James monoplane

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
The James monoplane is an elusive but potentially hugely significant pioneer aircraft. One day shortly before the First World War a Mr. James walked into the Butterfield Brothers' Levis motorcycle works in Stechford, Birmingham and asked if they could build a 35 hp lightweight aero engine to his specification. Not only did their Mr. Newey design and make the desired five-cylinder inline two-stroke engine, but they set three deaf-mute carpenters to building the whole aircraft. The name "Leonie" was painted on the rudder. On completion, the plane was taken to Castle Bromwich Playing Fields, where it ignominiously ended its career by hitting a goal post during an attempted take off. It was taken back to the works and, following the outbreak of war, dismantled. In 1953 the engine was found, restored and given to the London Science Museum, where it remains on display to this day - there is a photo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/cliffpatte/13952553941/ It was the only aero engine Levis ever made.
The main source for all this is a cutting, describing the rescue, from The Birmingham Post, Wednesday 2 Sept 1953.
What of the importance? James was assisted by one Lieutenant Dunne, said to have patented the aircraft wing and to be the same Lt. J.W. Dunne who once worked at Farnborough in its days as the Army Balloon Factory. The wing is unusual, being "triangulated" and gently swept to form something resembling a modern delta wing. Dunne was famous for his tailless swept "arrow-head" designs, but they all had constant-chord wings (and no rudders). Except, his patents tell a wider story. His original patent 08,118 of 1909 includes, as Fig.3, what we know of today as the classic Rogallo sailwing - a delta planform with conical upper surface. However the photo of the James monoplane reveals a wing which, although sagging and unbraced, appears not to have the standard Dunne conical development. In his patent 26,441 of the same year he includes a drawing of something not far off the James design, having moderately swept wings with pointed tips. This patent is also unusual for Dunne in that it describes the use of additional stabilising planes, typically canard but a tail is explicitly allowed in the text, where the sweep is too shallow for Dunne's usual design to work. Could this be the patent referred to? Could the James monoplane have had a tail? The only photo I have ever seen has that rear fuselage hidden and one cannot say. We know that GTR Hill, jack Northrop and Alexander Lippisch all paid homage to Dunne and that the Me163 Komet, Short's aeroisoclinic wing testbed and Northrop B-2 bomber are in direct lineage of his earlier machines. Glenn Curtiss worked on the Dunne design, collaborating on the Smith B-2 "Arrowhead" in the 'thirties. Dunne's patent extends his ideas to both tapered, pointed wings and to designs with stabilisers. The James monoplane now offers the possibility that it was the direct ancestor of the Lippisch Deltas, Curtiss XP-55, Me262 and just about every fast jet ever given a reduced incidence to the outer wing. So I'd kind of like to find out whether it had a tail or not.
Another uncertainty arises over the date. The Birmingham Post gives it as 1913, as recollected by surviving workers from the factory. But the engine cylinder size, 349 cc, does not seem to have appeared on a production bike until 1915 (though I cannot confirm this).
Then, I stumbled on an item in Flight, 19 March 1915, p196:
"A correspondent in the Midlands tells me that Mr. S. Summerfield is at present testing a new monoplane which is designed to be automatically stable. Details of the new machine are lacking, but in general appearance it is said to be somewhat similar to the Dunne, although the means of control are entirely different. The engine fitted is also of new design, a five-cylinder two-stroke,
which, I understand, has given surprisingly good results."
This description matches the James monoplane very well, save only the two-year date discrepancy. Is it more likely that two craft with unusual and independently-designed five-cylinder two-stroke engines and a strong affinity to the (otherwise passé) Dunne but differing controls, should attempt to fly in the Midlands but fade from sight within two years of each other, or that Mr. James did what a lot of Midland designers were doing at that time and engaged the services of a well-known local test pilot, Sam Summerfield, and that those old Levis workers were a couple of years out in their recollections?
Other sources for the James monoplane include Lewis British Aircraft 1809-1914, from whom I took the name. For some reason Lewis says the engine was installed inverted. Inspection of the surviving photo shows this to be incorrect: the crankshaft output is at the bottom and a separate propeller shaft at the top. Calculation based on the required propeller speed and the engine revs stated by the museum show that this must have involved a drive chain or belt with a 2:1 reduction ratio (Levis bikes of the day were famously belt-drive but the restored engine has a pinion gear). The less said about Goodall and Tagg's British Aircraft before the Great War the better. They mix it up with the Dunne D.9, writing in the text that it is a pusher while showing the photo which is clearly of a tractor, while on seeing the rudder leaned up against the undercarriage struts they mistake it for a wheel spat. Consequently some other tidbits they offer, such as Fairey's involvement (presumably in his role as General Manager of Dunne's old company, but for which aircraft?), cannot be assessed.
Another mystery is the pedigree of Mr. James. There was a James cycle co. of several generations standing, just down the road from the Levis works. Was our Mr. James a family member, acting with or without the approval of any still involved in their own company? In the annals of Flight, a couple of James brothers appear learing to fly in Wales, and other escapades. But James is a common enough surname.
There is a copy of the photo on flyingmachines.ru, a copyvio site, so I am not sure if I can link to it from here. Can I post the newspaper clipping from 1953? I can surely post extracts from the relevant Dunne patents, or link to them on the EU online database, if that helps?
Meanwhile, does any of this jog someone's memory? I'd love to have at least some of these puzzles resolved.
 

