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Incredible Cornu, the helicopter cyclist from Lisieux

Under the sacred shadow of a grand basilica lies ancient Lisieux.  This self contained Normandy town is impressed but not overawed by the shrine that towers over it and celebrates Saint Thérèse.  Lisieux was well established before a certain thoughtful young girl made her mark. Many history changing events have happened here, and one of them was the flight of a bicycle.

Our postcard captures a few yards of buildings not destroyed by war, on Rue Henri Chéron.  This short piece of road and some compact alleyways behind give a clue to Lisieux’s architectural past.

Old houses Lisieux - Match! We are getting quite good at this.
Old houses Lisieux – Match! We are getting quite good at this.

Before 1944 Lisieux was famous for uncommonly well preserved medieval houses.  Tall narrow streets of carved and gabled timber frames described by traveller Gordon Home in 1905 as having a ‘romantic and almost stage-like picturesqueness’.

The clever family Cornu

This is the Lisieux that Paul Cornu would have known.  Born in Glos-la-Ferriere on 15 June 1881, Paul was 9 when his family moved to the town.

The establishment Cornu, in Lisieux
The establishment Cornu, in Lisieux

He worked with his father in the family business, an ‘Automobile, Cycles and Motorcyles’ shop, building and repairing the latest in transport technology.  Plus the occasional sewing machine.  Here, surrounded by the past, Paul dreamed of the future.

His father Julius had changed the family business from transport to mechanics when he realised his son had a remarkable engineering talent, more than a match for his own considerable abilities.  It was a profitable move and with 15 children to prepare for the world, Mr Cornu needed profit.

The young inventor

Behind Rue Henri Chéron
Behind Rue Henri Chéron

Paul was 14 when he had his first success; a temperature controller for an incubator. By 1907 his registered inventions included: 1898 a motorized bicycle, 1899 a rotary engine he designed with his father and patented it in 1902. In 1901 a thermal clock, 1902 and 1903 steam tricycle and motorcycle.  He also invented a small car with 2 gas engines and no gearbox. 

These ideas were published and garnered interest from around the world, unfortunately Cornu father and son were inventors not entrepreneurs and failed to gain much financially from their ideas. 

No fear of flying

Then, like the rest of the world at the turn of the century, flying machines captured Paul’s attention. In particular vertical take-off and the concept of the helicopter which he believed to be “of more immediate use than the airplane”.

Although Leonardo da Vinci drafted several versions of a spiral winged machine now seen as a forerunner to the helicopter, no-one had successfully built anything like a helicopter that actually flew. Paul set to work with an inventor’s tenacity.

Paul with his model helicopter
Paul with his model helicopter

Marvellous model

Working around the daily needs of the business that kept a roof above their heads, Paul designed and built a model helicopter with two rotors either side of a metal frame.  Inside a tiny engine produced 2 horse power.  The whole thing weighed just 13kg, looked like a giant insect and astonishingly, it worked.

Paul proudly showed off his invention in the courtyard of the Lisieux college during the annual agricultural fair on the 4 October 1906.  The little helicopter leapt up into the air in front of an excited crowd and became a sensation in the town.

Age just 24 this achievement put Paul at the forefront of helicopter design.  Lisieux supported him and, financed by 12,000 from public subscriptions, Paul Cornu set about building a large scale version of his helicopter, capable of holding one person.

He had his eye on a very large prize.

The Archdeacon Prize

Paul Cornu in his first helicopter in 1907.
Paul Cornu in his first helicopter in 1907.

In these early days of aviation it was often in small workshops like those of Paul Cornu that inventive leaps were made. Competitions were a popular way to encourage inventors and push aviation science forward. One of these was set up in 1904 by Ernest Archdeacon, an aviation fanatic who took his first balloon flight at 20.

More successful as a lawyer than as a flight pioneer, he used his fortune to advance and promote aeronautics.  The Coupe d’Aviation Ernest Archdeacon and theDeutsch de la Meurthe-Archdeacon annual prize was worth 50,000Fr.

To win Paul would need to fly his helicopter, the aim was a breathtaking 1km.

