I recently saw a photo of this very strange flying machine on Twitter. It piqued my interest as despite its space-age appearance the photo was taken in 1934 in Poulner, near Ringwood of the New Forest.
The photo is not too far off being one hundred years old…
Unfortunately, there was very little information attached to the tweet aside from the following text:
“An insect-plane which is really a flying motorcar is being prepared for her trials in a clearing in the New Forest. Its inventor is Mr T.A. Dring, aged 78, of Poulner, Hampshire. For 25 years he has studied the flight of hovering insects and is convinced that ordinary aeroplanes are built on wrong principles. His machine has 2 sets of rotor vanes, motor driven, each projecting a stream of compressed air under the fuselage. If his theory is correct, expansion of the air streams will lift the insect plane”
And that was it.
There appeared to be no further information on the Internet about this futuristic looking 1930’s flying machine, which was referred to as an “insect plane”.
But given how fascinating it looked, and the fact it had been built in the New Forest, made me want to find out more about Mr T.A. Dring. But also whether the insect plane ever did see flight – because if it did, it would be one of the most fascinating, yet untold, aviation stories of all time.
Even if the insect plane was an abject failure, it should still be a fascinating story.
Here’s what I discovered (with the help of a few friends along the way).
Mr Thomas Augustus Dring: inventor of the insect plane
Census records show that the inventor of the insect plane was born Thomas Augustus Dring on the 20th of December 1855 in Devizes, Wiltshire.
He is recorded as being a county treasurer for Wiltshire County Council, living in Trowbridge. Before he retired he would spent some time living in the United States. As far as I can find out, he had no children and was never married.
By 1934 he was 78 years old and back living in England. His address was Highfield Cottage in Hangersley, near Poulner and Ringwood.
A search of patent databases shows that he was a prolific applicant for patents concerning aviation. He first patent was filed in 1910, titled “Improvements in Flying Machines”. He would have been 55 years old at the time.
You can see a theme in his patents where Dring is looking to the insect-world for inspiration for his inventions – the drone fly in particular.
Further patents were filed over the next 25 years, each one offering a further development in his ideas. Here are a couple of excepts from two of his patents.
- 1910: Using two or more devices adapted to produce in the air the same effects as are produced by the wings of these insects.
- 1929: The fans 2 each consist of three blades rigidly secured to a pyramidal base 15 in the manner shown in Fig. 5. The rotating fans. are made right-band and lefthand and the vanes thereby follow the contours of the wings of the common drone-fly.
He also contributed his ideas to Flight Magazine in 1911. In the snippet below you can see an article he wrote titled “The Vortex Principle of Flight”. He explains how insects fly and how this could be applied to man-made flight. It’s a complex read, so if you fancy reading Dring’s words, the Internet Archive has a copy of the 1911 edition.
Rather amusingly, Dring and another gentleman would conduct a polite argument over their differences in opinion on this topic via the readers’ letters section of Flight Magazine in 1912.
But that’s all I could find on Dring until I started to look at newspaper archives from the early part of the 20th century.
Press reports of Dring’s insect plane invention
The newspaper reports start to appear later in his life, in early 1934. They tell the story of Dring’s insect plane far better than I could. Below are selected parts I have transcribed in chronological order.
14th January 1934, Weekly Dispatch of London
A MOTORCAR THAT WILL FLY
A man-size flying machine, built to hover like an insect, is nearing completion in a clearing In the New Forest. It is really a flying motorcar. It was born on a summer evening 25 years ago, when a local government official stood in garden and puzzled over the darting gnats and dragon flies.
On the verge of success, or disappointment, he is pursuing his quest of an ideal plane with the quiet, unfaltering enthusiasm that has remained unchanged for a quarter of a century.
The inventor is now 78. He is Mr T. A. Dring, county treasurer for Wiltshire until his retirement in 1921.
He explained his theory and demonstrated his model to me in his beautiful modernised cottage at Poulner, Hampshire. In a clearing off the main road, at a point hidden by a fold of the hill, he showed me his hangar and its interesting occupant – a man-lifter of a type never seen before. Within a month its 25-horsepower engine will burst into life. Two rotors will spin faster and faster as the throttle opens.
