One afternoon in the summer of 1910, the torpedo boat USS Bagley (TB-24) made her way from the docks at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and made her way down the Severn River to the Chesapeake Bay. Bagley‘s design harkened back to the spar torpedo boats of the Civil War, and had spent many of her days in reserve or as a training ship for the Naval Academy. But today, her mission was different. Today, she carried on her a sign of things to come: Bagley, in a world first for destroyer-type ships, was carrying an airplane on top of a specially-constructed wooden platform for that purpose.
But this was no ordinary airplane. It did not look like the recent inventions of the Wright Brothers and other early aviation pioneers. No, it didn’t even have wings or a tail, but two rotating 12-sided cylinders sticking out from a central body. This was Congressman Butler Ames’ Aerocycle.
Butler Ames (1871-1954) had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1894 and served as an engineer during the Spanish American War, and in 1910 had served as a Congressman from the state of Massachusetts for seven years. He had taken a keen interest in aeronautics, particularly in developing practical applications of the Magnus Effect. The effect (as Congressman Ames liked to point out) is well-known in sports like baseball, where the spinning ball moving through the air creates a deflection of the air flow around itself, producing a force perpendicular to that of its direction of movement. By using a backspin, an object like a baseball or a cannonball can be given upward lift to travel higher and further than it could otherwise.
The Magnus effect had been identified and understood the 1850s, but with the advent of compact internal-combustion engines in the early 1900s, inventors such as Ames hoped to harness the effect to produce a flying machine. Ames himself first applied for a patent for his ideas in 1908, and in 1910 he had developed his prototype, powered by a Curtiss V-8 engine to drive a backwards-facing propeller to give the machine forward motion and to in turn rotate the cylinders to produce the lift.
A contemporary report from the New York times notes that Butler’s aircraft did manage to lift off the platform as far as its , and another view of the aircraft shows the internal mechanisms f the machine and the position of the testing platform just behind Bagley’s bridge. But whether the machine actually flew, one cannot say. Ames continued on teaching and studying aeronautics for the rest of his life.
Throughout the 1920s, other inventors continued to continued to experiment with the Magnus Effect in aircraft [.pdf], including a man from Long Island named Zaparka, who built a flyable rotor aircraft he called the Plymouth A-A-2004.
But perhaps the most famous application of the effect would be by the German inventor Anton Flettner, who would build several ships mounted with gigantic Flettner rotors, as they became known. Unlike the aircraft, these rotors were mounted vertically to produce a force that would drive the ships forward, and they met with some success. Flettner would go on to produce helicopters for the German military in World War II and as a designer for Kaman Aircraft in the United States after the war, leaving the harnessing of the Magnus force through rotating cylinders behind him.
The idea was never lost though, and today several ships are powered by Flettner rotors.