Apophenia

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2007
Messages
2,892
Reaction score
1,567
steelpillow: I believe the inventor you are looking for is RE (Rupert Edward) James. AFAIK, Flight has only one mention of "R.E. James":

21,424 R.E. JAMES AND F.A. THOMPSON. Aerial machine
Flight, 05 July 1913, p.752
http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1913/1913%20-%200726.html

The full patent title is: James, Rupert Edward and Thompson, Frederick Arthur: Improvements in Aerial Machines, 20 Sept 1912 (UK patent 191221424-A).

Hope that's helpful in your search.
 

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
857
Fascinating topic. Thanks steelpillow for bringing the subject up, and I hope to read and see more about it!
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
@Apophenia, yes, that has to be related, he lives in Edgbaston (close to Stechford and close also to the reservoir they planned to fly it as a floatplane). and the plane is the same swept pointed form. Thank you so much for this.
The trailing edge in his patent is straight, but in the photo it looks lightly curved. In Dunne's reduced-sweep patent, both leading and trailing edges are lightly curved. J&T also reference a conical forming of the surface, as in Dunne's original patent. I need to read it more carefully now.

Some attachments:
*The one photograph that everybody uses
*The Birmingham Post clipping
*The James and Thompson patent
*Dunne's first key patent, with a delta wing shown in Fig.3
*Dunne's reduced-sweep patent with its added planes and similar tapered wing to the James in Fig.1.
*Science Museum label to the engine, reiterating the suspected identity of Lt. Dunne.
 

Attachments

  • JamesMonoplane.jpg
    JamesMonoplane.jpg
    29.7 KB · Views: 682
  • BirminghamPost1953.pdf
    291.3 KB · Views: 59
  • GB191221424A.pdf
    303.7 KB · Views: 50
  • GB190908118A.pdf
    1 MB · Views: 35
  • GB190926441A.pdf
    269.7 KB · Views: 30
  • SciMusLabel.pdf
    209.9 KB · Views: 39

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Oops, the link to the original image of the plane: http://flyingmachines.ru/Images7/GT/GT-0/105-4.jpg

And a downgraded copy of the engine photo I already linked to.
 

Attachments

  • LevisEngine800.jpg
    LevisEngine800.jpg
    52 KB · Views: 649

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
The James & Thompson patent is for a wing warping system that, in essence, takes a conventional aeroplane of moderate sweepback and, when set by the pilot, applies a conical wing surface that is broadly similar to Dunne's patented type. They say it works better with a conventional tail. So it might well be covered under both of Dunne's patents that I mentioned.

In action the wing tip is bent backward by pulling on a control line. This causes the trailing edge to bow upward, creating a roughly conical form with the characteristic Dunne washout of the outer section. This washout may be sufficient to give the section negative incidence and hence downthrust.
Benefits claimed include:
*Short takeoff run by augmenting the downthrust from the elevator at rotation.
*Turning by warping one wing to increase its drag.
*Improved stability in turbulence.

The J&T patent is less well observed than Dunne's, being especially lax in the relationships between stability, control and trim when varying the wing geometry. I guess this is the wrong place for my own views on its viability, which would make quite a long essay.

I think it safe to assume that the actual craft embodied the J&T patent, it certainly had the right shape of wing. Given the patent wording and the existence of the vertical rudder, it seems almost certain that the craft also had a conventional tail plane. In the photo two triangular objects can be seen hanging down either side of the rear fuselage. I am not sure whether these might be a protective cloth draped over it, or tail surfaces partially attached and waiting to be raised into the correct position, or perhaps something else.
 

Schneiderman

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
Oct 19, 2012
Messages
1,605
Reaction score
928
Here is a link to the patent

http://worldwide.espacenet.com/publicationDetails/biblio?DB=worldwide.espacenet.com&II=0&ND=3&adjacent=true&locale=en_EP&FT=D&date=19130612&CC=GB&NR=191221424A&KC=A
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Curiouser and curiouser.

I have just visited the Science Museum in London, by appointment. They keep a Technical File on each exhibit, and they let me riffle through the file on the Levis engine.

Wow, another photograph, apparently unpublished, this one of the complete aeroplane! It shows the streamlined panels around the nose, with vents for the engine, a transparent windshield for the pilot, and the wings rigged with bracing wires, dihedral progressively reducing towards the tips, and a raised outboard trailing edge creating reduced incidence consistent with the James and Dunne patents. Frustratingly, the rear fuselage is still masked by the nearside wing, so it is still not possible to say if a tail plane is present. I'd better ask their permission before I try to scan and post it.

And another name used for the aircraft! The Levis-Belmont Monoplane. It seems there was a Belmont Aviation Co. based in Ladywood, just down the road from Edgbaston, and one of its leading lights was an F.A. Thompson. The name F.A. Thompson also appears as the Secretary of the Birmingham Aeroplane Club - see http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1910/1910%20-%200167.html and of course as James' partner in the 1912 patent. Tantalisingly, this may not have been their first aeroplane - or at least, it may have been preceded by one or more flying models. There is reference to a long article over two editions of the Birmingham Illusrated Weekly Mercury for 30 August and 6 September 1913, in which the ideas behind th aeroplane are explained. I don't suppose anybody has softcopies of those two Parts lying around? No? Ah, well, we'll just have to wait and see if I can get my act together.