His family was supportive but Paul mostly worked alone and progress was slow. It took a year after his initial success before the helicopter was complete.  In a trial on the last day of August 1907 it hovered, unmanned.  He was close to success.

Pipped at the post?

Outside Paris the highly educated and funded Louis Charles Breguet was working on his design for a gyroplane.  It used 4 rotors and during tests on 29 September lifted from the ground, but was it a true competitor? No, the Breguet gyroplane had left the ground, but was steadied with poles.  Free flight had not been achieved.  Paul was still in with a chance of the prize.

Model of the Breguet-Richet Gyroplane
Model of the Breguet-Richet Gyroplane

One small step…

On 13 November 1907 Paul Cornu’s helicopter seemed alive.  It took little wind to set the machine lurching in all directions and on that November day Paul and his brother Jacques were fighting to keep it from careering off across the field.  A first attempt had not been successful.

As a gust of wind buffeted the machine Jacques lost his grip and Paul threw himself across it, landing flat on the handles to hold it safe to the ground.  But incredibly the machine rose up around 1m into the air with Paul aboard, where it stayed there for 20 seconds.  Paul was elated, witnesses amazed.

It had not been an elegant flight, or a long one, but it was a first for aviation.  Paul Cornu achieved the first manned vertical lift off and flight of a helicopter.

Paul Cornu's helicopter
Paul Cornu’s helicopter

The flying bicycle

He won that year’s Archdeacon prize and some notoriety as the inventor of the ‘flying bicycle’.

Of course it was not a flying bicycle.  That was a derisive term used by lesser critics who sneered at his modest background. The design was more like a buggy with four bicycle wheels, bars above with propellers on either side.  Looking at the photos Paul is sitting perilously close to the Antoinette engine.

Paul, looking good
Paul, looking good

On to greater things?

Encouraged and financed, Paul worked to improve his helicopter and win again in 1908.  The signs were promising.  During a test at Coquainvilliers, on a windy March, day Paul was in the pilot seat when he asked his brother to hold on and secure the helicopter.  200 spectators watched in awe as the helicopter left the ground with Paul and his brother, rising to about 5 feet above the ground.

In spite of Paul’s intermittent success, Henri Farman won the 1908 Archdeacon prize by successfully completing 1km in a Voisin airplane.

Grounded 

Problems with the helicopter’s steering continued so, in need of backing, Paul took it to the 1908 Paris International Air Transport Exhibition.  He had ideas for a cylindrical variation on the propeller.  He did not find anyone to fund his dreams.

Paul Cornu, bit of a genius
Paul Cornu, bit of a genius

Paul abandoned the machine soon afterwards. He had a living to make and soon was thinking of other inventions.  After the first world war he became engrossed in developing ideas for radio, amongst other things. He kept his helicopter model.

thers with more funding, more freedom, soon developed ideas ahead of Paul’s early, flawed plans.  That he was an ingenious inventor and mechanic is not in doubt.  What he could have achieved in different circumstances can only be guessed at.

1944 ends an interesting life 

On 6 & 7 June 1944 Lisieux was bombed hard by the Allies.  By 8 June this ancient medieval town was unrecognisable.  Just a few buildings survived, desolate in a tragic landscape of rubble and fire.  Somewhere under that rubble was Paul Cornu, buried with his designs and an old model of a strange helicopter.  He was 62.  Just a few of Paul’s papers survived, found in a box saved from the rubble. It contained a journal, many letters, newspaper clippings and photographs.  These precious items are now stored for safe keeping in Lisieux museum.

100 years and the helicopter is resurrected

Engineers now understand why Paul’s helicopter could not do more than fly in hops but also recognise his brave intellect and passion.

100 years after that historic 13 November 1907 flight, students from ESTACA, the engineering school, in partnership with the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, presented a replica they built of his machine, as part of a great anniversary celebration in the courtyard of the Louvre, Paris.  They were able to build an exact copy as Paul generously shared full details of his invention in l’Aerophile magazine in 1908.

Nor has Lisieux has not forgotten Paul Cornu.  The secondary school in town bears his name; what better inspiration could pupils have?

Note: Sincere thanks to the family Cornu for making the historic photographs of Paul Cornu and his helicopter available for free in Wiki Commons.

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