“We hardly think he will be able to compete with the swallows in this harness,” sniffed the June 24, 1871 Scientific American article on W. F. Quimby’s flying machine. “We would advise him to start from some low point at first, so that, if he should fall down, it will not hurt him much.”
Watson Fell Quimby had made a device in the form of a bat, to be powered by the flier’s feet and legs, and guided or steered by his arms. Quimby built his machine secretly in his carriage house at Newport, DE, and took it to the roof of his building. Dressed in a skin-tight suit, he adjusted his machine and leaped into the air. He discovered immediately, of course, that foot-power was not going to keep him aloft. His family rescued him from the wreckage of his machine, not seriously injured.
“One falls into sad trains of thought in turning over the piles of queer contrivances with wings and pulleys and inflated bags which have all come to naught,” sighed the Sully County Watchman [Clifton, SD] in June 1893. “The records of the patent office do not say whether Mr. Quimby died of a broken heart or whether he is still in hot pursuit of the elusive flying machine.”
By that year the still living Quimby, 68 yrs old, had in fact patented all the flying machine ideas he had up his sleeve. He’d begun on November 26, 1861 with an ‘Apparatus for navigating air,’ followed in 1869 with a ‘Flying machine,’ a ‘Flying apparatus’ in 1872, and an ‘Aerial ship’ in 1879.
So why do the Wright Brothers get all the credit for being first? Because their invention actually flew. Despite his best efforts, Watson Quimby’s ‘ornithopter’ contraptions never did.
But he deserves a footnote in aviation history, if for nothing else than for reminding us that the work of the Wright brothers didn’t just spring full blown out of nowhere. The Quimbys of the aviation world had done a good job of showing Orville and Wilbur what NOT to do.