The earliest references for vertical flight have come from China. Since around 400 BC, Chinese children have played with bamboo flying toys, and the 4th-century AD Daoist book Baopuzi (抱朴子 "Master who Embraces Simplicity") reportedly describes some of the ideas inherent to rotary wing aircraft:
|“||Someone asked the master about the principles of mounting to dangerous heights and traveling into the vast inane. The Master said, "Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox-leather [straps] fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion."||”|
It was not until the early 1480s, when Leonardo da Vinci created a design for a machine that could be described as an "aerial screw", that any recorded advancement was made towards vertical flight. His notes suggested that he built small flying models, but there were no indications for any provision to stop the rotor from making the whole craft rotate. As scientific knowledge increased and became more accepted, men continued to pursue the idea of vertical flight. Many of these later models and machines would more closely resemble the ancient bamboo flying top with spinning wings, rather than Da Vinci's screw.
In July 1754, Mikhail Lomonosov demonstrated a small coaxial rotor to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It was powered by a spring and suggested as a method to lift meteorological instruments. In 1783, Christian de Launoy, and his mechanic, Bienvenu, made a model with a pair of counter-rotating rotors, using turkey flight feathers as rotor blades, and in 1784, demonstrated it to the French Academy of Sciences. Sir George Cayley, influenced by a childhood fascination with the Chinese flying top, grew up to develop a model of feathers, similar to Launoy and Bienvenu, but powered by rubber bands. By the end of the century, he had progressed to using sheets of tin for rotor blades and springs for power. His writings on his experiments and models would become influential on future aviation pioneers. Alphonse Pénaud would later develop coaxial rotor model helicopter toys in 1870, also powered by rubber bands. One of these toys, given as a gift by their father, would inspire the Wright brothers to pursue the dream of flight.
In 1861, the word "helicopter" was coined by Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt, a French inventor who demonstrated a small, steam-powered model. While celebrated as an innovative use of a new metal, aluminum, the model never lifted off the ground. D'Amecourt's linguistic contribution would survive to eventually describe the vertical flight he had envisioned. Steam power was popular with other inventors as well. In 1878 Enrico Forlanini's unmanned helicopter was also powered by a steam engine. It was the first of its type that rose to a height of 12 meters (40 ft), where it hovered for some 20 seconds after a vertical take-off. Emmanuel Dieuaide's steam-powered design featured counter-rotating rotors powered through a hose from a boiler on the ground.
In 1885, Thomas Edison was given US$1,000 by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., to conduct experiments towards developing flight. Edison built a helicopter and used the paper for a stock ticker to create guncotton, with which he attempted to power an internal combustion engine. The helicopter was damaged by explosions and one of his workers was badly burned. Edison reported that it would take a motor with a ratio of three to four pounds per horsepower produced to be successful, based on his experiments. Ján Bahýľ, a Slovak inventor, adapted the internal combustion engine to power his helicopter model that reached a height of 0.5 meters (1.6 ft) in 1901. On 5 May 1905, his helicopter reached four meters (13 ft) in altitude and flew for over 1,500 meters (4,900 ft). In 1908, Edison patented his own design for a helicopter powered by a gasoline engine with box kites attached to a mast by cables for a rotor, but it never flew.
In 1906, two French brothers, Jacques and Louis Breguet, began experimenting with airfoils for helicopters and in 1907, those experiments resulted in the Gyroplane No.1. Although there is some uncertainty about the dates, sometime between 14 August and 29 September 1907, the Gyroplane No. 1 lifted its pilot up into the air about two feet (0.6 m) for a minute. However, the Gyroplane No. 1 proved to be extremely unsteady and required a man at each corner of the airframe to hold it steady. For this reason, the flights of the Gyroplane No. 1 are considered to be the first manned flight of a helicopter, but not a free or untethered flight.
That same year, fellow French inventor Paul Cornu designed and built a Cornu helicopter that used two 20-foot (6 m) counter-rotating rotors driven by a 24-hp (18-kW) Antoinette engine. On 13 November 1907, it lifted its inventor to 1 foot (0.3 m) and remained aloft for 20 seconds. Even though this flight did not surpass the flight of the Gyroplane No. 1, it was reported to be the first truly free flight with a pilot. Cornu's helicopter would complete a few more flights and achieve a height of nearly 6.5 feet (2 m), but it proved to be unstable and was abandoned.
The Danish inventor Jacob Ellehammer built the Ellehammer helicopter in 1912. It consisted of a frame equipped with two contra-rotating discs, each of which was fitted with six vanes around its circumference. After a number of indoor tests, the aircraft was demonstrated outdoors and made a number of free take-offs. Experiments with the helicopter continued until September 1916, when it tipped over during take-off, destroying its rotors.
