The father-son duo who built experimental helicopters

On June 16, 1922, officials of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics witnessed Henry Berliner make a controlled horizontal helicopter flight. Join A.S.Ganesh as he tells you more about Emile and Henry Berliner and their experimental helicopters…

Updated - June 28, 2024 11:50 am IST

Published - June 16, 2024 12:49 am IST

Henry Berliner on a prototype of a wingless helicopter.

Henry Berliner on a prototype of a wingless helicopter. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Flying straight up, the way helicopters do, has been envisioned by human beings for a long time. Probably from the time spinning, or flying, tops were invented for amusement over a thousand years ago, it must have felt like a matter of time before we humans ourselves started flying that way.

But while it was easy to create a flying top using a bit of string, a round stick, and a twisted blade, achieving vertical ascent took a long time. In fact, it was only close to the middle of the 20th Century that helicopters reached full-scale production.

Mastering vertical ascent

The first half of the 20th Century saw plenty of people trying to master vertical ascent. The father-son duo of Emile and Henry Berliner were among them, and they made some important contributions to what was then a fledgling field. 

Born in Hanover, Germany, 19-year-old Emile Berliner immigrated to the U.S. in 1870. Working as a salesman and bookkeeper in Washington D.C., Emile spent much of his free time educating himself in science. 

“Guess work science”

Soon enough, he invented an improved voice transmitter for long distance telephony and it was bought by the Bell System. He patented a number of inventions in the years that followed before switching to employ what he called “guess work science” to tackle the problem of vertical flight. Emile believed that vertical take-off and landing would be a boon to humankind.

Having perfected one of the first rotary engines, he used it to build upon a platform designed by American engineer John Newton Williams to create a craft. This craft, which likely had to be steadied, lifted Emile and Williams around three feet off the ground. While this was no great height, it did exhibit directional control and achieved a series of bumps and bounces. 

Unintended break

A serious nervous breakdown in 1914 put him away from his experiments and it wasn’t until 1919, when his son Henry joined him at his workshop, that he was able to resume his work. Aged 23, Henry had majored in mechanical engineering at Cornell University before attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to Washington D.C. to join in the development of a helicopter after spending about a year as an aerial photographer for the Army Aviation Service during World War I. 

A glass negative photograph of the Berliner helicopter.

A glass negative photograph of the Berliner helicopter. | Photo Credit: Library of Congress / picryl

The Berliners soon moved to College Park Aviation Field at Maryland and took with them their entire workshop. By 1920, they had created a coaxial helicopter capable of moving several yards, representing one of the first controlled helicopter flights in the U.S., even though it was more like a jump. 

Historic demonstration

In order to give their aircraft gliding ability, the Berliners added tri-plane wings and a Nieuport 23 bi-plane fuselage. Tilting the main rotors allowed the pilot to control yaw, while opening and closing louvres underneath the rotors controlled roll. On June 16, 1922, officials of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics witnessed Henry’s historic demonstration as he made a controlled horizontal helicopter flight. 

In the years that followed, the Berliners continued to improve upon their hybrid design. On February 24, 1924, Henry took off on the Model No. 5 craft in front of Navy officials and media, maintaining an altitude of 15 feet for a minute and a half at a speed of 40 mph (64 kmph). 

The Berliner helicopter seen here as an exhibit at the College Park Aviation Museum.

The Berliner helicopter seen here as an exhibit at the College Park Aviation Museum. | Photo Credit: Ralph Ross / Wikimedia Commons

As their work was impressive, the Berliners were invited to use the Naval Air Station in Anacostia, D.C., as a base of operation for their experimental testing. They had their third helicopter ready by 1925 and this one was capable of a maximum altitude of 30 feet with a speed of 40mph. Much of this craft, however, was destroyed in a crash during further testing. 

The economic depression of 1929 and the death of Emile that same year stalled further helicopter trials by them. Henry did devote much of his time to aviation, but started working on aeroplanes instead. Henry, however, did see their dream of vertical ascent turning a gift to humankind come true as helicopters became mainstream before his death in 1970.

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