He started expressing a desire for a sex-change operation…which never happened…and he also tried to remember his mother in other, more macabre ways. Still living in the house which he had barely left since he was a boy, Gein closed off the upstairs living quarters as well as the downstairs parlour…rooms which his mother frequently used…and retreated into the kitchen and a small room adjacent to it. The Gein farmhouse was so primative that even by now in the late 1940s, it was probably one of the very few dwellings in or near Plainview that did not have electricity in it. The only lighting was provided by candles, oil lamps or sunlight in the daytime.

As the years progressed, Gein developed an interest in darker subjects such as taxidermy and death-cults. He shot and killed two Plainfield women, Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan, because they resembled and reminded him of his mother, whom he missed so dearly, and whom he wanted back with him again. Wanting to make himself a “woman suit”, Gein went on nightly graverobbing excursions, exhuming the corpses of recently-dead women who resembled his mother’s physical appearance. These bodies were variously butchered, skinned and dismembered for various purposes over the next few years.

Arrest and Trial

In a small town like Plainfield Wisconsin, news spreads fast. The deaths of Mary Hogan, a local tavern-owner, and Bernice Worden, owner of the Plainfield hardware store prompted swift police-action. Investigators questioned, requestioned, examined and cross-examined every single person in town. They even questioned Gein himself, but they deemed Gein…who was seen by the villagers as being something of a weirdo and oddball…to be too mentally deranged and timid to actually do anything as horrible as kill two big, strapping women such as Hogan and Worden. If they’d known the kinds of things that a mentally dranged oddball like Gein could do, they probably would have arrested him on sight.

As it turned out, policemen raided the Gein farm in 1957, searching for clues. In a shed near the house, officers discovered the body of Mrs. Worden, tied by her ankles to the ceiling and gutted and dressed out like a butchered game-animal.

Forcing entry into the Gein house and using flashlights to light the way, police officers were in for the shock of their lives.

A photograph of the kitchen in the Gein house, showing the squalor and disarray in which Ed Gein lived his life

Apart from the upper floor and a couple of rooms downstairs which Ed had sealed off as a memorial to his mother, the rest of the house was filthy. Body-parts, bits of body-parts and bits of bits of body-parts lay all over the house. The fridge was full of human organs, skulls were cut open and used as bowls, Gein’s bed had a bedframe with skulls on it for decoration. Furniture was upholstered with human skin, face-masks were made from actual faces, the skins of which had been tanned to prevent rotting.

The police were appalled by what they saw, and arrested Gein soon after. Gein confessed that he had killed Worden and Hogan and that he regularly went to cemetaries nearby to exhume recently-deceased women so as to skin their bodies and live out his transvestite dreams.

Gein was tried and found guilty of First Degree Murder. He entered a plea of Insanity and was thereafter and for all the days of his life, until he died in 1984, confined to a series of mental hospitals. In 1958, the Gein farmhouse “mysteriously” burnt to the ground. Police were pretty sure it was arson and that furious Plainfield townsfolk had torched the Gein house out of disgust and anger at what Ed had done, not only to their residents, but also to their deceased…but they conveniently turned a blind eye and pretended that they didn’t know who had started the fire.

Edward Theodore Gein died on the 26th of July, 1984, from respiratory and heart-failure due to complications from cancer. He was 77 years old. He was buried in Plainfield Cemetary.

Impact on Popular Culture and Society

Gein’s impact on popular culture is undeniable. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the various ‘Pyscho’ books and films and movies of perverted killers who skin their victims and wear their flesh all have their roots in the demented mind of Ed Gein.

Unlike Albert Fish or Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein did not kill a vast number of people. He murdered a grand total of two women. What makes him so infamous is what he did with human bodies, how he butchered them, how he used their body-parts and skins to craft all kinds of gruesome objects and decorations and how he tried constantly to find things or do things or wear things or create things…that would remind him of his mother, the one woman he ever knew and ever loved and who had so traumatised his life ever since he was a boy.

After all, as Norman Bates famously says…

“A boy’s best friend is his mother”.



An Impossible Dream: The History of Flight

For centuries, man has wanted to do lots of things. He has wanted to ride in a wheeled vehicle unpowered by a walking manure-factory. He has wanted to sail the open seas…without sails. He has wanted to communicate long distances without having to travel long distances, he has wanted to invent a form of illumination that won’t set the house on fire and he’s wanted to explore under water without ending up under ground. But of all the dreams that mankind has had, none has been stronger than man’s desire…to fly.

