Etymological Journeys: What Do Pterodactyls, Helicopters and Confederates Have in Common?

“Pterodactyl” was adopted from the French ptérodactyle, which came from the Latin name for the genus, Pterodactylus, which is formed by the Greek pteron, meaning “wing,” and daktylos, meaning “finger.”

This is an engraving of the 1784 pterodactyl holotype (i.e., the first official named specimen).

Despite the name, it was debated until the 1830s whether pterosaurs used their “fingers” and the membranes between them as wings or as flippers. In fact, they were sometimes classified as “amphibians” alongside other aquatic vertebrates like plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.

The Greek daktylos was also the word for “toe” in addition to “finger,” which explains why it is also the source of the word “date,” as in the fruit. Because they look like toes. Very appetizing.

That prefix also appears as the suffix in another common English word: “helicopter,” only this time as a suffix.

The French predecessor to “helicopter” was hélicoptère, coined—no pun intended—by the numismatist Gustave Ponton d’Amécourt. It’s formed of the Greek helix, meaning “spiral,” and pteron—which, as we know from pterodactyl, means “wing.”

But wait—while modern helicopters do achieve lift through the same physical principles as screws and spirals, their wings are not obviously spiral-shaped. But the earliest attempts at creating helicopters had wings that were more obviously designed to achieve lift through spiral motion, like this steam boiler engine prototype, built by our friend Gustave in 1861.

While Gustave’s primary area of expertise was the history of Merovingian coins, he also dabbled as an inventor with his friend Gabriel de La Landelle, who was otherwise a journalist and novelist.

In fact, author Jules Verne learned about the invention in a booklet published in 1863 by Gustave. It partially inspired Verne to write the 1886 sci-fi novel Robur the Conqueror, also known as The Clipper of the Clouds.

 

In the novel, the mysterious inventor Robur flies a huge, battery-powered, multirotor gyrodyne (real versions of which are called “compound helicopters”) called the Albatross, which achieves lift using vertical airscrews.

But do you know who else built a helicopter with spiral wings? The Confederacy. During the American Civil War. Yep, that’s right.

The photo aboveshows a helicopter invented in 1863 by architectural engineer William C. Powers. It was intended to provide the Confederates with a means for aerial bombing the federal blockading fleet at Mobile, Alabama. As you might already suspect, it did not work.

What an adventure, eh?

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