George Cayley
Felix du Temple
balloons and airships
Clément Ader
Jean-Marie Le Bris
Butler and Edwards
Jules Henri Giffard
Lawrence Hargrave
Etienne-Jules Marey
Thomas William Moy
Alexandr Mozhaisky
Charles Renard
Victor Tatin
Nikolaj Teleshov
Thomas Walker
John Wise
Richard Pearse
Henson and Stringfellow
Alphonse Penaud
Francis Wenham
Otto Lilienthal
Pilcher and Chanute
Samuel Langley
Horatio Phillips
was Herring the first to fly?

Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 - 1904)

 Étienne-Jules Marey, c.1880

During the 1860s Marey threw himself into the study of flight, first of insects and then birds. His aim was to understand how a wing interacted with the air to cause the animal to move.

He also devised some ingenious apparatus based on his graphical method, such as a corset which allowed a bird to fly around a circular track while recording the movements of its thorax and wings.      

Marey discovered that the insect's wing described a double ellipse (a 'figure 8') in the space of one revolution. Some years later, chronophotography confirmed that the same was true of the wing of a bird.

In his lectures at the Collège de France, where he taught from 1867 onwards, Marey presented drawings and graphics to illustrate his theories, and demonstrated machines reproducing the flight of the insect and the trajectory of its wings. Any aeronauts in the audience must have been fascinated to see these machines in operation, no doubt feeling that they were now very close to their goal.

At this period, French aviation was in a state of continuous development, with numerous flying machines being constructed and perfected. These included dirigible airships, machines with flapping wings, helicopters, and balloons with wings.

Victor Tatin, Ornithopter, 1875

Yet aviation as we know it was still in a state of limbo, since advocates of the heavier-than-air aeroplane were seen as cranks. However Alphonse Pénaud, a member of the Société de Navigation Aérienne ("Aerial Navigation Society") presided over by Hureau de Villeneuve, remained convinced that human flight would only be possible by means of the aeroplane.

He had identified the problems which had to be solved in order to build the machine of his dreams: the resistance of the air, that of the materials used, and above all the essential need for a lightweight engine. He had foreseen everything that would make the flight of aeroplanes possible, but failed in the application of his theories and finally committed suicide.

Victor Tatin compressed air powered Aeroplane of 1879

Marey was no stranger to the first faltering steps of aviation. He was aware of all the work, followed Pénaud's research, wrote articles for Hureau de Villeneuve's journal L'Aéronaute, and even became vice-president of the Société de Navigation Aérienne in 1874.

Aware that "the most perfect examples of locomotion which man has achieved are in general obtained by methods quite different from those of nature," Marey supported the work of his friend Victor Tatin, whose aim was to construct, not a balloon or a machine imitating the flight of an insect or bird, but a true aeroplane.

He placed the laboratories and grounds of the Station Physiologique at the aeronaut's disposal, and in 1879 Tatin achieved his goal. Through Marey's advice and his own lengthy research and talents as a craftsman, the device which he designed, one of the very earliest aeroplanes, completed a flight around the track of the Station at a speed of eight metres per second.

Victor Tatin aeroplane flying around the track at Chalais-Meudon

After this first success Marey continued to support the pioneers of aviation. He published Le Vol des Oiseaux (The Flight of Birds) in 1890, and presented the work of Clément Ader, a famous aviation pioneer, at the Académie des Sciences in 1898. Finally he turned his attention to aerodynamics. His research in this area included the construction of a smoke machine which helped him to understand "how the air behaves as it provides support to the wing".

Marey therefore made a considerable contribution to one of the great discoveries of his time. But he died too soon to see true aviation, or to see that another of his inventions, medical in its nature, would find use in aircraft (where it is still used today). This was his "investigative drum", whose principle was to be used in the design of manometric pressure-measuring capsules.