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Charvolants: the extremely elegant kite-drawn carriages

Boban Docevski

Since very early in history, we have tried to find new and easy ways of traveling great distances. For a very long time animal powered carriages have been the best way of traveling. Carriages have changed a lot through time, it was not until the 17th century that further (more technical) innovations, such as the use of steel springs and glazing, took place, and only in the 18th century, with better road surfaces, some major innovations happen.

As new advances in propulsion were made, horse powered vehicles slowly started to become obsolete. At the beginning of the 19th century, Steam power was winning the battle against animal power. Europe, however, still used carriage transportation far more often and on a much larger scale than anywhere else in the world. Horses were still reliable for pulling carriages, but people tried to find a better “power source” that wouldn’t get tired but was cheaper than steam. One of those creative people that devoted a lot of time on finding an alternative power source capable of dragging a carriage was George Pocock.

George Pocock was an English schoolteacher and inventor, who taught at a school in Prospect Place, Bristol. Pocock had a huge interest in kites since his early childhood, he was fascinated by them. As he grew up, he started experimenting with pulling loads using only kite power. As he progressed in his research, he gradually lifted everything from small stones to planks and even larger loads. In 1820 Pocock realized that multiple kites combined could support a sizable weight. Then he began his experiments with man-lifting kites. His first notable success happened in In 1824, when he managed to lift his daughter Martha over 270 feet (82 m) into the air using a 30-foot (9 m) kite with a chair rig.

After awhile, George Pocock took a different approach in his research. This time, he was not aiming to lift things into the air, he wanted to see if a kite could be used to pull a load on the ground. He tried various combinations and realized that a few large kites were capable of pulling a carriage with passengers.

Charvolants2

Charvolants traveling in various directions with the same Wind. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

His biggest invention came along in 1826, when he patented the design his “Charvolant” buggy. His kite-drawn carriage used two kites on single line 1,500 to 1,800 feet (457–459 m) long. The vehicle was capable of drawing along a buggy carrying several passengers at an amazing speed for that time. Pocock documents the test rides in his book, The Aeropleustic Art or Navigation in the Air by the use of Kites, or Buoyant Sails. The Charvolant managed to achieve a speed of 20 miles an hour (32 km/h) over a long distance.

He described several interesting journeys in the book. on one of those journeys, a group of three Charvolants made a trip of 113 miles (182 km) together, on a run between Bristol and Marlborough, one of the buggies managed to overcome the mail coach, one of the fastest passenger transports of the time.

Here is his comment about this journey:

“This mode of travelling is of all others the most pleasant: privileged with harnessing the invincible winds, our celestial tandem playfully transpierces the clouds, and our mystic moving car swiftly glides along the surface of the scarcely indented earth; while beholders, snatching a glance at the rapid but noiseless expedition, are led to regard the novel scene rather as a vision than a reality.”

Charvolant

The design of a Charvolant, kite-drawn carriage. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On another one, a Charvolant passed the coach of the Duke of Gloucester. This was a serious breach of etiquette – passing the coach of a duke was considered as a rude gesture, people were expected stop and wait for him to pass them.

The kite was steered by four control lines; these lines were paid out or drawn in from large spools mounted on the front of the carriage. Controlling the Charvolant was difficult, and this may have been why it never became successful commercially. Besides the difficult steering, there was at least one very rewarding aspect of riding a Charvolant. For example, it could legally escape the tolls levied on the roads for horse-drawn carriages: The tolls were applied according to the number of horses, and since the Charvolant had none it incurred no charge.

Pocock seems to have enjoyed this little loophole:

“There is a peculiar satisfaction in not being detained at toll-bars. The pains and the penalties which there arrest common travellers, never intercept this celestial equipage. The Char-volant, then, has the distinguished prerogative of conferring this Royal privilege; and those who travel by kite travel as Kings”.

Another positive thing about the whole thing is that it was probably an elegant way of transport. Imagine getting to your destination without the smell of horses, or the noise. You could just relax and enjoy the scenery. Who wouldn’t want to take a joyride in a Charvolant?