Charvolant or Kite-carriage: A 19th Century Invention

A kite carriage or charvolant became a reality after George Pocock, an English schoolteacher and found of Tent Methodism, became interested in kites and began experimenting with them. His interest gradually progressed to him using kites to lift small items and then light loads. By the 1820s, Pocock was experimenting with kites that could lift people. This resulted in him rigging a chair in 1824 that lifted his daughter into the air, and, later that same year, his son also ascended in a chair above a cliff outside of Bristol, the spot where Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American female doctor, was born.

The Kite-Carriage or Charvolant

The kite-carriage or charvolant. Public domain.

Pocock was an interesting person described as an “earnest man: and a “model master.” He was also a “born inventor.” Among his inventions mentioned were the following:

“Portable collapsible globes that you blew out like a balloon or distended with wires like an umbrella, owed their origin to his ingenuity; celestial globes that showed the map of the heavens on their inside, not on their out; slates and books for map drawing, with printed lines of latitude and longitude, and not a few other ideas.”[1]

Yet it was the idea of traveling in the air with kites that seemed to have really grasp his attention and after concluding that kites were capable of lifting humans, Pocock then turned his attention to using kites to pull loads. He began attaching a small number of them to carriages so that in 1826, the same year that Madame Récamier‘s portrait by Jacques-Louis David entered the Louvre, was the same year that that Pocock patented the “charvolant.”

It consisted of two kites on a single line that was 1,500 to 1,800 feet long and capable of pulling a carriage with several passengers at a fairly fast speed. Pocock asserted that the charvolant “is the most pleasurable and safe [type of travel] ever yet discovered, and with the exception of the steam-engine, the most expeditious.”[2] He also believed that it could be used for a variety of purposes and wrote that the uses of “kites, or buoyant sails [allow for] … 1st … a variety of naval and maritime purposes. 2d. They may be useful in the military career. 3d. For travelling and for crossing rivers, and other advantages.”[3]

Although the shape could vary, the pilot, or uppermost kite, was usually of a common or circular-headed form. In addition, some “pecularities” of the charvolant were described thusly:

“The kite is made to fold up; the standard is divided into two equal lengths, or, if the kite be very large, into three; the wings have hinges at the head of the standard, and, if of large size, each wing is divided into two parts, having a second union-joint. For the flight-band two lines are used — the upper stationary, the latter, termed the brace line, reeves through an eye in the upper line both of which are continued down to the hand of the conductor. By hauling on the brace-line the kite is brought up to the wind in its full action — approximately more nearly than before to a perpendicular to the earth; by slackening the brace it floats inactively on the wind, and thus its power is instantly increased or lessened. By the same means the kite is elevate or lowered at pleasure, soaring or sinking in proportion as the varying angles are formed by the kite’s surface. Another branch of this system consists in the application of two side-braces, the one attached to the right, the other to the left hand extremity of the kite. These have an action similar to the reins of a gig horse. By straining upon the right hand brace, an obliquity is given to the kite’s surface, on which obliquity the wind acting, the kite veers instantly to the right hand; by hauling on the larboard brace, the action is reversed. By this movement the traverse is performed, tree and other obstacles avoided, and many advantages gained. By the invention of the back-band, a tandem equipage of indefinite power is obtained, and these buoyant sails elevated to a vast height.”[4]

He also defined the types of wind and the pace of these winds that the charvolant used, which are described in the chart below:

Type of Wind Pace (Miles Per Hour)
A gentle breeze 3 to 5
An active breeze 7 to 12
Pleasant gale 14 to 18
Brisk gale 20 to 26
Wind or strong gale 30 to 38
High wind 40 to 50
Furious wind or storm 55 to 65
Tempest 70 to 80
Hurricane 80 to 100

 

After Pocok’s creation of the charvolant there were several reports of his kite-carriages seen traveling around England. For instance, the Nottingham Review reported:

