VOL. 8 May ISSUE YEAR 2007

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 8 - May Issue - Year 2007
The Emperor's Flying Machine

"And what would this be?”, asked the elderly man. His blue eyes glanced over the drawing of a bird-like object.

The First Secretary cleared his throat before replying. “A flying machine, Your Majesty, designed by one of your loyal subjects, a certain Dr. Wilhelm Kress.”

“A flying machine?” The Emperor’s voice paused, his right eyebrow rising slightly. He brought the drawing closer to his face. A pendulum clock ticked softly in the far corner of the room. “Have our generals seen this?”, he asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty. One of our officers will be present at the tests.”

The Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, Franz Joseph The First, leaned back from his desk. “Very well, you may proceed.”

The news reached Wilhelm Kress while he was piecing together one of the wings of his machine. A royal grant! Five thousand crowns! He slumped on a low wooden stool to catch his breath. He could continue working on his dream, his obsession for the past twenty years. A faint smile appeared and quickly disappeared beneath his thick beard.


Wilhelm Kress, an Austrian engineer and piano builder born in 1836, had been investigating and testing various theories on the dynamics of flight since 1877, when he developed the first modern delta-flying hang glider. His work drew heavily on data developed by several people and one of his earliest sources of inspiration was George Cayley, who in 1849 had built a triplane glider which carried a boy for a short distance, probably the first documented flight by a human being. Kress elaborated on this attempt and experimented with different forms of propulsion, including some rather extravagant models of aircraft with flapping wings. In 1892 he was invited to address the Vienna Engineering Society, where he demonstrated a large model with two “propellers” powered by rubber bands, dubbed an “Aeroveloce”. In 1900 he developed the stick control for aircraft. The royal grant which he received at the turn of the century would allow him to complete construction of his most ambitious project to date: a powered aircraft that would lift a man in flight.

During most of the 1800’s, researchers on both sides of the Atlantic freely shared the results of their experiments, publishing their results in various technical magazines and in presentations at engineering societies. Efforts were mostly concentrated on achieving propulsion, lift and control, the three main preconditions for successful flight. Kress had focused most of his efforts on lift, an area in which his models had obtained considerable success, but he still needed to do a lot of work on the other two aspects. He also realized that lift and propulsion had to be achieved by separate means.

The solution which Kress devised was something that had never been attempted before. It was a three-surface monoplane with a large horizontal tail, oversized rudders and the first to be powered by an internal combustion engine, a 30-horsepower Daimler, which moved two counter-rotating cloth-covered propellers. Aware that he might still need to improve control, Kress decided to equip the plane with floats and to run his tests on water, where he reasoned that personal injury and damage to the craft would be limited in the event of some serious malfunction. Before attempting to become airborne, Kress carried out a series of preliminary runs which went well, with the steering apparatus and engine responding as expected.

So on a cool morning in October of 1901 and at the age of sixty-five, Wilhelm Kress made his first, and what was to be, his only attempt at pulling his creature off the waters of Lake Tullnerbach. The plane was stable as it picked up speed and proved to have excellent lift as it finally rose into the air, but Kress quickly realized that the engine power was insufficient. Thus the flight turned into a series of more or less long “hops” on the water, the last of which caused damage and forced Kress to stop. His attempt was unsuccessful and, out of money and unable to find a suitable engine, he abandoned his aeronautical experiments. Later generations of experts have agreed that the Kress flying machine would have probably flown had it been sufficiently powered.

History books do not record whether the Emperor was ever informed about the outcome, but Wilhelm Kress earned his place among the inventors who contributed to one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN
& Sales Manager, Pometon S.p.A.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN
& Sales Manager, Pometon S.p.A.