Today let us hear it for a Bristol school teacher called George Pocock. O.K., he was mildly eccentric, and yes, maybe his invention of a machine to spank multiple miscreants at the same time was perhaps ahead of its time but hey, discipline was important at the George Pocock Academy at Prospect Place St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. He called his invention the Royal Patent Self-acting Ferule and of course it is a travesty of history that George never made a fortune from his brilliant idea. Synchronised spanking – it could have made it as an Olympic sport….
Instead we have to remember George for a splendid flight of fancy called the charvolant – a kite-based form of transport which astonished the public and royalty alike, from 1826 onwards.
George had been born in 1774. When he was 26 he had opened his Prospect Place Academy in Bristol with the stated objective of turning boys into successful young businessmen. He was a wonderful eccentric and had devised a number of curious things as an aid to learning, including the idea of celestial globes (inflatable balloons 45 to 65 feet in circumference filled with air, inside which the teacher could stand on a pedestal lecturing his attentive pupils on astronomy. Transparent holes in the globe would mimic the positions of the stars, enabling those inside to get the impression of being in the centre of the Universe admiring it through eye glasses).
George had always been fascinated by kites. He wrote how as “a little tiny boy, I learnt that my paper kite would draw along a stone on the ground, tied to the end of its string.” Years later he strapped his daughter Martha into an arm chair, attached it to a pair of kites, and flew her 300 feet into the air. She subsequently recovered and went on to become the mother of England’s most famous cricketer – W G Grace.
In subsequent experiments he harnessed a pony chaise to a pair of kites and discovered that it was possible to move up to half a ton on the carriage, depending on wind strength. He made a number of ‘charvolants’ for these first horseless carriages, and it was claimed that the Pocock kite carriages could race mail-coaches from Bristol to London and back. A pilot kite was fed out first, followed by one or, if needed, two main kites. The four ropes enabled the “charioteer” to steer even along a road at right angles to the wind. “Thus,” he found, “whatever road the car may travel by a side-wind, the same road it may return by the same wind; and where there is space for traverse, as on plains or downs, it is possible to beat up against the wind.”
To slow down or stop the driver would slacken off one of the ropes, collapsing the main kite and forcing a hoe-like brake into the surface of the carriageway.
In 1826 Pocock obtained a patent for his char-volant and 2 years later demonstrated it at Ascot racecourse to King George IV. Immediately afterwards, he raced against horse-drawn coaches on the road between Staines and Hounslow, winning easily.
The charvolant could allegedly reach speeds of twenty miles per hour. Pocock wrote about journeys from Bristol to Marlborough stating that the charvolant beat one of the London stages to Marlborough by twenty-five minutes, even though the stage had a fifteen minute head start. Of this journey Pocock comments:
“This mode of travelling is of all others the most pleasant: privileged with harnessing the invincible winds, our celestial tandem playfully transpierces the clouds, and our mystic moving car swiftly glides along the surface of the scarcely indented earth; while beholders, snatching a glance at the rapid but noiseless expedition, are led to regard the novel scene rather as a vision than a reality.”
Pocock wrote a book with the handy little title ‘The Aeropleustic Art or Navigation in the Air by the use of Kites, or Buoyant Sails’ which was published in 1827 . In it he describes an instance when the charvolant had the impertinence to overtake the carriage of the Duke of Gloucester – a mark of extreme bad manners. He made up for his rudery by stopping and allowing the Duke to overtake, thereby commending himself to the Duke.
One added advantage of the machine was that it escaped all road tolls. Toll gate operators sought to charge drivers according to the number of horses using the road – but as no horses pulled the charvolant no fee could be levied. As Pocock remarked
“There is a peculiar satisfaction in not being detained at toll-bars. The pains and the penalties which there arrest common travellers, never intercept this celestial equipage. The Char-volant, then, has the distinguished prerogative of conferring this Royal privilege; and those who travel by kite travel as Kings”.
“The herald-bugle is sounded — the gates fly open — you pass unquestioned” Pocock marveled.
On 18 July 1828 at the Liverpool Regatta ten men crossed the Mersey against strong tides and winds with a kite-drawn two-masted boat, “to register great surprise among the nautical parties who witnessed it” (The Engineer).
Pocock was carried away by the potential of his kite-drawn invention, announcing that he estimated that a party of six might cross the Sahara in 10 days and 10 hours for a total cost of about £80. “Is it too fond a hope that, by the system of æropleustics, those sands may be navigated as the sea, and thus a most speedy and safe communication be opened between the east and the west of the interior?”
He was convinced kites could be used to assist sailing ships i.e. as auxiliary sails. He also suggested using kites in the case of a shipwreck, using them to drop anchor. Pocock does, however, acknowledge that “portions of the plan are not practicable”
For a number of years the use of kites seemed on the point of reaching a breakthrough in everyday transport, but then came the railways and eventually the motorcar, and Mr Pocock and his splendid invention were consigned to history’s rubbish bin… I think it is a shame, so let us hear it for a mad school teacher with a flight of fancy. George, you are a hero!