Watching kite buggies hurtling round flat beaches on the British coast, it is incredible to think that these extreme machines were the invention of a 19th-century school master and father-of-11 from Bristol, George Pocock
Born in 1774, George Pocock was interested in kites from a young age, as he explains in his memorably titled publication The Aeropleustic Art or Navigation in the Air by the use of Kites, or Buoyant Sails: ‘When I was a little tiny boy I learnt that my paper-kite would draw along a stone on the ground, tied at the end of its string… I wondered and I grew ambitious’.
This curiosity, coupled with a willingness to experiment, eventually led to the invention of the “Charvolant”, a horseless carriage harnessed to a pair of kites and could be pulled along at speeds up to 20mph. The contraption was first trialled by one of his sons, who was seated on a makeshift sledge and attached to two kites before being dragged across the Bristol Downs until he came to a natural halt, somehow unscathed, at the bottom of a stone quarry. A man with confidence in his convictions, this wasn’t the only time Pocock was willing to risk one of his offspring in the name of advancing science, having also used kites to fly his daughter, sat in a wicker chair, over the Avon Gorge.
The “Charvolant” was patented in 1826 and two years later it was demonstrated to King George VI at Ascot racecourse. Even though the buggy had the added advantage of being exempt from road tolls, which were charged per horse, the proliferation of railway bridges and the harnessing of internal combustion and steam meant that more reliable methods of transport rendered the vehicle something of a relic by the turn of the century, and sadly none of these machines survive today. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, though, do have one of Pocock’s patented kites, a reminder of the spark which ignited a young man’s inventive spirit.