A note on the back of one print confirms a chain drive to the propeller, with 2:1 reduction ratio. One print of the pulicised side view during construction adtes it at 1912/13, while another of the completed aircraft is dated 1913/14. Just a hint that the 1913 date might not be set in stone, but no real help.

There is also a purported quote from Harald Penrose, "British Aviation: The Pioneer Years", 1979 edition, page 277, to the effect that Levis built the Dunne D.9 and that it was a disaster. I wonder where he got that idea from? In a letter to the Museum (from another of the museum's Files) Dunne does say that one monoplane was a failure, but we already know that was the original D.6 before it was rebuilt as the D.7. There was no failed Dunne design after the D.6, and anyway Dunne would have had it built by his own Syndicate (by then moved to Hendon). Ever since 1962, successive historians seem to have tossed pet theories based on ignorant supposition into the mix. It doesn't help unravel the truth.

[Update] According to one of Dunne's letters to the Museum, he did have one subsequent failure but it was a biplane. This looks a possible candidate for the D.9 but he does not identify it himself.
 

avion ancien

The accidental peasant!
Joined
Mar 6, 2013
Messages
318
Reaction score
141
steelpillow said:
There is reference to a long article over two editions of the Birmingham Illusrated Weekly Mercury for 30 August and 6 September 1913, in which the ideas behind th aeroplane are explained. I don't suppose anybody has softcopies of those two Parts lying around? No? Ah, well, we'll just have to wait and see if I can get my act together

Is it not likely that Birmingham Library will hold copies of this periodical?
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
avion ancien said:
steelpillow said:
There is reference to a long article over two editions of the Birmingham Illusrated Weekly Mercury for 30 August and 6 September 1913, in which the ideas behind th aeroplane are explained. I don't suppose anybody has softcopies of those two Parts lying around? No? Ah, well, we'll just have to wait and see if I can get my act together

Is it not likely that Birmingham Library will hold copies of this periodical?

I am hopeful. I just need to find the time to chase them up.
 

avion ancien

The accidental peasant!
Joined
Mar 6, 2013
Messages
318
Reaction score
141
When, long ago, I worked in Birmingham, I was amazed at what the Central Library had squirrelled away. But often it wasn't to be found via the catalogue. However if you asked nicely at a time when the staff weren't too busy, then......!
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
avion ancien said:
When, long ago, I worked in Birmingham, I was amazed at what the Central Library had squirrelled away. But often it wasn't to be found via the catalogue. However if you asked nicely at a time when the staff weren't too busy, then......!

Thanks, I'll bear that in mind. The Science Museum archive shows that somebody asked the Birmingham Library about this before but got kept waiting - and no sign that copies ever arrived.
 

robunos

You're Mad, You Are.....
Senior Member
Joined
May 1, 2007
Messages
2,093
Reaction score
641
The Sunday Mercury newspaper is still in business, you could try them direct, newspapers usually have archives...

cheers,
Robin.
 

ursrius

ACCESS: Confidential
Joined
Dec 13, 2007
Messages
69
Reaction score
6
Steelpillow, absolutely fascinating stuff! Certainly seems to rebuff a lot of things taken for granted in various history books. Looking forward to further posts on this.
As an aside, according to Goodall and Tagg's British Aircraft before the Great War (they must have got some things right!!), the Belmont Aviation Co. built a glider to the design of one F. Hill, a member of the Birmingham Aeroplane Club. This is corroborated in various editions of Flight. Other than at one point being chairman of the club, I know no more about Mr. Hill.
You note "one of its leading lights was an F.A. Thompson" - in what capacity? Do you have any more details you can share on the Belmont Aviation Co.?
 

ursrius

ACCESS: Confidential
Joined
Dec 13, 2007
Messages
69
Reaction score
6
My earlier post should have read "Re: the Belmont Aviation Co., you note one of its leading lights was an F.A. Thompson"

Another question on R.E. James. Goodall and Tagg's British Aircraft before the Great War (again!) states that James announced to the press in September 1913 his intention to compete for the Daily Mail 10,000 GBP prize for an Atlantic crossing. Any further confirmation of this? In another entry, James is mentioned as being a member of the Birmingham Aeroplane Club. Any confirmation?
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Hi, Ursrius.

I think Goodall and Tagg's source for the glider was probably Flight, since everything they say about it can be gleaned from the Birmingham Aero Club (not "Aeroplane" Club) reports in the model flying sections, in particular here is an extract from a report published on 13 December 1913, p1364: http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1913/1913%20-%201338.html

A monoplane glider was built in 1911 by the Belmont Aeroplane Co., and designed by Mr. F. Hill at the club rooms, but was afterwards turned into a hydroplane [aeroplane ?] with a low-powered engine. This machine had no front or rear elevator, and the planes tapered to a point at the tips with a chord of 12 ft. at the centre and a span of 40 ft. Models of this glider flew exceptionally well, but up to the present it has not met with any great success either as a glider or aeroplane.

