The Michigan Engineer News Center

Aero Throwback: The “Venetian Blind” plane

Michigan Engineer W. Fred Gerhardt's 1920s invention was called the “world’s first aerial bicycle.”| Short Read
EnlargePlane in black and white
IMAGE:  “World’s first aerial bicycle.”

In October 1923, Popular Science ran a piece about an invention of W. Fred Gerhardt, one of the first aeronautical engineering bachelors degree holders and also first to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in the subject at U-M. They called it the “world’s first aerial bicycle.”

“This remarkable invention, the achievement of W. F. Gerhardt, aeronautical engineer at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, is 20 feet high and has seven tiers of wings…in its test flight, the machine traveled 20 feet and rose two feet from the ground.”

Perhaps this flight was particularly successful, as the reporter didn’t give any detail about the landing. However, this flying machine is more widely known for crashing. It is also described by Robert P. Weeks in the 1954 Aero department history “The First Fifty Years”:

“[Gerhardt’s] ‘Venetian Blind’ multiplane aircraft, for example, did reach the state of being an experimental vehicle at McCook Field, where it managed to get off the ground before it quickly collapsed into a heap of wings, struts, and guy wires that looked like a venetian blind dropped from a five-story window.”

As easy as it is to mock the seven-winged cycle-powered oddity, Gerhardt was among the earliest pioneers of flight – let alone human-powered flight – living in an era of daring experimentation. He later returned to U-M to teach design in aeronautical engineering and mentor advanced students in applied research. The aeronautical engineering program later evolved to become the aerospace engineering program of today.

Aerospace Engineering at U-M is celebrating 100 years, with first courses in aeronautical sciences offered in the fall of 1914. Join us for the celebration Thursday, September 18 to Saturday, September 20.

Plane in black and white
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Kate McAlpine
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