Science Art: Pénaud’s first sketch of an amphibian aeroplane, 1873

Scientific illustration of an amphibious aircraft from the 1800s.
Scientific illustration of an amphibious aircraft from the 1800s.

CW: Ends in despair.

French aviation pioneer Alphonse Pénaud designed this, with engineer Paul Gauchot, as an aeroplane that could land on water or on land. That was quite an ambition in the decades before the Wright Brothers (or Gustave Whitehead or Alberto Santos-Dumont). But probably the oddest thing about his designs was something we take for granted as child’s play today. He was the first person to create a model plane driven by a twisted rubber band.

That was pretty remarkable in the 1800s, but he also saw no reason why the rubber-driven wind-up system wouldn’t work with a full-sized aircraft. His Planophore, a model with an 18-inch wingspan driven by 5 grams of rubber, was the first aerodynamically stable flying model, with upward-curving wingtips and an angled rudder that ensured his plane had automatic stability. He also created model ornithopters and helicopters that were successful toys and impressed the Société Aéronautique. In fact, a toy helicopter based on his design was given to the young Wright Brothers by their father, a gift which they later credited with starting their interest in flight.

Pénaud’s later designs with Gauchot featured a great many innovations, including having twin propellers that spun in opposite directions to balance out torque, a retractable undercarriage, electrical controls for the elevators, and an enclosed cabin for the pilot. The problem was, he couldn’t get anyone to build a full-sized prototype of any of his craft.

This sketch, after a few revisions, was patented in 1876, but never constructed and never piloted. Unable to secure any investors willing to fund an aircraft large enough to carry him aloft, the groundbreaking aviation designer killed himself in 1880 at age 30.