Since the earliest days of mankind, we have tried to find new and easy ways of traveling great distances. For a very long time, animal powered carriages were the best way of traveling. Carriages changed a lot through time, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that features designed for the comfort of passengers such as the use of steel springs and glazing were introduced. About a century later, when people started constructing better road surfaces, some major innovations occurred.
As new advances in propulsion were made, horse-powered vehicles slowly started to become obsolete and by the beginning of the 19th century, steam power started its dominance on the field of transportation. But this was not the case in many parts of Europe, where carriage transportation remained in mainstream use significantly longer 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 who devoted a lot of time to this cause was George Pocock.
This rather eccentric Bristolian inventor had been fascinated by kites since his early childhood. Growing up for Pocock meant that he could now turn his interest into something new that could be both useful and practical, so he started experimenting. 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 1824 when he managed to lift his daughter into the air using a large kite.
After a while, George Pocock took a different approach in his research. After series of experiments, he realized that more kites meant more power and soon came to a conclusion that the joint power of several kites could easily pull up to half a ton. After years of experimenting, he finally invented something that was cheaper than steam – the Charvolant buggy.
This was undoubtedly his biggest invention and it was because of it that he managed to gain a cult following. In 1826, Pocock patented the design of the horseless carriage that could carry six passengers and, according to his 1827 book The Aeropleustic Art or Navigation in the Air by the use of Kites, or Buoyant Sails, it could travel up to a mile in around three minutes.
His book does not lack adventurous journeys with one of the most interesting being a trip of 113 miles (182 km) between Bristol and Marlborough. It was during this trip that one of Pocock’s Charvolants managed to pass 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.”
Pocock also writes about an incident that occurred when 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 a rude gesture, people were expected stop and wait for such gentry to pass them.
Commercial success was far from the horizon for the horseless carriage as it was quite difficult to control it. But if you could manage the difficult steering, there was at least one very rewarding aspect of riding a Charvolant. Charvolant drivers didn’t have to pay the tolls levied on the roads which were applied in accordance with the number of horses pulling the carriages.
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 Charvolant 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?