Great Britain, France etc. 1889-1918. A varied and diverse quantity of material relating to Thales Drake and his attempts to construct an ornithopter. The present archive of approximately 60 items includes correspondence with officials, organizations, and journals relating to aviation; notes and transcripts from scientific meetings; Drake’s manuscripts about his ideas; and, most excitingly, sketches and models of his work. Materials date from 1889 to 1918, with most from the 1910s. Manuscripts are mostly in English, with a few in French. All told, a veritable flock of ephemera and correspondence, some pieces of which are a little fragile, but all robust enough to withstand further research.
In the early 20th century, Thales Drake was feverishly obsessed with attempts to invent an ornithopter. He spent decades in research and energetic self-promotion, badgering every conceivable institution to raise funds for construction. Early in his career, he worked in France, but was later based in London. In 1911, he made a public demonstration of his ideas in Finsbury Park, London. His concepts were apparently sound enough that he became employed by the British government’s Air Board during WWI. However, it seems that Drake’s attempts never found success, and the contents of the archive trail off after 1918.
Drake explicitly connected the ornithopter to social reform. He believed that “the evolution of Flying Machines of the flapping wing type will also force a complete change in the conditions and prospects of the human race.” In one manuscript, he wrote:
“why is the flying machine in itself the greatest revolution on this planet? Because it is the only instrument that can do what no other can–it hops over … mountains, oceans + continents.” Someone who can fly “wont [sic] want to be…such a paltry + insignificant thing as ruler, landlord, or shareholder millionaire, owner of vast mills or factories still less will he want to be a coal miner or dustman sweeper, a factory hand, field or workshop wage slave–as for the money to pay rent, rates, profits, wages, salaries dividends etc.-------he has no more need for them, he has no more use for them…”
He established a committee called International Selectionism “for the purpose of establishing a workshop in which an entirely new type of Flying machines [sic] is to be constructed for the benefit of the great principle of co-operation,” but the committee appears to have dissolved at the start of WWI.
Highlights of the archive include:
• 9 plans and sketches of varying sizes;
• 5 models and model components, constructed from metal, paper, and feathers;
• 16 pieces of correspondence in French and English, including 2 copies of a form letter from “International Selectionism” ca 1914
• 2 passes from the Air Board and 2 from the Aircraft Manufacturing Co., stating that Drake was “engaged in the manufacture of Aviation Supplies for War Service”
• A flier advertising Drake’s 1911 Finsbury park demonstration (“A Free Gift to the Whole World of a series of inventions for Submarine and Aerial Locomotion”) with a newspaper article on the demonstration
• 4 manuscripts by Drake, including:
- one beginning “I have made a schematic model of a Folding Wing Aeroplane which unites in itself the arrangements of a land and sea-plane combined…” and offering the whole rights in exchange for a pecuniary interest in whatever lucky firm should adopt his designs,
- A set of lecture notes titled ”The Perfect Flying Machine and The World’s Hunger”
- An envelope covered on all sides with notes regarding “l’exploitation de l’oiseau mécanique,” apparently from an address given at an aeronautics exposition in 1889, referencing among others the Vicomte de Larochefoucault and Comte Albert de Dion.
A substantial and delightful archive of an enthusiastic (or obsessive?) inventor devoted to an eccentric area of aeronautics that, although beloved of antiquity, found itself relegated to the bottom corners of the drawing board after the technological advances of the early 20th century.