Mr. Wile E. Coyote provides a historically-accurate practical demonstration of mankind’s early experiments with flight

For centuries, flight was considered impossible – the dream and fancy of fools, a pipe-dream, a hallucination, an idiotic fantasy. And yet today, we can fly halfway around the world within twenty-four hours. How? And…Why? This article will explore the history of manmade aircraft – anything that didn’t come with a beak, claws and a feathery lining, from the first experimental aircraft to airliners as we know them today.

Flight of Fancy

Since time immemoriam, man has looked at the skies, and has seen birds. Or maybe bats. Probably even flies. On the off-chance, even a mosquito. He puzzled and fumed and fussed over the fact that all these things could do the one thing that he couldn’t – Fly.

Mankind has had dreams of flight for centuries. Even the famous inventor and painter, Leonardo from Vinci, invented a bloody helicopter before the word had even been thought up! But even with wonderful sketches, ideas, dreams and brainstorming, man couldn’t make a successful flying machine. To many, it was considered impossible. Man did not understand what made something fly and, once it was flying, how to keep it flying and, once it was kept flying, how to make it stop flying!

Leonardo’s fantasmagorical flying machine…would it ever have really worked?

The very first flying machines never left the pages that they were drawn on. Leonardo, who created the world’s first helicopter prototype as well as a primative parachute, never actually manufactured his inventions, although modern reconstructions and testing has shown that, with enough persistance, the right materials and a whole heap of chutzbah, it could be done! So…when did man first take to the air?

Full of Hot Air

The first real flying machines that mankind created out of his own hands which really worked were primative hot-air balloons. Hot air balloons had been known for centuries; they were toys and novelties. Cute little fun displays to be seen at garden parties, a toy for the children to marvel at and something for older people to ponder: “What if…?”

The first unmanned hot-air balloons were introduced into the world centuries ago. Early experimenters realised two things about the air which we breathe: Cold air descends. Hot air rises. By this logic, if you put hot air (produced by a continuous heat-source, say, a candle) inside a sealed compartment (like a paper bag), then the hot air would cause the bag to rise, once it had been filled up enough. This proved to be the case, and the hot air balloon was invented.

The idea of travelling by hot air balloon took a while to ehm…get off the ground, though. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the first experiements by European scientists and inventors were begun. The big problem confronting these early experimenters was weight! For this fancy-schmancy ‘hot air balloon’ gizmo to actually lift anything of value off the ground, it would need a massive envelope (the big ‘balloon’ part) and it would need even more hot air! It was all these scary weight-concerns that kept mankind grounded for so long. For a balloon flight to be successful, weight had to be kept to an absolute minimum!

It wasn’t until November 21, 1783 that the world’s first manned balloon-flight happened. The two lucky fellows in the basket on this historic day were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes, a physics teacher and a soldier, respectively. The balloon being flown was a creation of the famous Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne. One likely reason why it took so long for man to take to the skies in hot air balloons was because of how long these things took to make! Apart from the exhausting testing that the Montgolfier brothers carried out on their balloons, there is also the physical size of the balloons themselve to consider. The historic balloon which took de Rozier and d’Arlandes into the air on that day in November, 1783 was absolutely massive! Here are the technical specifications of that famous balloon, as translated from the original French document:

Height of Globe: 22.7m (75ft).
Weight of Globe: 780kg (1,700lbs).
Diameter: 14.9m (49ft).
Lifting capacity: Max approx 830kg (1,800lbs).
Volume of Globe: 2,000 cubic meters (73,000 cubic feet).
Gallery (a doughnut-shaped basket attached to the envelope): 1m wide (3ft).

Needless to say, getting such a massive balloon into the air was not easy, but when it happened, history was well and truly written and made. The Montgolfier brothers’ success was so amazing that King Louis XVI elevated the entire Montgolfier family to the French nobility as a reward! If the Montgolfiers had known that the French Revolution was just a few years away, they might have decided to take the second prize of a two-door, 4hp carriage with guilded windowframes instead…

The hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers

The Hot Air Balloon was now here to stay, and from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, it dominated flight around the world. Hot air balloons were popular attractions at public events, they were used as observation-posts during warfare and for the first time in history, man could fly over the land he owned and see everything from a bird’s eye view.