“[O]n Friday, about six in the evening, a carriage drawn by kites, passed through the north gate of Hyde-park, followed by a number of equestrians and carriages, and proceeded toward Uxbridge. The Char-volant (as it is termed), or kite carriage, was steered by a youth, who evinced great dexterity in passing all the usual obstructions which are met with on a crowded road.”[5]

Another Pocock flight consisted of twelve individuals with three separate equipages. One carriage was manned by two person, a second larger carriage carried a party of four, and the third charvolant had six persons. It was described in the following manner:

“[The route was] the great western road to London, running over the high grounds of Marshfield Downs, through Chippenham, Calne, and Marlborough Downs … A journey of 113 miles … to be accomplished with no other draught power than the wind, which was … blowing a fine gale of at least five and thirty miles an hour.”[6]

One observance of the charvolant involved Pocock himself. In this case the following was reported:

“[Pocock] passed through the town of Chippenham in a carriage drawn by two kites, occasionally travelling at the rate of twenty-five miles an hour. Running along the London Road the carriage came up with that of the Duke of Gloucester, who was travelling with two pairs of post-horses. The kite carriage passed him, drew up to let his Royal Highness go by, and then shot past at top speed as if he was standing still.”[7]

The Kite-Carriage or Charvolant in Motion, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The charvolent or kite-carriage in motion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The kite carriages attracted considerable attention particular after Pocock wrote a book lauding the charvolant’s abilities. Some people agreed with him. For example, the Atlas noted “that they had seldom noticed any invention of more originality and utility.”[8] But not everyone was so smitten because one critical review stated:

“We see no probability that Mr. Pocock’s kites can ever be rendered a useful mechanical agent a useful mechanical agent,’ meaning … not that the kites had not great power, and might not be applied to numerous purposes, but that they would not serve as a regular, steady, and always-available mechanical agents … We remarked that the kites ‘depend on a principle, which has great inherent defects as a mechanical power, and the use of which modern science and art is fast superseding. The wind.‘”[9]

The critics went farther stating that part of the problem with using the wind for travel, was it was “fickle and changeable.” Moreover, other forms of travel — hackney coaches or stagecoaches — did not require wind to operate nor did they require the harnessing of horses at a moment’s notice to take advantage of the wind. Thus, critics concluded:

“[O]ur opinion remains precisely the same as it was namely, that the inherent defectiveness of that power, and its inferiority to other mechanical powers already known and in use, will prevent the kites from ever being adopted as a regular mechanical agent.”[10]

Another critic agreed. He stated of the charvolant:

“Wind and weather would have a great deal to do with the matter, and the prevailing wind, whatever it might be, would only suit those who wanted to go in the direction towards which it was blowing. And … all those who wanted to go towards other points of the compass would be disappointed and probably disgusted … [So,] I am still of opinion that it is far better to stick to bicycles and tricycles which afford practicable means of getting from place to place than to waste time and money over a mode of locomotion which could never be put in operation at any and every time that it might be desired to take a trip.”[11]

References:

  • [1] The Boy’s Own Paper, 1880, p. 57.
  • [2] A Treatise on the Aeropleustic Art, or Navigation in the Air by Means of Kites, or Buoyant Sails, 1851, p. 33-34.
  • [3] “The Uses of the Kites, or Buoyant Sails,” in Windsor and Eton Express, 6 October 1827 p. 3.
  • [4] A Treatise on the AEropleustic Art, in Cork Constitution, 2 September 1851, p. 1.
  • [5] -, Nottingham Review, 9 May 1828, p. 1.
  • [6] “The History of the Charvolant, or Kite Carriage; a Treatise on the Aeropleustic Art,” in Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, 31 August 1851, p. 4.
  • [7] The Boy’s Own Paper, p. 58.
  • [8] The Atlas, 1 November 1828, p. 51.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Amateur Work, Illustrated, Vol. IV, p. 93.

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