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Juan de la Cierva y Codorniú: Engineer and Inventor

On 15 January 2019, HM King Felipe VI presided over the inauguration of the Murcia Region International Airport, also known as Corvera Airport. However, the event had been marked by controversy since July 2017, when it was approved in the Regional Assembly of Murcia that the site would be named after Juan de la Cierva.

Juan de la Cierva poses with his Autogiro.

Juan de la Cierva poses with his Autogiro.

T hat decision inaugurated a political battle that has reached its peak in early June this year when, from the Government and through the Ministry of Transport, it was decided not to authorise the name of the inventor of the gyroplane for the airport. Nowadays, the confrontations caused by the Law of Historical Memory have caused the resurgence of figures who had been submerged in relative lethargy for the public. Such is the case of Juan de la Cierva, one of the most brilliant Spanish minds of the 20th century in science and aeronautics.

Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu was born on 21 September 1895 in Murcia, the first son of Juan de la Cierva y Peñafiel and María Codorníu Bosch. His father, the Murcian lawyer Cierva y Peñafiel, was a figure who gained political notoriety during the Restoration. In the early stages of his political career, he came to sympathise with republicanism, but after the experience of the Revolution of 1868 and the First Republic, he joined Antonio Cánovas del Castillo’s Liberal-Conservative Party. When his first-born son was born, Cierva y Peñafiel was managing his own law firm and was a councillor in Murcia. He became mayor of the city in 1895 and, in 1896, he was elected deputy to the Cortes for the district of Mula and, later, appointed director-general of the Registries and Notaries and civil governor of Madrid. For more than twenty years, he held important ministerial posts such as Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts, Minister of War on two occasions, Minister of Public Works, Minister of Finance and Minister of the Interior.

Due to Cierva y Peñafiel’s political obligations, Juanito, as he was called by family and friends, moved with his parents and brother Ricardo to Madrid in December 1904, at the age of nine. The family residence was at number 30 Alfonso XII street. From 1912 onwards, the Nobel Prize winner for Medicine Santiago Ramón y Cajal also lived at number 64 Alfonso XII Street, another of the personalities that has been censured, this last month of June.

From a very early age, Juan de la Cierva’s curiosity for aviation was notorious. He read with enthusiasm all the writings he could on the latest developments in aeronautics and inventors1. It was only a short time since the Wright brothers had succeeded in flying a motor aeroplane in December 1903, and the boy soon knew what he was going to devote his life to.

As for his education, both Juan de la Cierva and his brother Ricardo attended the first secondary school in Murcia. Once in Madrid, he attended the Instituto de San Isidro, where he completed his secondary studies between 1908 and 1911, although he was also connected with the Colegio del Pilar, of which he is considered one of the first pupils, together with Ricardo.

Admiration for aviation was a factor shared by the Cierva brothers and their closest group of friends, among whom were the Barcala brothers and Tomás Martín-Barbadillo. It would be with the Barcala brothers that he would witness with amazement the exhibition that the French pilot Jules Mamet carried out in March 1910 in the old velodrome located at that time in Ciudad Lineal. Another of the aerial spectacles he saw was the arrival of the winner of the Paris-Madrid race, Jules Vedrines, in Getafe in 1911.

During these years, the Cierva brothers, together with the Barcala brothers and Pablo Díaz, whose family was involved in carpentry, founded the BCD company and built a manned glider that they would fly at the Castellana racetrack. It ended up in a bad state, after two accidents involving Ricardo and Pablo Díaz.

The inventor of the gyroplane and engineer Juan de la Cierva at the Lasarte airfield.Fondo Marín-Kutxa Fototeka.

The inventor of the gyroplane and engineer Juan de la Cierva at the Lasarte airfield.Fondo Marín-Kutxa Fototeka.

