I recently visited the MOST (Milton J Rubinstein Museum of Science and Technology) in Syracuse, NY, where there was an exhibit on the history of human flight. It began with some information on early ballooning, interesting though familiar since I’ve read a lot of books on the subject. But there was also a section devoted to Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) who invented what was said to be the first glider in 1804.

Sir George Cayley has been called the Father of Aviation. He was the first to identify the four forces that influence flight: weight, lift, drag and thrust and designed (though never built, of course) the first airplane. The picture here is of his 1804 glider. He continued to work with gliders, designing a biplane with “flappers”, which was flown in 1849 and the first manned glider, which was flown in 1853. There’s a story that the pilot was Cayley’s coachman, and that afterwards he said, “Please, Sir George, I wish to give notice, I was hired to drive and not to fly.”

This all made me think of Laura Kinsale’s MIDSUMMER MOON, in which the heroine invents a manned glider. I can’t locate my copy (I think I loaned it to a friend) and I can’t remember if there was an author’s note. In any case, what I learned at the MOST confirms that the heroine’s invention was not out of line with what real inventors were working on during the general time period.

I love when things like this are used in books, such as the blood transfusion in Mary Jo Putney’s SHATTERED RAINBOWS (which does have a useful historical note). IMHO it’s important that the cool bit of research support the overall story, which in both these cases it does.

Have you learned anything new or unusual recently through reading historical fiction? Through visiting a museum or exhibit? Any interesting bits of research you’d like to see used in fiction?