The Club's reports describe a good deal of model flying and a small number of man-carrying gliders, of which this was one. Their main stamping grounds at this time appear to have been Edgbaston Reservoir and Billesley.

I might also note that tailless "Dunne" type designs were quite popular with aeromodellers in those days, and often flew very well. The models of this glider fit comfortably into this pattern.

Note the similarities to the James Monoplane story - the James/Belmont connection, a monoplane with pointed wings, the tailless/Dunne association, low-powered engine, location of proposed flight trials, ultimate lack of success. Can these be one and the same machine? Did the Levis Co's three deaf-mute carpenters really build a new airframe from scratch, or did they merely convert the Belmont glider for powered flight? Have Flight given us the dimensions of the James Monoplane and told us whether or not it had a tail? Certainly, rebalancing a glider for correct trim after adding a thumping great lump of metal in the nose would be no easy task, and a new fuselage - perhaps also a new wing - might be more sensible. Food for thought.

Note too the company description as the "Belmont Aeroplane Co" vs. "Belmont Aviation Co" elsewhere. The information about the company that I gave earlier comes from a letter written to the Science Museum in 1983. It describes Thompson as "spokesman" for Belmont. The writer's main source may well have been the pieces in the Birmingham Illustrated Weekly Mercury that he also mentions. That newspaper title is currently owned by the Mirror, who kindly searched their archives on my request but their archives apparently do not stretch back that far. I hope soon to trawl the Library of Birmingham's microfiche archives for a copy. That might clarify the Company name and shed more light on Thompson's involvement.

Re. G&T's mentions of James. There were two brothers James, J.H. and H.H., who appear to be unrelated to our R.E. James. They were based in Wales and at least one gained his flying certificate at Hendon (to the confusion of another correspondent with the Science Museum). It is a common enough name, there may well have been others. Without knowing G&T's source, I would hesitate to affirm they identified the correct Mr. James in his transatlantic bid. I would guess that they inferred the Birmingham Aero Club connection from all the related material, but again, perhaps they found a direct source that currently evades me. Could you post the titles and fuller transcripts of the relevant entries you mention on him? I only have copies of a few such entries, not the whole book.
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Got there (Library of Birmingham) sooner than I expected. Wow again. Much about the hydroplane, and much about a planned transatlantic plane, my scepticism there has proved unfounded. Several illustrations, which I had better not post yet.

The two pieces both make the front page and are built around interviews, the first with Rupert E. James, the second with F.E. Thompson. I'll take them one at a time.

First, the Birmingham Illustrated Weekly Mercury, Vol. XXX No. 11, Sunday 30 August 1913.
The discussion with James, of the Belmont Aeroplane Company, Ladywood, focuses on the hydroplane. This craft was developed in secret and housed in a hangar on Edgbaston reservoir. The writer claims to have "flown" in it with James. Its engine power is given as 10 HP, which suggests that these would at best have been power-assisted hops - James acknowledges it needs more power before it will take off properly. It has the typical Belmont pointed wings and no tail, and is said to have achieved automatic stability in a way different from Dunne's method. span 33 ft, max wing chord 10 ft, o/a length "about 16 ft." The wing design is said to mimic the soaring flight of seabirds, which James makes much of having watched closely. The writer describes the imitation of birds' wings as "amazing"Two main floats and one tail float. No pictures, sadly.
There is at least a photo on Page 10 of an earlier quarter-scale glider, little more than a pair of triangular wings, flying over a house. The wings are either swept or have sharp dihedral or a bit of both, it is hard to say. Above this is a photo of the propeller used on the "Belmont hydroplane".
One of the deaf-mutes makes an appearance, Mr. Pickering, a "mechanic" who helped with the construction and was rewarded with a "flight".
An earlier craft is claimed to have made a short "flight" at the Bournville meeting. It is not clear, but this was probably large glider.

Now, the Birmingham Illustrated Weekly Mercury, Vol. XXX No. 12, Sunday 6 September 1913.
BIRMINGHAM AEROPLANE TO FLY THE ATLANTIC it screams, with portrait photos beneath of James and Thompson, "the co-inventors of the Belmont Automatic Stability Hydroplane". Thompson describes a planned larger two-seater with a more powerful engine up to 200 HP power and supposedly able to fly the Atlantic with a single stop for refuelling. It is designed on much the same principles, but is accompanied by an artist's impression which shows a strut-braced mainplane, cruciform tail, a single main float and two outriggers to the rear. The main float is said to support itself and to contribute to the automatic stability. Thompson also makes play with a claim to have devised a way to direct air down to break the water suction that prevents takeoff. In the illustration, the float is depicted with a hydrodynamic step.
Curiously out of context, perhaps a leftover from the week before, there is also a photograph of a single-cylinder Levis engine. It is said to be the one fitted to the hydroplane but it has a quarter of the cylinder head and upper crank case cut away to reveal the piston and con-rod, so it is presumably a Levis publicity shot of the general type fitted. A chain-driven magneto, ignition lead and spark plug are visible. It is a valveless two-stroke and the cylinder dimensions are given as; bore 70 mm, stroke 70 mm.
Almost as a footnote, the design of the "seagull form of wing" is attributed to Mr. Francis Hill of Birmingham and is distanced from the design of the hydroplane as merely forming the basis of it.

