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RetroScience: Cornu Helicopter

Want to travel back in time? In our weekly “Retro Science” series, we’re digging up visual artifacts that capture fascinating moments from science history, including surprising studies, outdated inventions, and breakthrough achievements. By recapturing science’s impressive feats and most amusing flops, RetroScience will remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.


November 13, 1907: French Engineer Paul Cornu With His Primitive Helicopter.

Bicycle or helicopter?

The inventor conceptualized the device as a “flying bicycle,” with the hope of winning 50,000 Francs in a design contest. The history books would remember it as the first helicopter to take flight.

Like the Wright Brothers, French engineer and inventor Paul Cornu was a bicycle maker who dreamt of flight. Cornu was one of thirteen children born to the owner of a transport company, who eventually converted his business to mechanics and bicycle workshop to nurture the talents of his gifted son.

On November 13, 1907 Cornu presented his primitive helicopter, known today as the Cornu helicopter.  The Cornu helicopter is reported to have made a number of short hops, flying for about 20 second and rising about one foot off the ground. Many engineers doubt that this actually occurred and question whether flight with this invention was technically feasible. Still, many historians consider the Cornu helicopter as the first successful helicopter flight in aerial history.

Cornu published the technical details of his “flying bicycle” in a 1908 article for L’Aerophile newspaper.



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Jaime Sunwoo

    Jaime Sunwoo is the digital media intern of the Secret Life Blog. She is currently a senior at Yale University. When she’s in the lab, her secret is that she makes art and when she’s in art class, her secret is that she enjoys science research. Sometimes she combines both interests, making fungal sculptures and botanical drawings. She enjoys learning about scientists and how their varying interests can lead to interdisciplinary work.