From the beginning of time, humans looked to the sky, dreaming about breaking the bonds of gravity and taking flight. Early Chinese inventors created toy helicopters. According to legend, one inventor attached rockets to his chair to go airborne, if only for a few moments.
Leonardo da Vinci produced thousands of pages studying flight, including sketches of his ornithopter from 1485.
In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers flew their hot air balloon with the first living passengers (a duck, a rooster and a sheep) in front of a mass of spectators. Among them were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. From that point forward, balloon flight was the rage in France.
Benjamin Franklin Witnessed The Balloon Rage
A general sense took hold of the masses: if humans could fly they could do anything. Benjamin Franklin was in France as the rage for balloons reached new heights. He noted that everyone was talking about experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars and journeys in the sky.
It was widely reported that Benjamin Franklin was asked of what use were the balloons. He responded, Of what use is a newborn baby?
Wait! Which Way Are We Going?
As high as balloonmania soared, balloon flight still had a major limitation: steerability. Over time, the early balloonists developed new and improved methods of controlling their altitude with reasonable certainty. Still, the early balloons were not truly navigable.
The Eagle Flopped Like A Bad Souffle
Early attempts to improve maneuverability included elongating the shape of the balloon. Others used various mechanisms such as a powered screw or paddles to push it through the air.
Henri Giffard, a brilliant French engineer who invented an injector that was essential to the success of steam-powered engines became fascinated by aeronautics. He worked with Comte de Lennox, a French military officer, on the Eagle. They designed their Eagle airship with giant paddles to row it across the sky.
According to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) The craft was exhibited in London on August 17, 1834. Like a bad soufflé, it failed to rise and the angry mob destroyed it.
Henri Giffard: Steampunk Goes Full Steam Ahead
The timeline of the history of dirigibles and hot-air balloons is long and complex. Like so many inventors, Giffard built on previous innovations and designs in many fields to come to his design.
That said, Giffard built the first true dirigible (from the French dirigeable, meaning steerable.) To jump from balloon to full airship, he needed both a source of propulsion and a means of changing direction.
In 1850, Giffard helped fellow French engineer Jullien build an airship with a propeller driven by clockwork. Later, he added his knowledge of steam power with his patented application of steam in the airship travel.
For all lovers of Steampunk, this was a very big moment.
He built a small, steam engine that weighed 250 pounds. He added a boiler and coke, bringing his mechanism to about 400 pounds, which was still light enough to be lifted by his hydrogen filled balloon.
The airship had a large, rear-facing three-bladed propeller. Although this produced only three 2,200 watts of power (3 horsepower), it was enough to prove that controllable flight was possible.
The airship also had a funnel that pointed downwards and the exhaust steam was mixed with the combustion gasses to prevent sparks.
Henri Giffard Builds And Pilots The First True Dirigible
On September 24, 1852, he piloted his airship seventeen miles from the Hippodrome in Paris to Elancourt, near Trappes. At an average speed of six miles per hour, it took approximately three hours.
The engine was not powerful enough to overcome prevailing winds, so Giffard could not make the return trip. He did, however, make several slow circles in the sky, thereby proving that his ship could be controlled under calm conditions. He was the first person who could make that claim.
For a Very Brief History of Air Ships, check out LightSpeed Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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