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British Industrial History

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Richard William Pearse

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Richard William Pearse (1877-1953) was a New Zealand farmer and inventor who performed pioneering experiments in aviation.

It is claimed Pearse flew and landed a powered heavier-than-air machine on 31 March 1903, some nine months before the Wright brothers flew their aircraft

1877 December 3rd. Born

1901 Pearse made several attempts to fly, but due to insufficient engine power he achieved no more than brief hops. The following year he redesigned his engine to incorporate double-ended cylinders with two pistons each. Researchers recovered components of his engine (including cylinders made from cast-iron drainpipes) from rubbish dumps in 1963. Replicas of the 1903 engine suggest that it could produce about 15 hp (11 kW).

1902 Pearse built and patented a bicycle with vertical crank gears and self-inflating tyres.

He then designed and built a two-cylinder "oil engine", which he mounted on a tricycle undercarriage surmounted by a linen-covered bamboo wing structure and rudimentary controls. Though it lacked an aerofoil section wing, his flying machine resembled modern aircraft design much more than did the Wright brothers' machine: monoplane rather than biplane; tractor rather than pusher propeller; stabiliser and elevators at the back rather than the front; and ailerons rather than wing-warping for controlling banking.

1903 Verifiable eyewitnesses describe Pearse crashing into a hedge on two separate occasions. His monoplane must have risen to a height of at least three metres on each occasion. Good evidence exists that on 31 March 1903 Pearse achieved a powered, though poorly controlled, flight of several hundred metres.

Pearse himself said that he had made a powered takeoff, "but at too low a speed for [his] controls to work". However, he remained airborne until he crashed into the hedge at the end of the field.

With a 15-h.p. engine, his design had an adequate power-to-weight ratio to become airborne (even without an aerofoil). He continued to develop the ability to achieve fully controlled flight. Pearse incorporated effectively located (albeit possibly rather small) "ailerons". The design's low centre of gravity provided pendulum stability. However, diagrams and eyewitness recollections agree that Pearse placed controls for pitch and yaw at the trailing edge of the low-aspect-ratio kite-type permanently stalled wing. This control placement (located in turbulent air-flow, and close to the centre of gravity) would have had minimal, possibly inadequate, turning moment to control the pitch or yaw of the aircraft.

Pearse's work remained poorly documented at the time. No contemporary newspaper record exists. Some photographic records survived, but undated with some images difficult to interpret. Pearse himself made contradictory statements, which, for many years led the few who knew of his feats to accept 1904 as the date of flying. Unconcerned about posterity and in remote New Zealand, he received no public credit for his work during his lifetime.

Pearse patented his design, but his innovations - such as ailerons and the lightweight air-cooled engine - did not succeed in influencing others.

List of witnessed flights

1903 March 31st. First powered flight. Estimated distance around 350 yards in a straight line, poorly controlled.

1903 March Achieved a distance of about 150 yards.

1903 May 2nd. Distance unknown: the aircraft ended up in a gorse hedge 15 ft (4.6 m) off the ground.

1903 May 11th. Pearse took off along the side of the Opihi River- 7 km from the town of Temuka, turned left to fly over the 30' tall river-bank, then turned right to fly parallel to the middle of the river. After flying nearly 1,000 yards, his engine began to overheat and lost power, thus forcing a landing in the almost dry riverbed.

c1911 Pearse moved to Milton in Otago and discontinued his flying experiments due to the hillier country there. Much of his experimental equipment got dumped in a farm rubbish-pit. However, he continued experimenting and produced a number of inventions.

1920s He subsequently moved to Christchurch where he built three houses and lived off the rentals.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Pearse continued to work on constructing a tilt-rotor flying-machine for personal use – sometimes described as a cross between a windmill and a rubbish-cart. His design resembled an autogyro or helicopter, but involved a tilting propeller/rotor and monoplane wings, which, along with the tail, could fold to allow storage in a conventional garage. Pearse intended the vehicle for driving on the road (like a car) as well for flying.

He increasingly became reclusive and paranoid that foreign spies would discover his work.

1951 Committed to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch and died there two years later. Researchers believe that many of his papers were destroyed at that time.

1953 July 29th. Died

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