Initial comments:
The dimensions for the hydroplane may be compared to those given in Flight four months later and quoted in my previous post. I think these must be the same craft, but it needs a closer look. Clearly there is more to the association with Levis and the deaf-mutes than meets the eye. Those dimensions work out at 269 cc, a smaller model than that used for the five-cylinder engine. But 10 hp from a single small cylinder when five big ones only make 35 hp, or 7 hp each? Either James is being hopelessly over-optimistic or the hydroplane engine had two or even three cylinders.
Is it an early incarnation of the Levis-(re)built monoplane? That seems possible, but somehow I doubt it. The Levis-built machine seems in concept more like a transition between the hydroplane and the transatlantic machine. That would at least explain the initial plan to fly it from the reservoir. The hydroplane has no tail, the transatlantic flyer does: that leaves us no wiser over the Levis-built plane than before.
That transatlantic main float is interesting. Yet a third patent of Dunne's - GB191017186-A - covers streamlining which also provides lift and the text of that patent explicitly discusses floats. Then there is the step, only recently developed and a very hi-tech feature for the day, but as far as I know nobody else has ever suggested that James and Thompson actually devised it, as Thompson appears to claim.
The involvement of Hill is unclear. Did he just develop a seagull-shaped wing form and the other two then develop the tip-warping idea? But that triangle wing is honestly not very bird-like. Did he develop the idea of warping it like a bird and the others then come up with a patent mechanism? Or should he in fact have been credited with more than he has been? What more than a "seagull form of wing" does the triangular Belmont wing possess? Does the credit for the claimed automatic stability in fact belong to Hill?
There is much other stuff in these articles, including more of the self-important puff, but those are most of the relevant points. Much to chew over.
 

ursrius

ACCESS: Confidential
Joined
Dec 13, 2007
Messages
69
Reaction score
6
Some thoughts on the Belmont Aeroplane Co, based on the above and other perusing's.

The Belmont Aeroplane Company was created in or before 1911, with works in Ladywood, Birmingham. Associated with the company were R.E. James and F.A. Thompson, although exactly in what capacity is unclear. At that time, Thompson was The Hon. Secretary of the Birmingham Aero Club, located at 165, Hampton Street, and had been since at least March 1910.

Rupert Edward James was born January 1892 in Wolverhampton, son of Robert Henry James and Harriet Shenton Hyde. In 1911, Rupert still lived with his parents at 14 Fountain Road, Edgbaston. His father Robert was born in Wolverhampton Heath, Staffordshire, and so almost definitely had no connection with the Welsh James Brothers. R.E. James died in Leeds in March 1960.

Frederick Arthur Thompson was also born in 1892, living with his parents at ‘Beauford Mews’, Ladywood, according to the 1911 census, although both the 1901 census and the patent application quote 112, Ladywood Road. This would have made him no more than 18 years old in 1910, perhaps young to be Honorary Secretary of the Birmingham Aero Club, but this was a young man’s sport/hobby.

According to George Hadden Wood’s article in Flight for 13 December 1913, a monoplane glider was built in 1911 by the Belmont Aeroplane Co., and designed by Mr. F. Hill at the [Birmingham Aero] club rooms. The F. Hill in question was Francis Hill, who was later to become chairman of the club.

On 20th September 1912, James and Thompson submitted application 21,424 for ‘Improvements in Aerial Machines’ (UK patent 191221424-A).

What happens next in the story of Messrs. James and Thompson, along with the Belmont Aeroplane Company is less clear and open to speculation. Let’s examine what we think we know:
• Flight for 19 November 1910, “Mr. F. Hill and a party are constructing a glider after the pattern of a model of his own design, which possesses very remarkable powers of flight and stability.”
• Flight for 1 July 1911, “Mr. Hill and his party are fitting a rotary motor to their Belmont glider, and hope to have it ready by the end of this month.”
• From George Haddon Wood in Flight for 13 December 1913, “[The Hill glider] was afterwards turned into a hydroplane [aeroplane?] with a low-powered engine. This machine had no front or rear elevator, and the planes tapered to a point at the tips with a chord of 12 ft. at the centre and a span of 40 ft. Models of this glider flew exceptionally well, but up to the present it has not met with any great success either as a glider or aeroplane”
• From Birmingham Illustrated Weekly Mercury, 30 August 1913, “[Concerning the hydroplane]. This craft was developed in secret and housed in a hangar on Edgbaston reservoir. The writer claims to have "flown" in it with James.”
• From the Birmingham Post, 2 September 1953, “The plane…was assembled at the Levis works and made its first and only flight at the Castle Bromwich playing fields….in taking off, struck a goal-post with one wingtip and crashed”. Later in the same article, Levis “were approached by James who had designed an extremely light aeroplane and wanted … an engine that would give 35.h.p...It was originally intended to equip the aeroplane with floats and test it on Edgbaston Reservoir, but finally it was equipped with skids and wheels.”
• The ‘standard’ published photograph of the machine shows an aircraft with a centre skid, so this would not be a hydroplane.

