Vision researcher pens biography of pioneering British aviator

York vision researcher Richard Dyde has written a new biography about British inventor George Cayley that establishes his place in history as one of the first fathers of flight and challenges the popular belief that the Wright brothers invented the airplane.

Published under Dyde’s nom de plume, Richard Dee, The Man Who Discovered Flight: George Cayley and the First Airplane, will be launched at York University tomorrow at 5:45pm in the Robert McEwan Auditorium, W141 Seymour Schulich Building, on the Keele campus.

“Cayley was the first person to build an airplane and make it fly,” says Dyde, “and he built his first model airplane 100 years before the Wright brothers flew.”

The story of the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, has become iconic because “there’s a fantastic picture of their first flight,” and there is an attraction in a simple story, says Dyde. Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to fly in a controlled, sustained, heavier-than-air flight. “But the more complicated truth is that there were 120 years of aviation work preceding the Wright brothers that has been largely forgotten,” he says.

In his book, Dyde outlines how, in 1799, Cayley, an aristocrat from Yorkshire, England, engraved on a small silver disc the design for an airplane and the earliest recorded description of the forces by which a wing can fly. Although the existence of this disc has been known since the 1920s, Dyde’s research uncovered doodles in Cayley’s school exercise book from 1792 that reveal Cayley had discovered the principles of flight in his teens. Over the next 65 years Cayley continued developing various aircraft. In 1849, a boy flew in one of Cayley’s gliders. But the culmination of his life’s work came at age 79 when Cayley’s design for a full-sized, man-carrying glider finally flew, says Dyde.

Left: Cayley’s 1853 sketch of a flying model powered by gunpowder

“Cayley was one of those classic polymaths who was interested in just about everything,” says Dyde. The inventive Brit patented the caterpillar track (used on tanks), developed a prosthetic arm for a local villager (but refused to patent it so that the benefits of the invention could be wider-reaching), served as a member of Parliament, and helped found the Royal Polytechnic Institution (now the University of Westminster in London).

Cayley’s colourful personality, wide social circle and turbulent family life make the biography appealing for general readers who know little about aviation or science. Says Dyde: “You couldn’t make up his life story. It reads like a novel.”

The Man Who Discovered Flight has already received a favourable review. “Dee [Dyde] paints an enormously entertaining picture,” writes Paul Challen in the June 2007 issue of Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews.

Like the subject of his book, Dyde always had a fascination with science and aviation. Born in York, England, in 1963, Dyde grew up in a family of aviators. Both his brother and father served as Royal Air Force pilots. “I ended up doing research for NASA here at York University and then wrote a book on the man who invented flight and who comes from about 25 kilometres from where I was born. So there’s a nice circularity about it,” he says.

Right: Richard Dyde                   

Dyde completed a PhD in the field of cognitive neuroscience, after working for a number of years as a systems analyst at the British Library in England.

At York, Dyde is doing research into perception of orientation and gravity at the Centre for Vision Research. He is part of a research team headed by psychology Prof. Lawrence Harris that is designing experiments to explore the impact of zero gravity on astronauts in space.

Dyde’s foray into writing began when he took up his position at York. “When I got to Canada, with its gloriously long winters, both my wife and I used to do writing projects from November to April,” he says. He wrote a couple of yet unpublished novels and then a non-fiction manuscript on the parallels between Canada’s Avro Arrow aircraft and the British TSR-2. In the manuscript there was a description of the life and accomplishments of George Cayley.

The publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., rejected the manuscript, but commissioned Dyde to write the Cayley biography.

Dyde says he decided to have the biography published under a pen name “because I wanted people to know that if I’ve written under Richard Dyde, it’s science, and if it’s under Dee, it’s commercial work.”

At the book launch at York on Tuesay, May 29, there will be a brief presentation by Dyde about the life of Cayley, followed by a reception. Copies of The Man Who Discovered Flight will be on sale at the event and at the York University Bookstore.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.