Major Oscar Theodor Gnosspelius, FRAeS (1878 – 1953)
Oscar Gnosspelius was a pioneer aeronautical engineer, the only person at Windermere to design and fly his own hydro-aeroplane. In July 1910, he was the first person in the world to design and test floats with a ‘step’.
Whilst his father was Swedish, Gnosspelius was born at Liverpool. By profession he was a civil engineer, and had worked in London, Sweden, South America and Africa. From 1909 he lived at Silverholme, Graythwaite, his mother Amelia’s home on the south-west shore of the lake.
This photograph of the replica Waterbird has Silverholme in the background.
Having attended the Blackpool Aviation Meeting in October 1909, Gnosspelius began the task of designing an aeroplane which was capable of flying from water. His motive was that it would be more sensible to use freely available water than expensive land. He was a ‘skilled fitter and turner, who had served his time at a boatbuilder’s yard [Crossfield’s] at Arnside, and no doubt did much of the actual construction himself’. – Britain’s Seaplane Pioneers by M H Goodall, Air Pictorial December 1987.
On 8 August 1910, aviation pioneer Claude Grahame-White, whilst on a visit to a friend, inspected the hydro-aeroplane of Gnosspelius and ‘commended the construction of it, while suggesting a few modifications’. – The Westmorland Gazette, 13 August 1910.
Gnosspelius was collaborating with Edward Wakefield from an early stage and in early August 1910 his hydro-aeroplane was transferred to Wakefield’s hangar at Hill of Oaks. In October 1910, they visited Henri Fabre at Paris, where his hydravion was being exhibited. Fabre had made the world’s first flight from water on 28 March that year.
In July 1910, floats with a ‘step’ were constructed by Borwick & Sons, boat builders of Bowness-on-Windermere, for Gnosspelius from his designs and which he tested at Windermere, just south of Rawlinson Nab – the first floats with a hydroplane step in the world. Gnosspelius started with 2 floats, but at the end of 1910 switched to a single float with 1 step.
The wings were of a Blériot-type. A pyramid pylon above the fuselage supported bracing and warping wires.
Gnosspelius No. 1 had an open latticework fuselage of rectangular cross-section with 6 bays.
Gnosspelius No. 2 had a triangular section fuselage of 12 bays. In April 1912, the fuselage was enclosed by fabric resulting in a great improvement to flying characteristics.
Gnosspelius No. 2 ‘was the first British hydro-aeroplane to employ auxiliary wingtip floats’. – The History of British Aviation 1909-1914 by R D Brett. The design of the wingtip floats was initially streamlined, then box type and finally airbag.
At the end of April 1912, dual ignition was fitted. Starting the engine was then by pressing a button, avoiding the need to swing the propeller by hand.
The Hydroplane Step
Gertrude Bacon, who flew as a passenger at Windermere in 1912, described the step in her book All About Flying as follows: ‘The lower surface of the float, instead of being all of 1 piece, changes or ‘steps’ abruptly to another level. Some floats have 1 step, some more’.
Wakefield obtained UK Patent No. 27,771 for a stepped float, having applied on 11 December 1911. The application was opposed by The British & Colonial Aeroplane Company Ltd (whose aeroplanes were prefixed Bristol), with a statutory declaration by Gnosspelius. It was the view of Arthur Edwards & Co Ltd, Wakefield’s Patent Agents, that Bristol had no standing since there was no evidence to show their interest either as manufacturers or under prior patents. Wakefield, a Barrister, represented himself. At the end of the Hearing, the Judge declared the sealing of a patent and awarded legal costs in Wakefield’s favour, stating that he would give his full decision in a written judgment. Delivered on 18 March 1913, the decision was that, having conducted considerable experiment successfully, Wakefield had combined features in a novel way.
There does not appear to have been any ill-feeling between Gnosspelius and Wakefield; in The Aeroplane magazine of 25 January 1912, Gnosspelius had been described as ‘designer and engineer to [Wakefield’s] the Lakes Flying Company’.
Gnosspelius received instruction in February 1911 by Howard Pixton (later Captain) at the Avro Flying School at Brooklands, where he learned to fly straight and level. – The Aero magazine, 8 February 1911.
Gnosspelius No. 1 was not capable of taking off due to the lack of power from a 20 then a 25 horse power Alvaston engine.
On 25 November 1911, Gnosspelius set out from a boathouse of Borwicks at Bowness Bay in Gnosspelius No. 2 powered by a 50 horse power Clerget engine. He achieved the first take-off from Windermere. However, within a minute, following a gust of wind, control was lost and a wing-tip dug into the water causing the hydro-aeroplane to turn over from back to front. – The Westmorland Gazette, 2 December 1911.
Unaware of Gnosspelius’ accident off Belle Isle, on the morning of 25 November 1911 Herbert Stanley Adams taxied out from Hill of Oaks in Waterbird, commissioned by Wakefield as a landplane from A. V. Roe and Company, took off and alighted. It was the first successful flight off water outside of France and the USA, and the first in the world to successfully use a stepped float. Gnosspelius’ mother wrote a letter to congratulate Wakefield.
The first successful flight was made by Gnosspelius No. 2 on 14 February 1912. ‘The machine thus captures the honour of being the first hydro-monoplane of normal type to fly properly, as well as being the first hydro-monoplane of any type to leave British waters.’ – The Aeroplane magazine, 29 February 1912.
Gnosspelius designed Waterhen (the immediate successor to Waterbird), the Gnosspelius-Trotter, the Lakes Monoplane, the wings for Seabird, the float for the Avro 501 and the float for the Bristol Coanda. Gnosspelius No. 1 and No. 2 were both hydro-monoplanes, whereas Waterbird and Waterhen were hydro-biplanes.
In a move away from the design of initial seaplane floats, as first used by himself and Wakefield, Gnosspelius obtained UK Patent No. 10,801 on 12 February 1914 for a V–shaped construction, which is used on almost every float made today.
Gnosspelius joined the Royal Naval Air Service on 21 August 1914, as a member of the inspection staff at the Admiralty Air Department and then at the Technical Department where he served until the end of the War, becoming a Lieutenant Commander, and later a Major upon formation of the RAF. He was engaged by Short Brothers at Rochester in 1919 to take charge of the Experimental Department. Despite leaving Shorts in 1925, he took part on many of their test flights into the 1930s.
Commodore (later Rear Admiral Sir) Murray Sueter recommended John Lankester Parker, a Windermere instructor, to Oswald Short for the position of a test pilot at Eastchurch. Parker became Chief Test Pilot for Shorts 1918-1945, and in September 1942 test-flew the first Windermere-assembled Sunderland flying boat. Parker took over from Ronald Kemp as Chief Test Pilot, who had flown Waterbird as a landplane at Brooklands in June 1911 and Gnosspelius No. 2 at Windermere in April 1912. Gnosspelius served under Sueter at the Air Department. Gnosspelius designed a Gull aeroplane, which was built by Shorts at Rochester and test-flown by Parker in 1923. Gnosspelius accompanied Parker on the delivery to Saint-Raphaël during 9-10 September 1929 of a Calcutta flying boat ordered for the French Government, when navigation was accomplished by using a Bartholomew’s road map.
Sunderland flying boat production at Windermere
German bombers attacked Rochester in 1940, achieving a direct hit on the Shorts’ works, so it was decided to urgently disperse part of Sunderland flying boat production. In coming to a decision as to where that factory should be located, there was a significant resource to draw upon of experience at Windermere by Gnosspelius, Kemp and Parker. In particular, immediate deep water was needed, with the concrete slipway to extend 75 yards underwater and a site which was not exposed. Gnosspelius was involved on behalf of Shorts in the local negotiations for the factory built at White Cross Bay.
On 14 February 1912, Gnosspelius was elected as a member of the Royal Aero Club and made a Fellow in 1922.
In 1920, a dinner to the Pioneers of British Aviation was held at the Connaught Rooms in London. He was one of the guests, as was Gertrude Bacon.
Gnosspelius also had an interest in motor boats, being a first year member of the Windermere Motor Boat Club which was formed on 24 October 1925. He wrote a chapter entitled ‘Motor-boating’ for the book The Lake Counties by his father-in-law W G Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome dedicated his 1936 book Pigeon Post ‘To Oscar Gnosspelius‘, in which the character Squashy Hat was based upon him. The children of his sister-in-law Dora Altounyan were the inspiration for Ransome’s Swallows.
Engagement to Barbara (Ransome proposed to both Dora and Barbara) was announced in Flight magazine of 18 June 1925 and they married on 15 September 1925 at Hawkshead, when Parker was best man, He then resided at his in-laws’ home of Lanehead, Coniston. He is buried at Coniston cemetery.
– ‘Major Gnosspelius is a singularly ready mind, which refuses to admit we are at the end of discovery in the region of the natural laws on which flight is based.’ – The Old Flying Days by Major C C Turner.