Seemingly the Hill and James machines are quite separate, with the James and Thompson patent not appearing until a year after the Hill machine. I think it likely, though, that James and Thompson were more than a little influenced by Hill. Maybe they were just quicker on the draw to apply for a patent?
One thing I question is, did Levis actually ‘build’ an aeroplane (powered or otherwise)? As motorcycle and engine makers, I feel they would not have had the skills or wherewithal to accomplish this. More likely is that Belmont built the airframe and, if the machine really did emerge from the Levis works, was turned over to them for engine installation. It does seem likely that the machine appeared in both hydroplane and landplane forms, but in which order?

Some other items that fall in the ‘connected or coincident’ category; from George Haddon Woods article in Flight mentioned earlier, a very successful glider was built by Mr. E. Prosser (the present aviator) and Mr. A. M. Bonehill, in August, 1910. Arthur Masefield Bonehill worked for his grandfather’s gun making business, the Belmont Firearms and Gun Barrel Works in Belmont Row, located in Ladywood. Perhaps there is a connection here with the Belmont Aeroplane Company, if only as neighbours?
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Thank you for the Bonehill connection, that does provide a link to the name "Belmont".

[Updated] However I am not sure how it all fits together.
According to the Birmingham Gun Museum ( http://www.birminghamgunmuseum.com/C_G_Bonehill.php ) Bonehill's Belmont Firearms Works was in Price Street, which is pretty much in the centre of Birmingham and about a mile from Thompson's home. The photos show it as rather more modest than the grand-looking Belmont Firearms and Gun Barrel Works in Belmont Row, which appears in one of Bonehill's advertisments ( http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/File:Im1876POWor-Bonehill.jpg )
Belmont Row is further away to the East on the other side of town. There is a well-known Belmont Works there which among other things was home to a glassmaker, a cycle factory and co-operative. I wonder whether this is a different Belmont Works.
It's all a bit confusing.
[Update 2] Ah, the company moved from Belmont Row to Price Street in 1922.

On the relationship with Hill, one theory which fits the facts is that Hill developed the automatically-stable wing form seen in the Belmont glider. But for manned flight a control system was needed, and this system was the subject of the James and Thompson patent.

On the Levis assembly side, the unpublished photo in the Science Museum shows the almost-complete aeroplane in a large shed otherwise full of workbenches and partially-completed Levis motorcycles. The pattern of doors and windows exactly matches that in the better-known photo of the half-complete machine. There can be no doubt that the final stages of manufacture took place in the Levis works, and we have no reason to doubt that the rest did too. This is backed up by the Post account, which states as much.

The Science Museum file also includes a letter from one Geoffrey Negus, and credit for recognising the link between the Belmont company and the Levis aeroplane goes to him. His letter was where I found the tipoff about the Mercury. He was researching a book which was later completed in partnership with Tommy Staddon and published as "Aviation in Birmingham", by Midland Publishing in 1984. My copy is winging its way to me as I write.
 

ursrius

ACCESS: Confidential
Joined
Dec 13, 2007
Messages
69
Reaction score
6
The Science Museum file also includes a letter from one Geoffrey Negus, and credit for recognising the link between the Belmont company and the Levis aeroplane goes to him. His letter was where I found the tipoff about the Mercury. He was researching a book which was later completed in partnership with Tommy Staddon and published as "Aviation in Birmingham", by Midland Publishing in 1984. My copy is winging its way to me as I write.

After reading that, so is mine!! Geoff Negus is well known on another forum I use.

Some comments on Levis, based on http://www.ianchadwick.com/motorcycles/britbikes/brit_l.html , Graces Guide and ancestry .com

The first Levis was made in the Norton works by Howard (Bob) Newey, but turned down by James Norton. Newey joined with brothers William Hughes Butterfield (1883-1941) and Arthur Butterfield (b. 1888) to set up their own company, Butterfields Ltd (aka Butterfield Brothers or British Butterfield) at the Levis Works, Old Station Road, Stechford, Birmingham, in 1911. The Butterfields sister Catherine Louise (possibly also known as Daisy) acted as bookkeeper, and married Newey in 1916.

With both James and Thompson coming from fairly modest means, it would seem likely that the Butterfields provided sponsorship, hence the "AB" on the rudder. I was hoping I might find a "Leonie" in the Butterfield family, but no such luck!
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Negus and Staddon's book has arrived - and in it, another photo of the monoplane, this time only the fuselage before any flying surfaces were fitted. It is round or oval in section and the rear end tapers almost to a point, like a carrot. There is a mounting slot for the main spar but no other attachment point visible, even for the rear spar such as it is. Still no indication as to whether there was a tail plane!

And a copy of the familiar part-finished side view with wings. Interestingly, this print has not been retouched - all the other published copies (Birmingham Post, Lewis, Goodall & Tagg) have been.

Both photos credited to A E Sinton. Does that ring any bells with anyone?
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
And now I suspect that the hydroaeroplane's engine and propeller may still exist! Take a look at the first few photos here, drawn to my attention by a motorcycle enthusiast:
http://cybermotorcycle.com/gallery/levis/index5.htm (gallery)
http://cybermotorcycle.com/euro/brands/levis.htm (messages)

They show a Levis horizontally-opposed two-cylinder air-cooled two-stroke engine fitted with a propeller and a safety cage.