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

Although the hot air balloon allowed mankind its first proper view down on the world, it did have one major drawback – Hot air balloons were slow, hard to navigate and dangerous to fly. They could only move where the wind blew and could only move as fast as the wind allowed. This was deemed unsatisfactory, by some, and it was decided that what mankind really needed was a flying machine that could be completely controlled by man – A machine that could take flight, stay in the air, go where the pilot wanted it to, and land when and where he wanted it to land.

Like the balloon before it, the aeroplane was slow to take off. As Betty Boop says in one of her cartoons, “It was called insane by ‘most every man!”…and it was! The idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine was proposterous! How could such a thing ever work?

At the turn of the last century, mankind was only just beginning to understand aerodynamics, or how airflow affects moving objects. Chief among this group of people who were studying aerodynamics was a pair of brothers named Wilbur and Orville.

Orville and Wilbur Wright, (born 1871 and 1867, respectively) are the two men credited with inventing the world’s first controllable airplane, and it took some doing, too. And it’s proof that you don’t have to have a college education to be a genius…neither of the Wright Brothers attended university!

The Wright Brothers initially led very different lives. In 1885, Wilbur was hit in the face by accident during a game of hockey. There was no significant damage done (although he did lose a few teeth), but the shock of the blow did make him more introverted than he used to be. He spent most of his time at home, reading and looking after Susan Wright, the Wright Brothers’ mother who was by this time, dying of tuberculosis (she did eventually pass away in 1889).

Orville Wright worked as a printer after dropping out of highschool. Wilbur, getting rather bored with sticking around at home all the time, joined his brother in business, and the two boys worked together as editor and publisher respectively, of various small-town newspapers.

In the 1880s, a new machine was invented. It was light, fast, easy to ride and safer to operate than its predecessors, allowing the rider to balance on its frame more easily and control its speed and movement more comfortably.

The bicycle had been introduced to the world.

Wanting to make as much money as they could, the Wrights packed up their printing press and jumped onto the cycling craze, opening a bicycle repair and manufacture-shop in the 1890s. Throughout the 1890s, flight pioneers were constantly making the headlines, with newer, ‘better’ flying machines. All this talk of flying got the brothers thinking. Wilbur was the one who really got interested in flying, and he set about trying to make a flying machine. Orville joined in later, once Wilbur’s work was showing a sufficient degree of promise.

The Wright brothers started out small, practicing their flying first with kites and then with gliders before attempting anything that we’d recognise today as a conventional airplane. Wilbur studied the movements of birds to try and discover the secret ingredient to Lift, the necessary component of flight to compensate for gravity. The Wrights theorised that it was the gliding motion of birds and the movement of air over their wings that allowed them to fly like they did, rather than the actual flapping motion which some inventors had tried for years to reproduce.

The brothers made a breakthrough when they discovered wing-warping, that is, bending or angling a pair of wings to create the correct kind of airflow to provide lift for the aircraft as well as giving it the ability to turn, rise and fall through the air. It was easy enough to bend a wing – just make it out of something light and flexible. The problem was how to control wing-warping. Left to their own devices, early wings would warp of their own accord, depending on wind-conditions. By attaching ropes and pulleys to the edges of their wings, the Wright brothers were able to pull on the cables and affect wing-warp themselves, giving them for the first time, an aspect of control over their aircraft!

Throughout the early 1900s, the Wright Brothers experimented with gliders to give them an idea of how wings and angling these wings affected flight and lift. To aid them with this, they built one of the world’s first wind-tunnels! With wind on demand, the boys were able to test their flyers more and more often and were able to record data more effectively.

Powered Flight

The dream of mankind was to have powered, controlled flight. By the early 1900s, the Wrights were already working on the “control” part, but they still needed to address the issue of power. They knew from their experiements that any power-source onboard an airplane would have to be as light as possible. Fortunately, their experience working on bicycles meant that the Wright Brothers already had some grounding in light and powerful machines.

The world’s first airplane, Wright Flyer I, took to the air in 1903. Using a custom-made internal-combustion engine created in their own bicycle-shop (after no established engine-manufacturers of the time were able to make one small, light and powerful enough for their needs) and propellers made of wood, tested relentlessly in their wind-tunnel, the Wright brothers were ready to fly.

