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Who Invented the Helicopter? (and When?)

Most people are fascinated with helicopters, and there is little wonder why. These birds can fly in most directions, hover in the air, and even land on water if they have to. This makes them very unique creations, and if you’re interested in the history of the helicopter, keep reading.

Ever since around 400 BC when Chinese children played with bamboo flying toys that looked like modern-day helicopters, people have been interested in this flying machine. Of course, it wasn’t until the early 1480s that a design for the helicopter was made, and not until 1861 when the term “helicopter” was first used.

Who Invented the Helicopter?

Paul Cornu, a French bicycle maker, is credited with inventing the helicopter in 1907. His invention is the first helicopter as we know it today, and it managed to lift off the ground about 1 foot, for about 20 seconds.

Paul Cornu and his Helicopter
Editorial Team Paul Cornu and his Helicopter

Another French inventor by the name of Etienne Oehmichen is credited with the first helicopter flight carrying two passengers. He did this shortly after winning a prize of 90 000 for flying his helicopter following a triangular circuit of 1 Kilometer in length.

Étienne Oehmichen Helicopter No. 2, 1923-1924. On May 4 1924, it was the first helicopter to fly on the distance of one kilometer (0.6 mile)
Editorial Team Étienne Oehmichen Helicopter No. 2, 1923-1924. On May 4 1924, it was the first helicopter to fly on the distance of one kilometer (0.6 mile)

Early History Of The Helicopter

In 1870, toy helicopters were made and were powered with rubber bands, which some of us are old enough to remember playing with. Nine years earlier, a small steam-powered helicopter was invented, but it was made out of new metal and aluminum and never got off the ground.

In 1878, an unmanned steam-powered vehicle rose to 39 feet then hovered for a few seconds in the air. It even took off vertically like helicopters of today do. In 1887, an inventor in Paris built and then flew an electric version of a helicopter with success.

Kaman K-225, World first turbine engine helicopter
Editorial Team Kaman K-225, World’s first turbine engine helicopter

In July of 1901 in Germany, the maiden voyage of a helicopter took place and even carried humans from one place to another. The event was later depicted in a movie, although it has since been lost to time. This was a motor-driven flying machine much like today’s helicopters.

Even Thomas Edison had an interest in helicopters. In the late 1880s he was given money to experiment with the helicopter, but the aircraft he invented exploded and even caused serious burns to one of the workers. Later, a Slovak inventor took what Edison had learned and applied it to his own invention.

This inventor’s helicopter flew 1.6 feet in the air in 1901, and in 1905 it flew for over 4,900 feet and reached 13 feet in the air. Edison attempted to improve on his helicopter in 1908, but the one he invented that time never flew.

Inventing The Modern Day Helicopter

As you can see, the history of the helicopter includes a lot of different people, but the first actual flights are attributed mostly to a group of Frenchmen.

As a result, the Gyroplane No. 1 came on the scene in 1907, and it lifted its pilot in the air for a total of a minute. However, the helicopter was so unsteady that men had to stay at the airframe to make sure it was steady.

By most accounts, this flight is considered the first actual manned flight of a helicopter, but not the first untethered flight. That honor goes to a helicopter developed by Paul Cornu, which was a truly free helicopter with a pilot. It rose 1 foot in the air for a total of 20 seconds.

cornu helicopter
Editorial Team Paul Cornu helicopter

In 1912, the Ellehammer helicopter was invented, and it continued to be tested until 1916 when the rotors were destroyed due to it tipping over. The PKZ, developed in Austria-Hungary, was developed during World War I, and two separate aircraft were built.

Many inventors and engineers from all over the world built prototypes of helicopters after 1912, many of which were used in the first two world wars, but in the United States, Igor Sikorsky is credited with creating the first mass-produced helicopter in the history of flight.

Igor Sikorsky

Igor Sikorsky was an American citizen born in Russia who invented the first mass-produced helicopter, which was known as the R-4. Indeed, there were a total of 100 of these helicopters made at the time, and they played significant roles during World War II. 

In fact, by the end of World War II, Sikorsky had produced more than 400 helicopters, including not only the R-4, but also the R-5 and R-6. They built their helicopters specifically for the military, which used them mostly for search-and-rescue missions.

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Today, Sikorsky is known as one of the most well-known developers of the helicopter, and there is little reason why this is so.

Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly helicopter
Editorial Team Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly helicopter

Other People Also Made a Difference

The history of the helicopter isn’t complete without mentioning other important contributors to this flying machine. There is Arthur Young, whose Model 30 helicopter was a primitive version of the Bell 47, which is the first helicopter to be certified for civilian use in the United States.

Bell 30
Editorial Team Bell 30

Charles Kaman invented the K-225, which was the first helicopter in the world that had twin turbine engines, while the Sud Aviation Alouette II was the first helicopter with a standard turbine engine. As you can see, the helicopter didn’t exactly get here overnight. 

Indeed, it took a series of events and many mishaps to develop the aircraft we know today as the helicopter. Even today, there are many different designs of helicopters that can be used for a variety of military and civilian uses.

It is amazing how far the development of helicopters have come in such a short amount of time. Modern day helicopters can fly distances of up to 1200 miles, reach speeds up to 300 miles an hour and lift loads up to 56 tons.

Early helicopter pioneers such as Paul Cornu, Etienne Oehmichen and Thomas Edison would likely be proud of the progress made.

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