When Juan de la Cierva finished his secondary school studies, he considered various options for his university education. Firstly, the family thought that he should study law like his father, a lawyer by profession, or his grandfather, a notary. The option that most convinced him personally was Exact Sciences, although his mother, for reasons of prestige, ended up convincing him to study Civil Engineering. He did not enter the Engineering School until 1913, so during those years he alternated his preparation for university studies with the construction of other aeroplanes together with his colleagues from the BCD. One of his most notable works was the BCD-1 “Crab”, a biplane with the engine provided by the French pilot Mamet himself, who was also in charge of taking the controls of the aircraft. This was probably the first Spanish aircraft to fly, although the fragility of the aeroplane meant that it did not stay in the air for long. Juan de la Cierva had achieved one of his first feats when he was only 16 years old. His next project, the BC-2, a two-seater monoplane, this time piloted by Jean Mauvais, managed to fly again, but then crashed and was destroyed. It was Cierva’s last project before starting his university studies2.

He entered the Civil Engineering School in 1913 and finished in 1919, and although he never became a professional engineer, during his studies he already showed that his gifts as a scientist were remarkable. During these years, he experienced both successes and failures. He met his future wife, María Luisa Gómez-Acebo, but the first large aircraft he designed for the army, a bombing plane with a large trimotor biplane known as the C3, broke down on its second flight. The experience of the C3 would mark Cierva’s personality and would prompt him to undertake his aeronautical activity independently.

The year 1919 was also marked by the start of his brief political career. In the summer of that year he was elected deputy to the Cortes for Murcia, a post he would hold until 1923 when the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera was established. He did not stand out as a member of parliament, despite his father’s efforts, due to his lack of interest in politics. In December 1919 he also married María Luisa in the church of the Asilo del Corazón de Jesús in Madrid.

SE-AFI Cierva C.30 gyroplane from the aviodome (now Aviodrome) on display at Hilversum on 20 May 1984. Joost J. Bakker

SE-AFI Cierva C.30 gyroplane from the aviodome (now Aviodrome) on display at Hilversum on 20 May 1984. Joost J. Bakker

After the failure of the C3 in 1920, when he was 25 years old, he conceived and developed what would be one of his great contributions to aviation: the autogyro. This consisted of applying rotating blades to the apparatus that remained in a constant autorotation movement and eliminated the danger of stalling when the aircraft slowed down. On 1 July 1920, he presented the first patent for the gyroplane and in October of that year he had already built the C-1 in Pablo Díaz’s workshop, which was tested in Getafe by Captain Felipe Gómez Acebo, but failed to fly. His next prototype, the C-3, piloted by Lieutenant José Rodríguez y Díaz de Lecea, managed to take off successfully in 1921, but was unable to maintain correct flight, constantly tilting to the right. This was followed by the C-2, which was again a failure despite the help of military aviator Alejandro Gómez Spencer. Finally, after making the appropriate corrections, it was the C-4 model that managed to fly for more than 3 minutes at a stable altitude of 25 metres in January 1923. The invention brought Juan de la Cierva worldwide fame, and thanks to him, Military Aviation began to finance his inventions3.

Juan de la Cierva’s great scientific legacy will always be the gyroplane, considered to be the precursor of modern helicopters.

Cierva’s achievements were growing and in 1924, he even performed exhibitions with the C-6 in front of H.M. King Alfonso XIII and made a successful flight between Cuatro Vientos and Getafe. In October 1925 he presented a new model at Farnborough, which attracted the attention of some British investors. This is how Cierva founded The Cierva Autogiro Company Ltd. in Great Britain, thanks to which he was able to continue with his projects. He soon began to receive orders for the construction of gyroplanes and built the C-7 and C-12 for the Military Air Force. He achieved even more prestige with the exhibitions of the gyroplane in 1926 in Villacourbay (France) and, above all, after successfully crossing the English Channel in 1928 with a C-8 Mark II, piloted by the inventor himself. The exploits of the gyroplane reached the United States, and millionaire and aviation enthusiast Harold Pitcairn teamed up with Cierva in 1929 to create the Pitcairn Cierva Autogiro Company4.

Pitcairn PCA-2 gyroplane, built in the United States under licence from Juan de la Cierva.

Pitcairn PCA-2 gyroplane, built in the United States under licence from Juan de la Cierva.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 did not significantly affect Juan de la Cierva, who continued to promote the gyroplane in other European countries. He toured several cities, Hannover, Amsterdam, Cologne, London, Paris and Berlin and, in 1930, he flew from England to Spain aboard the C-19 Mark II, being enthusiastically received in Murcia. In November of that year, the Spanish inventor showed his gyroplane in New York, which caused great admiration among the American public.