The accompanying message (lower down the page) says that the assembly was used by the RFC during WWI for purposes unknown and was still in working order! It also suggests that the propeller came from a Sopwith Pup, which I find that hard to believe as the Pup's Gnome engine was far more powerful and would surely have had a bigger boss with the mounting holes unlikely to match a small donkey engine.

A poor photo in one of the Birmingham Mercury pieces shows the hydroaeroplane's propeller mounted on a test rig. If we allow that the Mercury published the image back to front, a common enough happening where there was no text to orient the negative, then the shapes of the propellers in the two situations look so similar as to be identical. Although the image is very poor, the test engine does not look like the Levis one on the web site. But then, the propeller was taken off the test rig for mounting on the aeroplane engine, so we should expect that.

Next, there is an anomaly in the Mercury's account of the aero engine. A Levis publicity photo of a single-cylinder engine is shown, and is said to be that (which we must take to mean, of the type) used in the hydroaeroplane. The aero engine's power is stated to be around 10 hp, yet the standard Levis engine of 1913 could deliver only 2 1/2 hp. Even uprating it for the benign environment of aero use it would deliver no more than about 5 hp. A twin, using two cylinders of the type in the publicity shot, would neatly resolve that anomaly.

We may recall that the Castle Bromwich field, where the larger monoplane was taken, was at the outbreak of war taken over by the RFC, so there is a possible link there, too.

The suggestion that the engine in the photos is that very same engine, fitted with that very same propeller, becomes almost irresistible. Either way, it is the only two-cylinder Levis I ever heard of and, if it is an aero engine then it predates the equally unique five-cylinder inline job in the Science Museum.

But there are loose ends and missing links:

- What happened to James and Thompson at the outbreak of war? Might one of them have joined the RFC and taken his old toy along when it met some purpose or other?

- Which RFC unit played with the surviving toy, and where was it stationed? Did they fit the safety guard? Might Messrs. J or T have belonged to it?

- Who posted the photos on the web site? I tried to contact them but the email address given is no longer in use. And where and how did they come into possession of this little beast?

- The poster, one Peter Sturgeon, was looking to sell. Did he? Where is the engine now? If you ever read this Peter and you still have it, I'll make you an offer!

If anybody can help answer any of these mysteries, please do!
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Turns out the Levis twin on the Internet is probably not a Belmont relic. I spent yesterday afternoon researching Levis' early history at the Vintage Motor Cycle Club's library in Burton-on-Trent. Seems they made several models of horizontally-opposed flat twins and sold them in large numbers to the military during WWI, typically with a blower attached to top up airships and balloons and stop them collapsing when they landed. The Internet example was probably originally sold to the War Office.

Still, I did find that the large "De Luxe" cylinder came into use in 1914. Their 1913 catalogue shows a bike with a similarly-specced engine but it was an inline vertical twin, with two smaller cylinders - and it had cancelled or similar stamped across it after the catalogue had been printed. The successful single-cylinder type doesn't appear until the 1914 catalogue.

Given that the 5-cylinder special must have been substantially complete when it was bolted into the half-finished airframe, a first flight attempt in the autumn of 1913 does not seem feasible and it must have been well into 1914 or even later.

Oh and at the British Library a week or two back I checked out a surviving copy of the Mercury and found a photograph of a Belmont wing under construction in a different workshop. Behind it is hanging the frame from Haddon Wood's machine. But the image is very rough and barely discernible. I'll have to get it scanned and gimp it up before it's worth sharing.
 

avion ancien

The accidental peasant!
Joined
Mar 6, 2013
Messages
318
Reaction score
141
Keep at it, steelpillow, and thank you for sharing the information. I'm finding the product of your research fascinating.
 

avion ancien

The accidental peasant!
Joined
Mar 6, 2013
Messages
318
Reaction score
141
Steelpillow, I've re-read all of your posts on this thread in the hope of ascertaining whether the Levis engine that powered the James/Belmont aeroplane(s) was (a) an adaptation of an existing Levis motorcycle engine or (b) a development of an existing Levis motorcycle engine or (c) a completely new engine designed and built by Levis specifically for use as an aero engine? If the answer's there but I've missed it, please slap my wrist and point me to it! But if not, can you say or, at least, offer any knowledge or opinion that might shed some light in my darkness?
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
The engine we know most about is the one that powered the Levis-Belmont, aka James monoplane, mainly because it is now in the Science Museum, Kensington, and they have a nice Technical File on it in the basement.
It is a curious five-cylinder inline beast, with crankshaft machined from the solid and was designed specifically to provide the 35 hp requested by Mr. James (one of Belmont's co-founders), using multiple motorcycle cylinders. Like all Levis engines of the period it is an air-cooled two-stroke, with the carburettor feeding the fuel-air mixture into the crankcase, from where gas pressure on the downstroke drives it up through a channel into the cylinder. This means that there must be a sealed bearing between adjacent cylinders. Cylinder capacity and detail specification are the same as the "de Luxe" model bike engine introduced ca. 1915. And thereby hangs a problem because the aero engine has been provisionally dated to 1913 (which I think is a mistake: there are other reasons for dating the aircraft nearer 1915). It has a Bosch five-point magneto, a motorcycle flywheel (not original) and a pinion for a chain drive bolted onto the crankshaft. Air and fuel systems are missing, so we don't know for example whether it might have had one large carburettor or five standard ones with linked throttles (shudder).

