Later experimenters were less successful, nor was it until after ballooning had become a popular sport that the most effective mechanism for arresting a fall, the parachute, was discovered.
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.
But while man may not thus raise himself aloft, he early — discovered that wings will serve to delay the rapidity and force of his fall from a height; and thus a semblance of flying may be attained. The first clearly authenticated flight of this restricted character was that of a French tight-rope walker, who in 1660, after several smaller flights, attempted to exhibit his skill before Louis XIV and his entire court. Upheld by artificial wings, the performer leaped from the high terrace of St. Germain; but, his apparatus failing to work properly, he fell heavily and was badly injured. At a later date several Frenchmen are known to have attempted similar flights, but all ended in disaster, except those of Besnier, a blacksmith, who in 1678 contrived a fairly successful apparatus. Working this with both arms and legs, and exerting himself violently, he managed so far to delay his fall, that he several times leaped from heights of perhaps forty or fifty feet and landed in safety a considerable distance away.
Later experimenters were less successful, nor was it until after ballooning had become a popular sport that the most effective mechanism for arresting a fall, the parachute, was discovered. The sustaining force of an umbrella must presumably have been noted before; but it was first daringly applied to aeronautics by M. Garnerin, an enthusiastic citizen of the newly established French Republic. Garnerin having been captured in battle by the Austrians was kept prisoner for years. Ever dreaming of escape, he planned the parachute. Returning to Paris in 1797, he promptly, and with startling boldness, risked his life upon the test of his theories. Ascending in a balloon to a height of above a mile, he let himself fall, clinging to a parachute. Fortunately for him the apparatus worked successfully. He descended to safety and glory amid the tumult of an astounded and wildly excited multitude.
Garnerin made several successful descents with his parachute, dropping once from a height of ten thousand feet. But no other man of his day seems to have ventured to imitate his terrifying feat; and when in 1837 the English aeronaut, Cocking, attempted to descend with a parachute, it broke, and Cocking was literally dashed to pieces. Since his day the arts of managing the parachute and of building it with proper strength have been carefully studied, so that a descent today presents little peril to the practiced performer.
Among all the machines and performances so far described, much noise as many of them made in their day, not one had touched upon what we now know to be the true art of flight. This art only began to be recognized and experimented upon about the middle of the nineteenth century. The flight of birds had been previously misunderstood. It does indeed consist in part of muscular effort, the downward beat of the wings upon the underlying air; but it consists far more of what we now call soaring. The principle underlying it is this. If a bird propels itself through the air, not in a perpendicular, but in a horizontal direction, with its outstretched wings tipped upward at just a slight angle, then the air rushing beneath these slanting wings uplifts them. Thus the bird is raised aloft by the pressure of the air, while its own strength is needed only for its forward flight. If, shifting the angle of its wings, the bird slants them slightly downward, the air pressure then causes it to descend like a boy on a coasting sled, with ever increasing velocity, until the bird’s speed is so great that when it again cants its wings upward, it rises absolutely without effort and to a height almost as great as it descended from. Thence a few efforts of the wings may propel the soaring spirit higher still.
Closer observations of the flight of birds began to reveal this secret of their almost effortless sailing. The problem of applying the method to man’s mechanical flight was not so easily solved. No horizontal driving force of sufficient power was known, until the steam engine had been invented. The first “aeroplane,” that is, the first machine which, instead of the flapping wings of earlier inventions, presented to the air the expanded surface of a stiff plane pointing slightly upward, while the propelling force drove the machine horizontally, the first of these “aeroplanes” was devised by Henson, an English inventor, in 1842. To start his machine he built a slanting roadway, down which the aeroplane rolled on wheels, as the bird slopes through the air. As the propelling power, he used a steam engine. The engines of his day were, however, much too heavy for aerial use; and his machine appears never to have lifted itself above the ground.
The next man to make progress in this, the true line of mechanical flight, was Le Bris, a French sea-captain. Le Bris, having observed the soaring flight of the albatross floating for days above the sea, became convinced that only the initial impulse was needed to start the flight. After studying his plans for some time, he built about 1856 an imitation albatross with fixed expanded wings, measuring fifty feet over all. Seating himself in its body or car, he had the machine placed upon a cart, which was then drawn rapidly forward by a trot ting horse, into the face of the wind. The machine rose successfully on its slanting wings to a height of over two hundred feet, carrying with it not only Le Bris, but also the driver of the cart, who had accidentally become entangled in a trailing rope. Indeed the unlucky driver’s weight served as a drag to balance the machine. Le Bris descended with smoothness and liberated his unintended prisoner, but without this balancing drag was unable to rise again. In a later attempt, the bold inventor soared aloft successfully, but a sudden cu rent of air tipped his aeroplane; the slanted wings lost their precarious hold upon the atmosphere, and the machine fell and was smashed. Le Bris was fortunate enough to escape with a broken leg. He had at least the glory of being the first man who had ever ascended from earth’s surface in a “heavier than air” machine.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history