In the following years, Cierva continued to perfect his gyroplane, although he always remained attentive to the convulsive Spanish situation, which led him to be received in 1931 by Alfonso XIII, shortly before the monarch left his country. His scientific efforts, meanwhile, were beginning to be rewarded with various distinctions. In 1932 he was awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Gold Medal in the United States, the Air Gold Medal of the International Aeronautical Federation, based in Paris, and the British Royal Aeronautical Society awarded him the Silver Medal. In 1934, the President of the Republic, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, and the head of the Government, Alejandro Lerroux, decorated Cierva with the Band of Knight of the Order of the Republic, despite the fact that he had always shown his monarchist sympathies. At that time, the Republic also decided to acquire six C-30 units, the latest model of gyroplane created by Cierva. In June 1936, he flew to Great Britain in his gyroplane with Alfonso XIII to show him the progress of his latest versions.

Juan de la Cierva in Lasarte airfield, Spain. Pascual Marín. Gure Guipuzkoa

Juan de la Cierva in Lasarte airfield, Spain. Pascual Marín. Gure Guipuzkoa

The current controversy is related to Cierva’s activity during 1936 and his role in the uprising of 18 July. On this point, there is a notorious bibliographical and documentary vacuum, so that the main source of information on Cierva’s role is the testimonies and biographies written by personalities connected with him. The then ABC correspondent in London, Luis Bolín, wrote in “España. Los años vitales” about the actions of the monarchist groups in London, including the Duke of Alba and Juan de la Cierva. He tells how he received a call from Biarritz from Juan Ignacio Luca de Tena to charter a plane in London so that he could travel from the Canary Islands to Morocco. In order to carry out this task, Bolín consulted Cierva and they ended up renting a seven-seater De Havilland Dragon Rapide, with registration number G-ACYR and two Gipsy Wright engines from Olley Air Service5.

The plane was to carry Bolin, retired Major Hugh Pollard, his daughter Diana and another woman named Dorothy, to pretend it was a leisure trip. The pilot would be Captain Cecil W. H. Bebb and the crew would include a telegrapher and a radio operator6 . However, we have no source other than these memoirs to elucidate Cierva’s involvement, and it cannot even be established to what extent he was aware of the operation and the role that the Dragon Rapide was to play.

Once the war began, Cierva showed his willingness to support the Nationalist side when called upon to do so by his monarchist co-religionists. For example, he went to Rome to reinforce a mission for the purchase of aircraft, although the sources do not allow us to determine to what extent he was able to participate in the operations, since it was not as a commissioner for a political movement but rather as a technical adviser for the acquisition of air material.7 Cierva also participated in a sort of informal board or committee of royalists in London to manage the sending of money and supplies to the Nationalist side, which also included the Duke of Alba, the Marquis of Portago, the Marquis of Mora and Alfonso de Olano. The headquarters of this Junta was in the Hotel Dorchester and its main mission was to buy aeroplanes, for which it ended up competing with the envoys of the government of the Republic. According to Enrique Moradiellos in Neutralidad benévola (Benevolent Neutrality), the Junta acquired 17 aircraft and war material in other European capitals. Of Cierva’s activity in those months, a letter with Mola concerning an order for material in Germany in September is preserved. It mentions purchases of ammunition, coal, financing of aeronautical material and a series of payments to the factories that supplied all these products and services8.

La Cierva C-19 MK-4P gyroplane. <a href=

Like the other Spanish monarchists, Cierva took a position in favour of the Nationalists in the hope that their victory would oust the Popular Front from power and pave the way for a future restoration of the Monarchy. But he would not see the end of the war, as he died on 9 December in a plane crash at Croydon airport, while onboard a Douglas DC-2 of the KLM airline, which was taking off from London to Amsterdam. The inventor’s remains were not laid to rest in Madrid until 1946.

