The Birth of Rubber Powered Flight

Pénaud's Planophore

Who invented the rubber powered model airplane? That distinction belongs to Alphonse Pénaud (1850-1880). On this date in 1871 he demonstrated his ‘Planophore’ at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, achieving a flight of 131 feet. His model was not only the first rubber powered airplane, but also the first airplane capable of stable flight.

Pénaud had already proved that rubber was a viable power source in 1870 when he invented a toy helicopter. In the next decade he experimented and designed aircraft, from model ornithopters to a full scale amphibious flying wing. Sadly, Pénaud committed suicide at age 30, depressed when his full scale design was rejected by France’s aeronautical society.

But Pénaud influenced the next generation of aviation enthusiasts including the Wright Brothers. Today he is considered an important pioneer of aeronautical engineering and the father of model airplanes.

Several Planophore plans are available to the modern model builder. Three different versions are included in Hannan Runway’s “Stick & Tissue International, Vol. 2” (out of print; see used book sellers). Another plan is free to download at this Brazilian website.

I visited the Tuileries Gardens recently and looked everywhere for a monument to Pénaud. I expected a statue or plaque because Paris is full of monuments and France loves its aviators. But I didn’t find anything. Maybe there is a memorial and I missed it; an out-of-the-way bench with a little brass plate? Or maybe there is nothing to find. I don’t know.

Dave W.


flyin_brian said...

Nice write-up, Dave. And the links make for a fascinating read.

How sad that so brilliant a mind should meet such a tragic end.
His innovations deserve much more recognition.

Dave W. said...

It is always sad when someone is so depressed they take their own life, and more so when it is a genius who was ahead of his time.

I did some follow up research and learned there is a street in Paris called Rue Alphonse Penaud - a little street, about two blocks long, in the 20th Arrondissement which is on the outskirts of the city.