If the machine rises, even if only to crash seconds later, before independent expert witnesses, fame will come to Mr. Dring and quiet little Poulner will be a place of pilgrimage.
For few men can demonstrate, as did the Wrights and Cierva, a new method of mechanical flight. This machine is not an aeroplane, a helicopter, an autogiro, or a paddle plane. Neither is it a rocket ship, nor a system of mechanical levitation such as is exciting American investigators.
Mr. Dring depends on two streams of air meeting under a flat fuselage, and he claims that the expansive force of compressed air acting against this under-surface will provide the lift. The engine drives two triple-bladed rotors synchronised so that each rotor discharges a cone-shaped stream of compressed air, so disposed that the streams meet under the fuselage.
Insects, asserts Mr. Dring, are supported in hovering flight by the expansion of air beneath their bodies. Their wings are speeded up to act as rotating fans, not as heating surfaces.
Let us go back 25 years. The Wrights were still objects of humorous suspicion to most people. Langley, with his steam-driven flying model, was as much derided as he is today venerated.
Mr. Dring decided to approach the problem of the heavier-than-air machine from a new angle. He decided that hovering moths, bees, hornets, flies, and other insects did not depend directly on their wings for lift, but only for forward, backward, and turning.
Three years ago, he hit on his present theory, and tested it with models, watching the airflow by means of chemically prepared smoke. I saw a model operated by a small electric motor. It was exactly balanced at the end of a long beam, with counterweights at the other end. Weights up to nine ounces were placed on the model. The motor started, and when speed was gained, the model rose.
This demonstrated that it the whole model, including engine, weighed nine ounces. It would fly, provided that it was stable.
This may not seem convincing, but the model was made not for flight but to show the air currents. On placing my hand below the fuselage, I was impressed by the force from the emerging currents of air.
The man-size lifter is extraordinarily simple. The oblong fuselage has a flat under surface, augmented by flat planes above it like an inverted V. Two matched rotors are opposed at the ends of a shaft that lies crosswise across the front of the fuselage.
“There is no flapping or oscillating device” Mr. Dring told me. “The machine will ascend vertically. Steering will be by rudder, and forward movement by inclining the axes of the rotors. We could steer, as the insect does by inclining one rotor ahead of the other, while keeping the circular movements in perfect time, but a rudder will do the job more simply.”
HOVERS LIKE INSECT
15th January 1934, Aberdeen Press and Journal
Has the secret of how an insect can hover in the air for an indefinite period been at last discovered? A reporter yesterday talked with an elderly man in a quiet country cottage near Ringwood, Hampshire, who claims that he has discovered this secret which has baffled scientists for so many years.
He so sure of his facts that he is building a flying machine. He calls it an “aerial motor car” which is based the principles of his discoveries.
He claims to have proved by working models that a machine constructed on these principles would do almost anything that aeroplanes cannot be made to do, and which inventors have been trying for years to-make them do. These include vertical ascent and descent and assured safety in case of engine trouble in the air.
The man is Mr T.A. Dring, who was treasurer to the Wiltshire County Council for many years before his retirement in 1921. He is now seventy-eight years of age. As far back as 1896 he was looking about for a hobby.
“In America, Professor Langley was making models of flying machines driven by some engine, and I decided to study the flight of the hovering insect as it is the most perfect flying object I can conceive.”
“As far back as 1911, by studying principally the flight of the drone fly, I discovered that the wing, instead of flapping and down, goes round and round. At that time I was in touch with Jousset de Bellesme, a well-known French scientist, who was studying the same subject, and we agreed on the movement of the wings, but could not find out then how the insect was supported. Afterwards I had to give my research until 1925, and I then studied the subject again, and solved the problem.”
“The solution is,” said Mr Dring with evident pride, “that the two wings are centrifugal fans, which caused two streams of air to impinge against each other. The impact releases compressed air, and the expansive force of the compressed air lifts the insect.”
Mr Dring then explained that he was applying his discovery to the building of his aerial motor car. He decided to substitute for the wing motion a revolving shaft with two three-bladed rotors, and by gradually experimenting with small models, he obtained a lift of nine ounces.
