Sir George Cayley, 6th Baronet

Bust of Sir George Cayley 6th baronet
Bust of Sir George Cayley, 6th Baronet

Sir George Cayley, the 6th Cayley baronet (1773-1857), is most famous as the “father of aeronautics”, with his work on heavier-than-air flight and his glider experiments. There is plenty of information on the web about this aspect of his life – some links can be found in the Links page on this site. This page concentrates on other facets of Sir George.

His education was not the standard gentleman’s one of attendance at Oxford or Cambridge. Those universities concentrated on the traditional classical education for the upper classes, and many gentry and aristocrats who attended did not bother to take their degrees. Instead at the age of 18 he began study at Nottingham with George Walker, a non-conformist minister with a keen interest in science and mathematics. Four years later George Cayley married George Walker’s daughter Sarah. In 1792 he went on to study with George Cadogan Morgan in Southgate, Middlesex: Morgan was a Unitarian minister, who had helped to found Hackney College in London in 1787 for pupils from ordinary backgounds, and who was an eye-witness of the Fall of the Bastille, probably being the first person to report the event in England. Sir George himself was almost certainly a Unitarian by belief.

His interest in aeronautics developed early, with the first surviving records of his research dating back to 1794.

In 1800 Sir George and other local landowners instigated the draining and embankment of long stretches of the River Derwent in North Yorkshire – a river prone to flooding, with a catastrophic flood in 1799. The main work on this continued to 1810, and besides protecting people from flooding greatly improved the agricultural land aliongside the river.

He was a caring landlord, who in 1805 gave an acre each to all the labourers in Brompton, Yorkshire who were capable of tilling it – an early instance of allotments.

Among his many inventions were:

  • a new type of wheel, with tension spokes, intended for aircraft but later to evolve into the bicycle wheel
  • the caterpillar tread for vehicles – originally designed for farm vehicles, to make it easier for them to cope with boggy ground. Sir George termed the tread the “universal railway”.
  • an artificial hand for an injured farm worker
  • an electric motor

Over many years he worked on ideas for a “hot air engine” capable of powering flight, but he never succeeded in making one light enough. One of his engines was being trialled on a road vehicle in 1840 in Chelsea, London when it went out of control and crashed through the window of a jeweller’s shop, fatally injuring the driver, who was Sir George’s chief engineer, Thomas Wadeson. At the inquest Sir George was fined £10 by the jury as an indication of their disapproval of the use of steam vehicles on public highways.

Related to his interest in aeronautics were researches into ballistics, on which he published several papers.

In his later years Sir George was much preoccupied with railway safety, prompted by a number of fatal accidents. He advocated safety belts, wrote on the subject to the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in 1845, and worked on designs for railway buffers and other safety devices.

He was a great believer in adult education, especially for those who had not had the benefit of a gentry background or of university.

  • In Yorkshire he became
    • the first President of the York Mechanics’ Institute in 1827
    • and helped to found the Yorkshire and Scarbrouogh Philosophical Societies (“philosophical” carried its etymological sense – “loving knowledge”)
  • Nationally he was a founder member of the British Association.
  • In London he actively fostered the Adelaide Gallery, where there were lectures and demonstrations of mechanical inventions. The Gallery lost much of its educational purpose, becoming largely a fashionable place to visit, and its educational role was largely taken over from 1838 by the Royal Polytechnic Institution, Regent Street (which evolved into the present University of Westminster): Sir George played a key role in the Institute’s foundation, and was its first chairman, and under his influence it offered evening classes in science, engineering, navigation and railway-engine driving.

In politics, Sir George was long a whig, and a keen advocate of parliamentary reform. From 1821 to 1827 he was president of the York Whig Club, when he resigned, declaring that distinctions between Whig and Tory had become largely superfluous. He represented Scarborough in Parliament from 1832 to 1834. it was largely he who was responsible for the introduction of gas lighting in the Houses of Parliament.

He corresponded widely, and met many of the eminent scientists of his day, including the French naturalist Cuvier (to whom he took a specimen of a fossil tree) and Charles Babbage, with whom he became an intimate friend. His letters show a curiosity over subjects ranging from archaeology to astronomy. There is a sizeable collection of correspondence in the British Library.

But his life wasn’t all serious. As a young man, he was an expert fencer. He liked fly-fishing. He delighted in performing conjuring tricks. He allowed his children and grandchildren to play among bits of his flying-machines and other apparatus. His letters show a flirtatious enjoyment of female company, and a keen if somewhat ponderous sense of humour. He dabbled in verse, and wrote a charming poem to his wife on her 80th birthday. Shortly before his death, he called the doctor in and had in his pocket two little packets wrapped in paper – one containing a guinea for the consultation fee, and the other some peppermint lozenges. He gave the doctor the wrong one. When the doctor told him of the slip, he responded with a note containing the lines:

The fee was sweet – I thank you for the hint,
These are as sweet. They’ve both been through the Mint.

It is fitting to conclude with some advice he gave in a letter to one of his daughters: “Be not distressed by any worldly misgivings whatever; this is our school only, towards an Eternity of Friendship, and Love that knows no end; the present momentary turmoil of mix’d bliss and sorrow, sufficient to keep us active, is but a grain of sand to Solid Earth. Let us then hold our souls in Peace, and smile at the terrible Masks that would scare us from our equipoise, for love is tittering behind the frowns of the fancied Demon.”

See also the following blog posts on this site: