First in flight — a case for Georgian

Twenty years or so before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, the story goes, a Georgia farmer and inventor named Micajah Clark Dyer took off from a mountaintop near his Blairsville home in an “apparatus for navigating the air.”

No one still alive can say exactly what happened. Which means no one can conclusively testify whether the apparatus Dyer designed — a paddle-wheeled, wing-flapping device attached to a huge balloon — actually may have flown, floated, slid downhill or crashed into a meadow below.

What is known, with certainty, is that Dyer was granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office for inventing a flying machine in 1874. And a patent would not have been granted had engineers — or their 1870s equivalents in what’s now the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — thought he was just another dreamer obsessed with the notion that a guy could fly.

Dyer’s descendants, though, claim the evidence they’ve compiled proves their flyboy forebear was successful, and are working to get him admitted to the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. They also want him recognized as an inventor who had a hand in helping Orville and Wilbur Wright get off the ground.

The ultimate aim, says lead family historian Sylvia Dyer Turnage, 71, is to have him “recognized as the first person to design and fly an airplane.”

A lofty goal for sure. But so far, she has convinced Union County authorities enough that they’ve issued a proclamation asserting that Dyer “flew over a meadow on his farm” from Rattlesnake Mountain near Blairsville.

The Georgia Legislature in 2006 passed a resolution making the same claim, dedicating a portion of Ga. 180 as the Micajah Clark Dyer Parkway and erecting signs honoring him. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the resolution, and posed for photos with the Dyer clan.

More than folklore

Turnage is a great-great-granddaughter of Dyer. She has authored and self-published a book about his alleged feat, her argument buttressed by Dyer’s 136-year-old patent file: No. 154,654, granted Sept. 1, 1874.

Posted on the patent office website, the file includes Dyer’s drawings and sworn statements about his invention, detailing how to build it and why he thought it would work.

Turnage says it’s more than mere folklore that Dyer flew the contraption in the late 1870s or early 1880s. Though no witnesses are alive who saw him fly, “at least three persons” testified to it, she says. And those witnesses passed along what they saw to relatives.

Sue Collins, 86, of Blairsville, says she grew up hearing about the flying machine, and that her grandmother was a witness to the flight.

“My mother’s mother said she saw it just sailing down the hill,” Collins says. “I heard the stories from the time I was a little girl. I believe it’s true.”

To support the old stories, Turnage enlisted relatives to search through lists of millions of patents. At first, they couldn’t find a thing, not in the Library of Congress, not in the National Archives, not even in the U.S. Patent Office.

But then Google came to the rescue, and the patent was tracked down by Steven and Joey Dyer, great-great-great-grandsons of the aviator.

Turnage says Dyer’s family fell on hard times and sold the patent to an Atlanta family, which sold it to the Wright Brothers, who incorporated his ideas into their design.

‘Navigable balloon’

It all sounds farfetched, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the notion, says Tom D. Crouch, long-time senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

“His is essentially a navigable balloon,” Crouch says. “People knew about balloons so people were trying to invent ways to guide them and keep them in the air.”

Which is exactly what Dyer’s patent says his did, or would do.

Aviation historian Henry Holden, author of dozens of books on early flight, says if Dyer’s patent really did find its way to the Wright brothers, evidence should exist somewhere, and Turnage would “have a significant story.” But unless all patents the Wrights used have been computerized, it’ll be hard to prove, he says.

The Wright brothers were involved “in all sorts of litigation” about patents, and it’s possible, Holden says, that they got their hands on the Dyer drawings.

“The Wright brothers learned a lot from people before them,” he says.

Just this past week, however, it was reported that the Wrights’ original patent file has been lost since 1980.

Crouch says “people like Dyer are absolutely fascinating” because they simply incorporated principles that they knew worked, like paddle wheels.

Nicole Bissette, director of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in Warner Robins, says proof that Dyer obtained a patent for his machine should “be enough for induction because it would show he contributed to aviation. That’s a great thing.”

At the very least, Crouch says, the patent shows Dyer was regarded seriously by federal officials, along with dozens of others who obtained flying machine patents, going back to the first one recorded by the Patent Office, in 1799, for a “vertical aerial coach.”

Skeptical reports

Whatever the truth, Dyer himself apparently made an attempt to get the word out. In 1875, a year after obtaining his patent, a Gainesville newspaper carried a story about Dyer’s device, as did the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Macon Telegraph and Messenger.

The articles described his “apparatus” as ingenious, but regarded it with a tone of skepticism, much as publications today might react to a UFO sighting.

“The body of the machine in shape resembles that of an eagle and is intended to be propelled by different kinds of devices, wings and paddle-wheels, both to be simultaneously operated through the instrumentality of mechanism connected with the driving power,” reported the Gainesville newspaper, the Eagle.

The machine’s wings move up and down, all the papers reported. It was modeled after an eagle and “constructed to imitate” one.

The Macon paper’s story added sarcastically that Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald Greene, superintendent of the state lunatic asylum at Milledgeville, “may just as well get a room ready for brother Dyer,” whom it said would either “break his neck during his first soar” or “certainly light at Milledgeville.”

Building her case

Neither fate apparently befell Dyer, who died in 1891. Now Sylvia Turnage says she is determined to somehow prove that the first manned flight in a self-propelled plane took place in Georgia, not North Carolina.

“To get a patent he wouldn’t have had to fly it,” said Elizabeth Dougherty of the patent office’s legal administration. But examiners with “technical expertise,” she added, would have had to believe Dyer’s machine might work.

So far, a model of the invention has been placed in the Union County Historical Society’s Museum in Blairsville, Ga. 180 East was named the Micajah Clark Dyer Parkway in July 2006, and Turnage wrote and self-published “Georgia’s Pioneer Aviator: Micajah Clark Dyer” in December.

She wants to see replicas of the craft displayed in the Smithsonian, the Georgia Aviation Hall of Game, the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center in Idaho and the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

She also dreams of seeing her ancestor’s air machine fly some day. She’s thrown out a challenge to Georgia Tech engineers to use the patent plans Dyer filed all those years ago to build his invention.

More online

Learn more about the efforts of pioneer aviator Micajah Clark Dyer’s descendants at micajahclarkdyer.blogspot .com. See the file on his patented flying machine plans at; search for patent No. 154,654.