In the early 1920s, Argentine Raúl Pateras Pescara, while working in Europe, demonstrated one of the first successful applications of cyclic pitch. Coaxial, contra-rotating, biplane rotors could be warped to cyclically increase and decrease the lift they produced. The rotor hub could also be tilted forward a few degrees, allowing the aircraft to move forward without a separate propeller to push or pull it. Pescara was also able to demonstrate the principle of autorotation, by which helicopters safely land after engine failure. By January 1924, Pescara's helicopter No. 3 could fly for up ten minutes.
One of Pescara's contemporaries, Frenchman Etienne Oehmichen, set the first helicopter world record recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) on 14 April 1924, flying his helicopter 360 meters (1,181 ft). On 18 April 1924, Pescara beat Oemichen's record, flying for a distance of 736 meters (nearly a half mile) in 4 minutes and 11 seconds (about 8 mph, 13 km/h) maintaining a height of six feet (2 m). Not to be outdone, Oehmichen reclaimed the world record on 4 May when he flew his No. 2 machine again for a 14-minute flight covering 5,550 feet (1.05 mi, 1.69 km) while climbing to a height of 50 feet (15 m). Oehmichen also set the 1 km closed-circuit record at 7 minutes 40 seconds.
Meanwhile, Juan de la Cierva was developing the first practical rotorcraft in Spain. In 1923, the aircraft that would become the basis for the modern helicopter rotor began to take shape in the form of an autogyro, Cierva's C.4. Cierva had discovered aerodynamic and structural deficiencies in his early designs that could cause his autogyros to flip over after takeoff. The flapping hinges that Cierva designed for the C.4 allowed the rotor to develop lift equally on the left and right halves of the rotor disk. A crash in 1927, led to the development of a drag hinge to relieve further stress on the rotor from its flapping motion. These two developments allowed for a stable rotor system, not only in a hover, but in forward flight.
Albert Gillis von Baumhauer, a Dutch aeronautical engineer, began studying rotorcraft design in 1923. His first prototype "flew" ("hopped" and hovered in reality) on 24 September 1925, with Dutch Army-Air arm Captain Floris Albert van Heijst at the controls. The controls that Captain van Heijst used were Von Baumhauer's inventions, the cyclic and collective. Patents were granted to von Baumhauer for his cyclic and collective controls by the British ministry of aviation on 31 January 1927, under patent number 265,272.
In 1930, the Italian engineer Corradino D'Ascanio built his D'AT3, a coaxial helicopter. His relatively large machine had two, two-bladed, counter-rotating rotors. Control was achieved by using auxiliary wings or servo-tabs on the trailing edges of the blades, a concept that was later adopted by other helicopter designers, including Bleeker and Kaman. Three small propellers mounted to the airframe were used for additional pitch, roll, and yaw control. The D'AT3 held modest FAI speed and altitude records for the time, including altitude (18 m or 59 ft), duration (8 minutes 45 seconds) and distance flown (1,078 m or 3,540 ft).
In the Soviet Union, Boris N. Yuriev and Alexei M. Cheremukhin, two aeronautical engineers working at the Tsentralniy Aerogidrodinamicheskiy Institut (TsAGI, Russian: Центра́льный аэрогидродинами́ческий институ́т (ЦАГИ), English: Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute), constructed and flew the TsAGI 1-EA single rotor helicopter, which used an open tubing framework, a four blade main rotor, and twin sets of 1.8-meter (6-foot) diameter anti-torque rotors; one set of two at the nose and one set of two at the tail. Powered by two M-2 powerplants, up-rated copies of the Gnome Monosoupape rotary radial engine of World War I, the TsAGI 1-EA made several successful low altitude flights. By 14 August 1932, Cheremukhin managed to get the 1-EA up to an unofficial altitude of 605 meters (1,985 ft), shattering d'Ascanio's earlier achievement. As the Soviet Union was not yet a member of the FAI, however, Cheremukhin's record remained unrecognized.
Nicolas Florine, a Russian engineer, built the first twin tandem rotor machine to perform a free flight. It flew in Sint-Genesius-Rode, at the Laboratoire Aérotechnique de Belgique (now von Karman Institute) in April 1933, and attained an altitude of six meters (20 ft) and an endurance of eight minutes. Florine chose a co-rotating configuration because the gyroscopic stability of the rotors would not cancel. Therefore the rotors had to be tilted slightly in opposite directions to counter torque. Using hingeless rotors and co-rotation also minimised the stress on the hull. At the time, it was one of the most stable helicopter in existence.
The Bréguet-Dorand Gyroplane Laboratoire was built in 1933. After many ground tests and an accident, it first took flight on 26 June 1935. Within a short time, the aircraft was setting records with pilot Maurice Claisse at the controls. On 14 December 1935, he set a record for closed-circuit flight with a 500-meter (1,600 ft) diameter. The next year, on 26 September 1936, Claisse set a height record of 158 meters (520 ft). And, finally, on 24 November 1936, he set a flight duration record of one hour, two minutes and 5 seconds over a 44 kilometer (27 mi) closed circuit at 44.7 kilometers per hour (27.8 mph). The aircraft was destroyed in 1943 by an Allied airstrike at Villacoublay airport.