Beyond his indirect collaboration in the leasing of the Dragon Rapide, it cannot be proven that Cierva played a major role in the conspiracy leading up to the July 1936 uprising. Once the conflict began, he aligned himself with the Nationalists with a prudence imposed by the presence of his father and brother in Republican Madrid. In fact, Ricardo was arrested at Barajas when he tried to flee to France. He was imprisoned and murdered in Paracuellos del Jarama on 7 November. Juan de la Cierva y Peñafiel died on 11 January 1938 at the Norwegian Legation in Madrid, seriously ill and unaware of the death of his two sons.

Monument in honour of Juan de la Cierva y Codorniu in Murcia, Spain, his hometown.

Monument in honour of Juan de la Cierva y Codorniu in Murcia, Spain, his hometown.

Juan de la Cierva’s great scientific legacy will always be the gyroplane, considered the precursor of modern helicopters. Until his death, around 400 were built and distributed all over the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, gyroplanes made a comeback and small units were sold. Thomas Alva Edison, the great American inventor, said of the gyroplane that it was the most important advance in world aeronautics since the Wright Brothers’ prototype. The aviation legend Charles E. Lindbergh in turn recalled that Cierva had advanced that science by fifty years. Along w Save ith Isaac Peral and his submarine, Juan de la Cierva is the most important contemporary inventor that Spain has given to the world. His legacy is so great that any discussion of aspects of his biography that have nothing to do with it, if they can be established with certainty and which in any case can never be separated from the difficult circumstances in which he lived, is utterly insignificant. For this reason, Juan de la Cierva and his work is and should be, the common heritage of Spain and of the Spanish people, among whom he stood out in an outstanding way. That is why he undoubtedly deserves a place of honour in the history of our science, unavailable to any kind of presentist and partisan assessment that seeks to erase the memory of his immense contribution to humanity. And although his presence in the public space is already notable, there can be no more appropriate place to bear his name than the airport of the city where he was born.

Notes

  1. Royal Academy of Hi
    Caricature in the newspaper <i>El Imparcial</i>.

    Caricature in the newspaper El Imparcial.

    story. Juan de la Cierva and Codorníu. Available at http://dbe.rah.es/biografias/12150/juan-de-la-cierva-y-codorniu

  2. Royal Academy of History. Juan de la Cierva and Codorníu. Available at http://dbe.rah.es/biografias/12150/juan-de-la-cierva-y-codorniu
  3. Royal Academy of History. Juan de la Cierva and Codorníu. Available at http://dbe.rah.es/biografias/12150/juan-de-la-cierva-y-codorniu
  4. Cierva y de Hoces, Ricardo de la (1988). Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, inventor of the autogyro (1895-1936). Fundación Juan March, p. 11.
  5. Luca de Tena, Torcuato (1991). Papeles para la pequeña y la gran historia: memorias de mi padre y mías. Barcelona: Planeta, p. 208.
  6. Bolín, Luis (1967). España: los años vitales. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, p. 39.
  7. Sainz-Rodríguez, Pedro (1978). Testimonio y recuerdos. Barcelona: Planeta, p. 109.
  8. Moradiellos, Enrique (1990). Neutralidad benévola. Oviedo: Pentalfa, pp. 190 and 206-207.

Bibliography

  • Bolín, Luis (1967). España: los años vitales. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe.
  • Cierva y de Hoces, Ricardo de la (1988). Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, inventor of the autogiro (1895-1936). Juan March Foundation.
  • Luca de Tena, Torcuato (1991). Papeles para la pequeña y la gran historia: memorias de mi padre y mías. Barcelona: Planeta.
  • Royal Academy of History. Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu. Available at http://dbe.rah.es/biografias/12150/juan-de-la-cierva-y-codorniu
  • Sainz-Rodríguez, Pedro (1978). Testimonio y recuerdos. Barcelona: Planeta.
  • Moradiellos, Enrique (1990). Neutralidad benévola (Benevolent neutrality). Oviedo: Pentalfa.

Sources

This post was translated from:

(2021) ‘Ingeniero e inventor’, Fundación Disenso, 29 June. Available at: https://fundaciondisenso.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/JUAN-DE-LA-CIERVA-20210629.pdf (Accessed: 20 July 2021).

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2021-07-20T12:05:16+00:00

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