For obvious reasons, this milestone was fraught with danger. Steering a glider, launching a glider and landing a glider was relatively safe – there were no moving parts. But with their new airplane, the boys had to be careful of the rotating propellers, which were literally revolutionary at the time, since nobody had yet figured out how an airplane’s propeller actually worked!

The historic first flight took place on the 17th of December, 1903.

Actually, more than one flight took place on the 17th of December, 1903, on the beaches near Kittyhawk, South Carolina. Four flights in total were conducted. A number of people came out to witness this historic event: Adam Etheridge, Will Dough, W. C. Brinkley, Johnny Moore, a local lad who was on the scene at the time, and John T. Daniels, a member of a nearby lifesaving station.

Of the four flights taken, the first, third and fourth were photographed. The famous “First Flight” photograph (With Orville at the controls and Wilbur jogging alongside) was taken by John T. Daniels, the lifesaver, and a man who had never operated a camera before (or since!). Daniels had been given instructions by Orville to take the shot when he saw the machine move in front of the camera. Daniels, too excited by what was going on around him, nearly forgot to take the photograph! At the last minute, he tripped the shutter and history was made…

The Airplane Takes Off

If the Wright Brothers thought that their newfangled “flying machine” (Oh what an absurd notion!) was ever going to be a wonderful, amazing, popular, attention-grabbing, imagination-stimulating, sought-after and life-changing machine!…They were wrong.

In fact they were so wrong they probably wondered why the hell they started in the first place. The truth was that very few people were actually interested in their new flying-machine. It didn’t make the headlines that they’d expected it to (probably because so many other flying-machines had done so, and they’d all failed!) and the military was not in the least bit interested. The planes were too light, too flimsy, too dangerous to fly. What possible military application could they have?

The Rise of the Airplane

Just like early anythings, planes were not seen as having much application in the world of the time. Cars were slow, tempermental things, new on the scene, expensive and prone to breakdowns. Similarly, planes were seen as expensive, rich, playboy toys which could never have any practical application in the real world. This changed during the years of the First World War when armies soon discovered the advantages of having an aerial wing which could fly over battlefields, bombing and strafing the enemy, which could take photographs and which could report on enemy troops and movements. By 1918, the airplane had proven itself as a practical and important machine in warfare.

If the 1900s were the experimental stages of airplane-operation, then the 1910s and the 1920s became the era of aircraft endurance-testing. All kinds of famous airplane-related events took place in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which are still fondly remembered today. Here’s a list of them:

1912 – April 16th. Harriet Quimby is the first woman to fly across the English Channel (Dover-Calais, in 59 minutes). Unfortunately, her moment in the sun and her chances of making the front pages were dashed when a little-known watercraft called the R.M.S. Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean the night before…

1927 – May 20-21. Charles Lindbergh flies the Spirit of St. Louis from New York City to Paris, France, in the world’s first solo nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

1928 – 31st May-9th June. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith & Co make the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean in a three-leg journey from California, USA, to Hawaii, Hawaii to Fiji, Fiji to Brisbane, in Australia.

The 1920s also saw the founding of several famous commercial airline companies. United Airlines is founded in 1926 as Boeing Air Transport. The famous Australian airline company Quantas is founded in 1920. The German airline company Lufthansa is founded in 1926. Pan Am, the American airline is founded as Pan-American Airways in 1927.

Luxury Travel

From the second half of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, luxury long-distance travel was to be had in only one way. That one way was in an amazingly grand and luxurious ocean-liner, which would transport you across vast stretches of water from England to America, America to Australia, Australia to Asia, Asia to Europe and so-on. The largely experimental status of aircraft in the early 20th century meant that the ocean-liner trade was still going strong well into the 1950s, but things were all about to change.

The 1920s showed everyone that airplanes, just like steamships, could safely travel amazing distances, and what’s more, they could do it in significantly more comfort and at faster speeds! This led to the 1930s boom of the airline industry.

Sometimes we like to kid ourselves that airline travel today is really luxurious…little personal TV screens, computer-games, telephone and internet access, luxurious onboard dining and crayons and those cheap, crappy plastic model-airplanes for the kiddies are all the luxury that we need.

In the 1930s, though, there was a whole new kind of luxury…the airship!

