An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Slovak Inventors 2/4: Jan Bahyl and Helicopters

Posted on March 20, 2014



Who else do we have? Well, there could be Ivan Getting, the son of Slovak immigrants who by realizing that a system of satellite transmitters could inform the location of something on the ground birthed the Global Positioning System (GPS). His first satellites were launched in 1978 and by 1993 the system was fully operational. The GPS industry grows every year and is projected to be worth more than $30 billion by 2016. What about Wolfgang von Kempelen? Born in Bratislava in 1734, he would invent ‘The Turk’, a chess-playing automaton as well as inventing a typewriter for the blind?

Before all that, let’s have a look at Jan Bahyl. Who, prey tell, is Jan Bahyl? Well, born in a little village called Zvolenska Slatina in the mid 1800s, Bahyl was a Slovak inventor who would go on to perform the first manned helicopter flight in 1905. He invented many other things, but it is the whole flying malarkey that he is most known for. This is mostly because flying is quite blatantly awesome.

Bahyl graduated from the Mining Academy of Banska Stiavnica with a diploma in technical drawing and quickly joined the ruling Hungarian army. It wasn’t long however before his drawing ability was noted and earned him a transfer to the technical staff, and most probably saving him from death by bullets. It also allowed him to study at the Vienna Military Academy, which wasn’t too shabby. Bahyl graduated in 1879, and began to develop his inventions. As you do.

His invention, which he entirely financed himself, was called the Steam Tank and would be bought by the Russian army, a luxury which allowed Bahyl to spend his entire life inventing as opposed to worrying where his next bread scrap would come from. A tank pump followed, as well as the first petrol engine car in Slovakia and a lift that went up to Bratislava Castle, which as previously mentioned is my least favorite castle. Too new, too pretty.

Bahyl’s true love however was flying machines, and it was in this industry that his name would be made famous (ish). The idea of vertical flight has been around since forever ago, with the Chinese talking of it thousands of years back. Da Vinci, that old card, really pushed the idea in the 15th century, but it wasn’t until 1861 that the word ‘helicopter’ would enter public lexicon. The race, my compadres, was on. In 1878, Enrico Forlanini performed an unmanned flight at 12 metres for 40 seconds, all pretty impressive but not what we’re looking for. Thomas Edison and his team of cronies were also on the case, but his army failed and got rather injured in the process. The injuries mostly came from Edison being a schmuck.

It took little old Jan Bahyl and his great moustache to complete the task however, and in 1905 he performed the first manned flight of a helicopter. His model flew at only 13ft altitiude (just more than two of me), but it did so for around 1.5 km, a fair old distance. He managed this by adapting an internal combustion engine to propel his helicopter, and I’m not entirely sure what that means but I’m guessing it’s awesome. So next time you fly your personal helicopter to work, spare a thought for Jan Bahyl, the man who started it all.

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