Going back in time, there was a Belmont "hydroaeroplane" - a floatplane - which was too underpowered to do more than hop and glide over Edgbaston Reservoir. This too had a Levis engine. There are minor inconsistencies in the contemporary newspaper reports, but it appears to have been a two-cylinder design giving around 10 hp in aero use. These would have been smaller than the later De Luxe, the reported capacity was 70 mm x 70 mm, which was one of their mainstay cycle sizes. Levis did experiment with a twin-cylinder inline bike engine and even put it in their sales catalogue around this time, but soon pulled it in favour of a single new de Luxe cylinder which had about twice the capacity and so gave about the same power overall. A poor photo of the propeller under test shows a vertically opposed engine, but this was not the one used in the floatplane and we don't know who made it. Levis manufactured horizontally-opposed twins in volume for WWI, so the arrangement and heritage of the floatplane engine is anybody's guess. (They were fitted to blowers used for keeping airships and balloons inflated while loafing around on the ground: one later had a cut-down propeller bolted on, which gave me a good runaround.)

There are hints of earlier experiments with powered gliders and that a rotary engine was tried (no hint as to manufacturer), but no real information.

I can dig out my sources and confirm dates if anybody needs that. HTH.
 

avion ancien

The accidental peasant!
Joined
Mar 6, 2013
Messages
318
Reaction score
141
Thank you, steelpillow. Based on that, I think it fair to say that the engine in the James Monoplane was not a Levis motorcycle engine but probably was developed from a Levis motorcycle engine, rather than being an entirely new 'blank sheet' design of aero engine. Would you agree with that deduction? As to the hydroaeroplane (or, perhaps, better described as a pond skimmer), it appears that the available data is not sufficiently clear to offer an attribution to its engine beyond saying it may have been powered by a Levis motorcycle engine. Again, do you think that to be fair?
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
avion ancien said:
Thank you, steelpillow. Based on that, I think it fair to say that the engine in the James Monoplane was not a Levis motorcycle engine but probably was developed from a Levis motorcycle engine, rather than being an entirely new 'blank sheet' design of aero engine. Would you agree with that deduction?
For myself, yes. I believe it to have been a five-cylinder aero engine developed from the standard "De Luxe" motorcycle engine. However the most widely-touted historical dates make it appear the other way round, so others may disagree with me.

As to the hydroaeroplane (or, perhaps, better described as a pond skimmer), it appears that the available data is not sufficiently clear to offer an attribution to its engine beyond saying it may have been powered by a Levis motorcycle engine. Again, do you think that to be fair?
According to a newspaper interview with James, the engine was definitely a Levis type: it even included a publicity illustration from Levis and quoted the 70mm x 70mm. But the only other detail we learn is that it gave about 10 hp as an aero engine. That is why it must have been a twin, because about 4-5hp would be the maximum one could expect from the single-cylinder motorcycle engine in aero use. Even the later de Luxe cylinder gave only 7 hp.
 

steelpillow

So many projects, so little time...
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2014
Messages
1,177
Reaction score
733
Website
www.steelpillow.com
Update.

Firstly, here is a low-grade reproduction "for research purposes" of the unpublished photograph (watermark not original, added by me):
L-B-thumb.jpg
Note the almost-completed state, with perforated engine cowlings and tractor prop. The long work benches and rows of bike frames show that this was normally a busy shop floor.

Secondly, I think I have cracked the stereogrammetry - recovering reasonably accurate 3-views from the surviving photos. Those of a non-technical disposition should look away now, because here is my basic procedure:
  1. Combine data from images and texts to establish the general outline and features.
  2. Take the wing shape from the patent, as it looks a pretty good fit and this was the plane they made immediately afterwards.
  3. Apply the techniques of perspective drawing in reverse. Where this yields multiple possible combinations of viewpoint and subject, two things help:
  4. Assume the whole photograph is printed, i.e. the centre of the image is the point at which the camera is aimed.
  5. In projective geometry, any four points define a perspectivity. The three extremities of the wing leading edge and the centre of the image provide four such points, which must therefore define the correct perspectivity, i.e. their correct image projections, onto the picture plane, and a second perspectivity onto a plan view; thus a unique overall perspectivity from photograph to 3-view plan. This in turn means there is a unique solution for the viewpoint. Shame I'm not a geometry program.
So at this point I just sketch it up in Inkscape and muck about until I find the viewpoint and everything lines up. That is going well enough to prove the method, so I am both confident and delighted enough to post this update. I hope to post something more finished in due course.
 
Last edited:

Foo Fighter

I came, I saw, I drank some tea (and had a bun).
Senior Member
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Messages
2,447
Reaction score
1,408
Thanks for bringing this iut into the open, fascinating subject, this looks a lot more advanced than its peers.
 

Similar threads

Top