WE TEND to think of ours as a time of rapid technological advance, with new ideas, machines and devices only having time to briefly delight us before they’re ousted by a better, faster, cheaper replacement.
But we’d be wrong to think that there’s anything particularly special about the early twenty-first century in terms of the speed of new developments, and an extraordinary, week-long event which took place in Wolverhampton exactly a century ago demonstrates just how quickly new ideas can, quite literally in this case, take off.
Just six and a half years after the Wright brothers had built and successfully flown the first aeroplane, a couple of dozen aviators; pilots in their own aircraft, gathered at Dunstall Park to show off their skills, their bravery, and their bizarre new machines.
There must have been a few sore necks in the Black Country that week.
The Midlands Aviation Meeting, hosted by the Midland Aero Club from 27th June to 2nd July 1910, is often alluded to, but a rare find has allowed us to study the event in greater depth than before.
Dave Wilsdon of Wolverhampton Books and Collectables recently discovered a programme from the meeting, which is full of details, photographs, local adverts and maps.
The first few pages are chock full of adverts for local companies, not least one for Wolverhampton’s Star Engineering Company, who were offering their own 30 to 40 horsepower aeroplane engines for £200, and had a plane of their own in the contest.
Then comes an ‘Historical Sketch of the Progress of Flight’, taking the story from the Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus, through Da Vinci’s aeronautical sketches and Sir George Caley’s nineteenth century steam-powered attempts, to the recent successes of Orville and Wilbur Wright. A very short step from there to the present day; 1909, the previous year, saw “a series of triumphs for the great mechanical birds. Bleriot flew across the English Channel, Paulhan won the £10,000 prize for the London to Manchester flight, and the Hon C.S. Rolls flew from Dover to Calais and back again without a descent.
The dominant fact in connection with these astounding feats in aerial navigation was not the swiftness of the passage, but the aviators’ ability to go to the destination selected by him. They stimulate the hope that man has at last achieved the conquest of the air, and give rise to anticipations that the time is not far distant when the whole world will be on wings. In its mind’s eye the nation sees itself living in the air with no reason for again visiting earth except to pay its hotel bills” Which seems a bit extreme, but such must have been the excitement of the sudden, but long-dreamed of conquering of the air. Already, they could see a future which would have been fantasy less than a decade earlier:
“The Question is no longer ‘can we fly?’, but ‘what will be the outcome of the new discovery?’ Aerial navigation is the next step in human progress. Even now we may be within measurable distance of the period when, as Mr Edison predicted, we shall be able to ‘encircle the globe in a week.’” Tempting though it is to assume that the Wolverhampton meeting was just one of many such events taking place around the country, this wasn’t the case. In fact, the Dunstall Park gathering was something of a first for the nation. Never before had a flying contest been staged featuring only British aviators and aircraft (though it should be pointed out that the Farman planes were built by a French-based company owned by English brothers) and it was seen as welcome evidence that this country could now be seen as the equal of any other in flying terms: “The Great National Flying meet at Dunstall Park, under the auspices of the Midland Aero Club, marks one more advance in aviation enterprise in these islands. It is the first occasion on which special facilities in competition have been offered to British aviators, and to the products of British manufacture, and it should therefore afford a unique opportunity for comparing the relative achievements of the flying men of Britain, America, France and Germany. Dunstall Park is admirably adapted for the meeting. It is not perhaps as large as the grounds at Blackpool, but it posseses many advantages over the seaside aerodrome. Every movement of the flying men can be watched. From the spectator’s point of view nothing could be better, for a short flight close to where one stands is worth more in thrills and interest than all of the feats of Paulhan, Bleriot, Graham White and Rolls performed five miles away.” If that didn’t provide thrills enough, the band of the 6th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment were on hand with an enormous programme of music — over a hundred pieces, from Elgar and Sullivan to Wagner and Verdi.