The airship was like a hybrid between the airplane and the hot air balloon. Invented in the 1900s, the airship had its golden age from the 1910s-1930s. Less noisy, larger and capable of carrying more passengers than early conventional, fixed-wing airplanes, the airship became the way to travel in style, comfort and most importantly…speed, in the early 1900s. A number of countries operated airship lines, from the United Kingdom, the United States and most notably of all…Germany.

Although large and amazing, airships were dangerous machines. The hydrogen gas which inflated the huge envelopes of many airships was highly explosive and extensive precautions were taken to prevent fires – in Germany, for example, you couldn’t take your camera or your cigarette-lighter onboard an airship – They were confiscated by the crew and locked in a special cargo-area, to be returned by the crew when the ship had reached its destination. The sparking of a cigarette-lighter or the burning flash from early, magnesium flash-bulb cameras was seen as a fire-hazard.

Due to their large size, airships could be difficult to control in bad weather. When the weather was fine, flying in an airship was an exciting and wonderful experience, but when there was a storm, heavy rains or lightning around, the experience could become quite frightening. Winds could rip at the cloth covering of the airship’s enevelope, dangerous static-electric charges could build up on the airship’s frame (although this could also create a spectacular display of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ to dazzle and awe passengers!) and heavy winds and rain could affect handling and manuverablity. The airship USS Akron crashed in April of 1933 due to flying in a storm after spending only 18 months in civilian service. Of the 76 passengers and crew onboard, only three people survived and were picked up by US. Coastguard watercraft after the crash.

The most famous airship crash is, of course, that of the Hindenburg, which spectacularly erupted into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey in early 1937 and crashed and burned to the ground in a matter of seconds! Of the 97 passengers and crew onboard, roughly one third (36 people) of them died, including one member of the ground-staff. Destroyed after just over a year in service, the Hindenburg’s demise saw the end of grand airship travel, which was written off as just being far too dangerous.

The Hindenburg Crash. The structure on the right is the airship mooring-tower

To understand why the public was so drawn to airships, these flying death-traps, one has to see what they were really like and what they meant to people at the time. Airplanes are faster, but they’re smaller, more cramped, more uncomfortable.

The interiors of German commercial airships that flew through the air during the 1920s and 30s were bright, modern, luxurious, airy and with plenty of space to move around and stretch your legs. Passengers even slept in their own cabins, instead of trying to sleep strapped into their chairs like we have to do these days. Add to this the fact that travelling by airship was so much faster than travelling by…ship-ship. Steaming from England to America took at least five days using the fastest and most modern ocean-liners in the 1930s. Flying from Germany to America by airship in the 1930s took two or at a stretch, three days. For speed and convenience, the airship certainly won out here.

A period airship advertisement from the 1930s boasting a two-day crossing from America to Europe, which was three times faster than a similar crossing by ocean-liner

The risks of airship travel and the spectacular crashes that involved airships soon spelt an end to their aerial dominance, though. They were seen as just being far too risky a thing to use. Why speed up your trip by a few days when you risked crashing, falling from the sky and being killed when you could cross the ocean in a week by ship? And even if the ship was to sink, you could still get into a lifeboat and radio for help! By the late 1930s, the glory days of the airship were over.

Postwar Boom

The 1950s saw many things – the emergence of the Cold War, television, rock and roll and do-wop music. But it also saw the downfall of many things, such as the gradual dying-out of the transatlantic passenger-ship industry and the end of the airship industry. But from the ashes of the airship industry, a new form of transport was to emerge…

…the modern airliner.

Capable of transporting more people to more places with more speed, airliners were the thing of the future. Although the airliner of today probably shares several characteristics with the airliners of the past, early airliners had various perks such as the ability to smoke onboard planes (thank god that’s over with!) and being served meals with real cutlery, chinaware and glassware (something that doesn’t happen today!) and being able to listen to live piano-music! Yes, believe it or not, but early airliners used to have (specially made) pianos onboard them, usually in First Class, where passengers could listen to live music!

An airliner’s piano-bar in the 1960s

Continued safety-concerns and space-restrictions mean that spaces reserved for piano-bars, cocktail lounges, drinks bars and other public-seating areas on airplanes where passengers could mingle and chat, are now a thing of the past, leaving us with nothing but tantilising images of what is, what was, and what might have been…