“My calculations showed that, with the model I am now building I can get a lift of 900 lb., the total weight of machine with engine being about 430 lb. “With experimental fuselage and 25 hp. engine have already obtained a lift of 450 lb. I am now building a new fuselage.”
Dring took the reporter into his workshop and showed him his “aerial motor car” in the making. The fuselage had a flat under-surface against which the compressed-air created by the rotors will act as a liquefier.
Above the fuselage is a roof-like structure which Mr Dring explained is used in checking the fall alighting, acting in fact like a parachute. The forward motion is to be obtained by inclining the axes of the rotors in the same manner as an insect. The steering is by rudder.
“I want people to understand,” the inventor said, “that this is entirely a new method of flying, it is simpler and more effective. I have tested the soundness of my invention by every possible means.”
“The results make it certain that a flying machine can now be built that will be a true aerial motor, different from the aeroplane or the helicopter, and possessing the power of vertical ascent and descent, with the ability to stand still in the air supported at all times by masses of compressed air expanding below the fuselage.”
“It possesses also a higher and greater range of speed than existing types of flying machines, and preserving an even keel in all conditions, in case of engine failure the machine can descend without shock.”
Asked if he was going to fly his experimental machine himself, Mr Dring said, “No. Not at my age, because there is no necessity. There are means of testing it with certainty without that.”
INSECT PLANE TO FLY THIS WEEK
29th April 1934, Weekly Dispatch of London
An insect-plane – really a flying motorcar – is to be launched this week in a clearing in the New Forest. Its inventor is 78-year-old Mr. T.A. Dring, of Poulner, Hampshire.
For 25 years he has studied the flight of hovering insects and is convinced that ordinary aeroplanes are built on wrong principles. His machine has two sets of rotor vanes, motor driven, each projecting a stream of compressed air under the fuselage.
If his theory is correct. expansion of the air streams will lift the insect-plane.
“I have not the least doubt she will fly,” Mr. Dring said to the Sunday Dispatch yesterday. “The first flight will be made, without anybody on board, sometime next week.”
NEW AIR MACHINE
5th May 1934, Hampshire Advertiser
A flying-machine of a new type which Mr. T. A. Dring, is constructing as an experiment in his workshop at Poulner, Ringwood, is practically completed, and a trial flight will probably be made in a few days’ time.
Mr. Dring was formerly the County Treasurer for Wiltshire. He Is 78 years of age, and he has devoted nearly half his life to the study of the problem of flight. Observation of the motion of the wings of hovering insects gave him the idea of a new type of machine, which he believes will be capable of ascending vertically from the ground and descending In the same manner under absolute control.
The fuselage of the machine Mr. Dring has constructed is shaped rather like the roof of a building with projecting caves. In place of wings there are three-bladed rotors set at the ends of a shaft across the bottom of the fuselage which throw the air currents under the projecting eaves.
There is 54 feet of air surface, and Mr. Dring calculates that with his 25-hp. motor he will get a lift of 729 lbs., and that the machine will descend on the same principle as a parachute. Forward motion would be obtained by altering the angle of the rotors, and steering is by rudder.
The machine is not an aeroplane, an autogiro or helicopter in the ordinary sense, but Mr. Dring says, “something more in the nature of an aerial motor-car.”
Mr. Dring has said: “If my tests are successful, I intend to offer the invention straight away to the French Government. I cannot offer it to the Air Ministry because they say it would be no use to the Air Force. We shall probably arrange to develop and exploit the machine in France. There is too much red tape for me to do anything in England.”
So… what happened next?
After all the press reports in the lead up to a potential launch, nothing was ever reported again. Or at least if it was, no reports have been saved to the British Newspaper Archive.
Whether the insect plane ever took flight is a mystery.
Maybe it was an abject failure?
Perhaps Thomas Dring’s 25 years of research, patents, planning, production, and PR was all for nothing?
The last press mention I found of Mr Dring was him placing an advertisement for home help on the 5th of June 1942 in the Western Gazette.
Now aged 86, he was asking for a “lady companion / housekeeper”.
Whether he got the companionship he wanted I can’t say. Sadly he would die the following year on October the 1st, 1943.
It appears that Dring’s dreams of the insect plane and revolutionising flight, died with him.