Concorde's humble origins are unveiled

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Not all paper planes are consigned to a dustbin within minutes of being created. A batch unveiled at a former government laboratory in Farnborough served a far higher purpose, inspiring the design of the world's most successful commercial supersonic aircraft – Concorde.

These original models, believed to be from the late 1950s and available to public eyes for the first time, represent the first attempts by scientists to conceive a workable design for what became one of the only two supersonic passenger airlines ever made. They were released on the 34th anniversary of Concorde's first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic.

Made from papier mache and sticky tape, the designs were the work of W E Gray, an English scientist. He created them for trials in a 24ft wind tunnel at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, Hampshire. Each model would have been suspended in mid-air as gusts of wind were blasted through the tunnel. Those that remained most stable were taken forward for further trials and converted into wooden and then metal versions.

"They represent a crucial stage in the plane's development," said Peter Turvey, senior curator at the Science Museum. "The models themselves were probably made by fairly skilled craftsmen who would have tested all sorts of shapes – including things that looked nothing like the final Concorde.

"This was real boffin stuff. It was a case of shouting, 'I have an idea' and then giving it a go. Some of Gray's team even tried out their paper planes in the open air, throwing them by hand."

First flown in 1969, Concorde was the product of a 1962 Anglo-French treaty. The Soviet Union was the first to launch a supersonic aircraft, but its Tupolev TU-144 was a commercial failure. The unveiling was part of the promotion for the Science Museum's "Inspire" project.