We turn back, therefore, to man’s first fancy, the imitation of the birds, the heavier than air machine, sustained by the expenditure of energy from within itself.
Continuing The First Airplanes,
with a selection from Great Events by Famous Historians by Charles F. Horne published in 1914. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. This selection is presented in 4 and 1 installments for 5 minute reading. each.
Previously in The First Airplanes.
During De Rozier’s first ascent the balloon was held captive by a rope, and was allowed to rise less than a hundred feet; but a month later, he with a companion made a free ascent, the first aerial voyage. Rising some two hundred feet above the Paris roofs, they drifted across the city and after a trip occupying twenty minutes, alighted safely in an open field.
The fascination of ballooning seized at once upon the world. M. Charles, a noted French scientist, substituted hydrogen for heated air within the gas bag, arranged a valve and string so that he could let out the gas at will; and in a balloon thus very similar to those of the present day, he made a most memorable ascent from Paris on December 1, 1783. At first M. Charles was attended by a comrade, with whom he sailed for thirty miles over the suburbs of Paris at a height of two thousand feet. Then, after descending in safety, M. Charles rose again, this time alone. His hydrogen balloon sprang rapidly to a height of almost two miles, while the scientist calmly noted the rapidly increasing cold, the pain within his head from the sudden rarefaction of the air, and the other difficulties with which later balloonists have become familiar. Then he returned to earth in safety.
That same year American experimenters in Philadelphia fastened about fifty small hydrogen balloons together, attaching them to a car in which James Wilcox made a brief free voyage on November 28th. Within the next year numerous ascents were made; and professional aeronauts turned the spectacles into a successful business. Blanchard, a Frenchman, drifted across the Channel from England in 1785. The same year De Rozier, the earliest hero of ballooning, became also its first martyr. He employed two bags, one of hydrogen and one of hot air, in making an ascent. His balloon caught fire at a considerable height, and the car fell, hurling him and a companion to sudden inevitable death.
The disaster caused a temporary chill to Europe’s ballooning enthusiasm; but courage soon revived, and men turned their attention eagerly to the next problem in aeronautics, the guiding of the balloon. In this they were long unsuccessful. Benjamin Franklin, who was in France at the time of the earliest ascents and had watched them with keenest interest, pointed out at once the great difficulty which prevented the balloon from being much beyond a toy. In a letter he wrote : “These machines must always be subject to be driven by the winds.” Though he adds hopefully: “Perhaps Mechanic Art may find easy means to give them progressive Motion in a Calm, and to slant them a little in the Wind.”
For an entire century Mechanic Art managed to do nothing more; the balloon remained a mere bag driven at the mercy of the winds. Cigar-shaped balloons were constructed and some feeble efforts made to drive these by hand propellers. Steam engines, with their accompanying fire close to the in flammable gas bag, seemed too dangerous for use, though some efforts were made with them, notably by the Frenchman, Giffard, in 1852. Then in 1883, exactly a century after the Montgolfiers, Tissandier, a French engineer, applied an electric motor to the first feebly successful Dirigible Balloon.
Since 1883 these huge, cigar-shaped “dirigibles” have been improved considerably. They have been divided into compartments, like a modem ocean steamer, so that a leak need empty only one compartment and not precipitate the entire vehicle to destruction. Gasoline motors have been invented, lighter yet stronger and more powerful than the electric ones. Most important of all, perhaps, has been the device of Count Zeppelin in substituting for the silk envelope a metal one, such as Bacon had first conceived, but such as had been impractical until the metal aluminum with its marvelous light ness combined with strength, had been brought into use.
Thus the “lighter than air” machine does navigate the air today. Three or four of the Zeppelins have been built, which fly and carry passengers. So do several silk-made dirigibles, belonging to various European governments, notably the. French balloon Republique. This can carry eight men, for five hundred miles at a speed which in calm weather is said to approach thirty miles an hour. Yet the difficulties which even the best of these machines must always encounter combine with their enormous cost to make them of little practical value, except perchance for destructive purposes in war. In a gale of wind they become once more what they originally were, mere helpless gas bags. The Patrie, built at great expense for the French government in 1906, was, a year later, torn from the hold of an entire company of soldiers by a rising storm and was swept off to destruction somewhere in the northern oceans. A similar accident destroyed one of Count Zeppelin’s completed machines. Indeed his present type of airship is the sixth which with undaunted patience he has built. No man may say what the future will bring forth; but the feeling among scientific men is strong that the “lighter than air” machine shows no promise of being other than an expensive toy, with a few peculiar uses of its own.
We turn back, therefore, to man’s first fancy, the imitation of the birds, the heavier than air machine, sustained by the expenditure of energy from within itself. This idea remained little more than a fancy until very recent years. Man’s muscular power in proportion to his weight is so much less than that of the birds, especially as man in addition to his own weight would have to uplift heavy artificial wings, that flight by mere muscular strength seemed hopeless. Perhaps earlier ages did not realize quite how impossible it was, for we find even so brilliant a genius as Leonardo da Vinci planning the construction of artificial wings. Da Vinci, the foremost painter, architect, and engineer of the opening of the sixteenth century, has left us in his note books collections of sketches for wings, to be attached to the human body, and manipulated by an ingenious system of cogs and levers. At first he seems to have anticipated that man might thus fly by the power of the arms alone. Later sketches represent the apparatus as being worked by the more powerful muscles of the legs and body. The mechanism was skillfully contrived to bring all of a man’s bodily strength into use; but the hopeless disproportion between that strength at its fullest and the aim in view must soon have impressed itself upon Da Vinci’s practical mind. In 1670 an Italian scientist, Borelli, by a series of actual experiments, fully established the enormous power of the wing muscles of birds in comparison with the light weight of their bodies, and thus finally and effectually disposed of any scientific confidence in man’s directly copying Nature’s method of locomotion among the habitants of the air.
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