Cayley's improved design for a navigable balloon, 1837.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) was a British inventor and the father of fixed-wing flight. In 1817 he began designing airships and was the first to recognise that the succes of the dirigible (or controllable) balloon depended upon the development of an engine with a high power to weight ratio. He forecast the creation of the internal combustion engine, but was unable to find any suitable form of motive power to harnes to a balloon. He experimented unsuccesfully with a hot-air engine and a piston engine using gunpowder. His other propulsion methods were similarly flawed, with ideas such as releasing the airship from the ground at an angle so that it would sail off in the required direction, having sails wafted by a steam engine, or his favourite; flapper propulsion.