Nostalgia: The genius of Sir George Cayley

A copy of Sir George Cayleys airship design.
A copy of Sir George Cayleys airship design.

There are two different kinds of villages or townships running along both sides of the eastern end of the Vale of Pickering, the “closed” estate villages which have belonged to one family generation after generation and the “open” ones of multi-ownership. Even today, the estate townships such as Hackness, Seamer, Ganton, Wykeham and West Heslerton contrast markedly with villages such as Snainton, Sherburn or Muston. The Cayleys no longer live in Brompton, the Legards have moved out from Ganton to Scampston, and Seamer no longer belongs to the Denisons, whereas Hackness has still the Johnstones and Wykeham the Dawnays. Yet, despite the relatively recent departure of the Cayleys, Brompton still bears the imprint of their presence during three centuries.

For Thomas Hinderwell, writing in 1811, Brompton was “celebrated for having been the birth-place of John Brompton”, a distinguished Benedictine monk who spent 20 years in the monastery at Whitby during the fifteenth century; but nowadays Brompton by Sawdon is rightly remembered as the former home of Sir George Cayley (1778-1857), one of the world’s most inventive scientists and engineers.

Though he was born in Paradise House, Scarborough, and for a short time was one of the borough’s two Whig MPs, most of the life of Sir George was spent in Brompton Hall, the chief family residence.

Edward Cayley had bought the Brompton estate in 1622, his son, William, was knighted in 1641, and promoted to the baronetcy in 1661. Loyal and even fatal service to the Crown during the Civil Wars was rewarded with more favours to the family. The second baronet, another Sir William, was mayor of Scarborough during the reign of James II; but, as Tories, the Cayleys passed out of prominence after the Revolution of 1688.

Sir George, the sixth baronet, was only 19 years old when he succeeded his father in 1792. By 1811, when Hinderwell visited Brompton, he seemed unaware of the genius who by then occupied Brompton Hall and had already made a difference to the locality.

This is hardly surprising, since recognition and appreciation of Sir George’s huge talents and many achievements have been long delayed in Britain, if not elsewhere, until as recently as the 1990s. Only then did his name and history appear in a volume of Missing Persons in the Dictionary of National Biography; and only after he had been dead for more than a century were plaques to him placed on the outside wall of Paradise House and his workshop in the grounds of Brompton Hall.

From an early age, Sir George Cayley had set himself the colossal task of learning whatever he could about everything that might improve human existence. Later, at 47, he wrote down privately his personal agenda for the remainder of his life: “Inform myself of the useful branches of human learning – history, philosophy, political economy, political creed, practical arts, works of taste and genius. Apply knowledge in acting wisely, and with energy, in favour of one’s country, one’s family, one’s self and of the general welfare of the human race, and others, the inferior creatures in man’s care.”

Among Sir George’s many ingenious inventions were an artificial hand that was so lifelike that with it its wearer, one of his employees, could pick up a pin from a flat surface; a light-weight tension wheel later used for bicycles; a caterpillar tractor, later employed by military tanks; a safety seat-belt, eventually installed in motor vehicles; an automatic braking system for trains; a finned, streamlined missile, later used for rockets; and a self-righting, unsinkable lifeboat. His advice to the War Office on how the army could increase the range and accuracy of its artillery was ignored.

Not only was he the chief sponsor of the Muston drainage project which transformed farming in the eastern Vale, but his cottage allotment scheme, whereby every Brompton householder was allowed half an acre of land to grow his own food and graze livestock, ensured that his tenants did not suffer the worst privations caused by the Napoleonic blockade.

However, today, Sir George is mostly regarded as the leading pioneer of aeronautical flight, his principal preoccupation. By the age of 15 he was making notes on the locomotion of hares; how fish used their fins to propel themselves through water; and the flight pattern and style of different birds. By his stopwatch he measured the downward beat of a crow’s wing to 2.647 per second! At 18 he had built a working toy helicopter from two corks, eight bird feathers, a wooden shaft and a whalebone. By that time he had rejected the impractical notion of using moveable wings in imitation of bird flight and devoted his time to designing a fixed-wing craft.

As early as 1809, he had already designed the basic configuration of the modern aeroplane – the streamlined fuselage, a tail unit with elevator and fin rudder for longitudinal and lateral stability and manoeuvre, and aerodynamic wings which provided maximum lift and minimal drag. Eventually, after nearly half a century of experiment, he was defeated by the need for a means of propulsion, an engine of little weight but great power. In the absence of petroleum, he tried every kind of fuel then known, from alcohol and gunpowder to spirit of tar and carburetted hydrogen gas. In the end, he had to be content with a full-scale, man-carrying glider and a final flight of 500 yards down Brompton Dale in 1853 for his terrified coachman.

Sir George Cayley died at Brompton Hall a few days before his 84th birthday. He was buried in the family vault underneath the chancel of All Saints’ parish church. His wife had died three years earlier. They had ten children, seven girls and three boys, but only Digby survived to become the seventh baronet. It is said that though Sir George was born in paradise, on account of the hard time his wife gave him he had spent much of it in purgatory. If so, then this only adds to his massive achievements. Few men anywhere in any century have lived a life more worthy and productive and passed on benefits so valuable and lasting.