Oct 28

Naval Aviation Oddity: The Butler-Ames Aerocycle

Friday, October 28, 2016 11:32 AM


One afternoon in the summer of 1910, the torpedo boat USS Bagley (TB-24) made her way from the docks at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and made her way down the Severn River to the Chesapeake Bay. The Bagley‘s design harkened back to the spar torpedo boats of the Civil War, and she had spent many of her days in reserve or as a training ship for the Naval Academy. But that day her mission was different. In a world first for destroyer-type ships, the Bagley was carrying an airplane on top of a specially-constructed wooden platform.

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 instead had two rotating 12-sided cylinders sticking out from a central body. This was Congressman Butler Ames’ Aerocycle.

The Butler Ames Aerocycle atop a specially-built platform on USS Bagley at the Naval Academy, July 1910. Naval Institute Photo Archive

The Butler Ames Aerocycle atop a specially built platform on the USS Bagley (TB-24) at the Naval Academy in July 1910. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Butler Ames (1871–1954) had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1894, served as an engineer during the Spanish-American War, and by 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 such as 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 farther 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 backward-facing propeller to give the machine forward motion and to in turn rotate the cylinders to produce the lift.

Illustration from Ames' 1913 patent for his aerocycle.

Illustration from Ames’ 1913 patent for his aerocycle mechanism.

A contemporary report from The New York Times notes that Butler’s aircraft did manage to lift off its platform. One view of the aircraft shows its internal mechanisms and the position of the testing platform just behind the Bagley’s bridge. But whether the machine actually flew, one cannot say. Ames continued 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, including a man from Long Island named Zaparka, who built a flyable rotor aircraft he called the Plymouth A-A-2004.

The Plymouth A-A-2004 in Long Island Sound. Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

The Plymouth A-A-2004 in Long Island Sound. (Courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum)

But perhaps the most famous application of the effect would be by the German inventor Anton Flettner, who built 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. Leaving the harnessing of the Magnus force through rotating cylinders behind him, Flettner would produce helicopters for the German military in World War II and, as a designer for Kaman Aircraft, in the United States after the war,

The rotor ship Buckau, with what is probably a Royal Navy warship behind her. Library of Congress photo

Flettner’s rotor ship Buckau, with what is probably a Royal Navy warship behind her. (Library of Congress)

The idea was never lost though, and today several ships are powered by Flettner rotors.

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