This series has eight easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Origins of Powered Flight.
Before the Wright Brothers’ famous flight pioneers developed the technology to “conquer the air”. Horne (one of the authors) wrote, “When future generations, looking back upon ours, attempt to set a date for the actual “Conquest of the Air,” the first demonstrated proof that the many problems were solved, and that man could not only rise in the air as does a balloon, but could also guide his course at will athwart the winds, probably the date selected will be that here given, 1896. In that year Professor Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, after a long series of scientifically conducted experiments, established the practical principles which underlie the construction of our present “heavier-than-air ” flying-machines; and he built a model which, while too small to carry a man, made repeated flights sustaining and balancing itself aloft by its own power.”
This series tells the story of the earliest pioneers of the air up to the Wrights’ final breakthrough.
The selections are from:
- Great Events by Famous Historians by Charles F. Horne published in 1914.
- Annual Report of Smithsonian Institution by Samuel Langley published in 1897.
- a note from Alexander Graham Bell.
For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Summary of daily installments:
|Charles F. Horne’s installments:||4 and 1|
|Samuel Langley’s installments:||2.5|
|Alexander Graham Bell’s installments:||0.5|
We begin with Charles F. Horne.
Dr. Bell, who himself stands among the foremost of scientific experimenters in many fields, said recently in an address before the Washington Academy of Sciences, ” In 1896, the sight of Langley’s steam aerodrome circling in the sky, convinced me that the age of the flying machine was at hand.”* The years since passed have proven that Dr. Bell’s prophetic vision was correct, the age of flying has begun.
[* From “Aerial Locomotion,” an address delivered December 13th, 1906.]
From what vague beginnings has this last, this most marvelous of man’s scientific achievements, been evolved? And what have been the chief difficulties which so long thwarted genius’ utmost efforts toward this victory? Ancient legend is full of tales of men who flew. Earliest of all stands the Greek myth of Daedalus who was said to have escaped from prison by building himself wings, wherewith he flew across the Aegean Sea. His son Icarus accompanied him; but Icarus flew so high that the sun’s heat melted the wax wherewith his wings were fastened on, and he fell to his death in the sea. Icarus was thus the earliest reputed martyr to the cause of flight.
Of more believable tone is a record in the French chronicle of Le Ministre. Indeed, so convincing are this ancient chronicler’s simple, circumstantial words, that one wonders what keen discoveries had in truth been made by those “know ing” men of Mount Pilatus, only to be forgotten by their descendants. Says Le Ministre: “Toward the close of the reign of Charlemagne, some persons dwelling near Mount Pilatus in Switzerland, knowing by what means pretended magicians traveled through the skies, made the experiment. They compelled some poor persons to go up in their machine. It descended in our city of Lyons, and the occupants were at once thrown into prison. The people demanded that they be executed as sorcerers, and the judges condemned them to be burned; but Bishop Agobard, questioning them, though he could not believe their tale of traveling through the air, believed in their innocence and released them from prison.” From Pilatus to Lyons is a distance of some hundred miles, so that if we believe in this machine at all, it must have been a species of balloon of considerable size and lifting power, though unreliable mechanism.
Earlier legends had been of wings, that is, of mechanical flight in imitation of the birds. The first definite suggestion of a balloon, a “lighter than air” contrivance, which has been preserved for us, occurs in the works of Roger Bacon, the memorable philosopher of the thirteenth century. Bacon suggests the possibility of constructing a hollow metal globe, of filling it with heated air, or with the ether or lighter air which he conceives as lying above our atmosphere, and of then launching this globe from some high mountain to float upon the top or surface of our air as ships float upon the surface of the water. Count Zeppelin’s aluminum airship is to-day the realization of Bacon’s dream; but in the thirteenth century the lack of scientific knowledge and mechanical skill made it wholly impossible to reduce to practice such vague theories.
We may thus trace the origin of the two great contrasting ideas of aerial navigation. The “lighter than air” idea, the principle of the balloon, of caging some ethereal gas within an envelope so that the envelope, with anything attached to it, may rise and keep afloat by its own buoyancy, had definite origin only in the comparatively recent centuries with Roger Bacon. The “heavier than air” idea of working one’s way upward by forceful effort, by the constant expenditure of energy, this is as old as history. It must indeed have found birth in man’s active mind from his first watching and envying of the freedom of the birds. Yet Bacon’s idea was the earlier of the two to develop into actual results. Several later philosophers discussed the possibility of some such device as he had suggested. But until the latter half of the eighteenth century no practical experiments toward the accomplishment of this were made public, unless indeed that was a balloon which the Portuguese friar, Bartholomew De Guzman, claimed to have invented. In 1709 De Guzman appealed to the King of Portugal for a grant, giving him what would be now called patent rights in a machine he said he had made, which would carry passengers through the air, sailing swiftly in the direction he wished. There is still in existence a queer old German pamphlet proclaiming De Guzman’s arrival in his “flying ship” at Vienna; but it is more than doubtful if this is more than a flight of fancy, for, unfortunately, the Inquisition took exception to the inventor’s plans. The Church declared it sinful for men to attempt to rise to heaven through the air. De Guzman argued; he protested. Then the officers of the Inquisition seized him, and he disappeared. What his ma chine really was, or whether indeed it was ever actually completed and rose above the earth, we cannot be sure.
There are other rumors of balloons and of successful flights, which have survived to us in scattered notices, but nothing definite, nothing trustworthy, had been done until in 1774 the English scientist Priestley wrote his “Experiments and Observations on the Different Branches of Air,” and the Montgolfier brothers studied his work in southern France. Mme. Montgolfier spread her silk petticoat to dry before the fire; M. Montgolfier watched it swell with the hot air, and he built the huge balloon whose ascent in 1783 astounded France and drew the attention of the world. After several of the Montgolfier balloons had been sent up without passengers, it was resolved to raise a man aloft, and the French king ordered that two criminals be placed in the car of the balloon. To the honor of the human race, however, let it be recorded that this project roused immediate protest, and volunteer after volunteer came forward for the dangerous trial, eager to make the ascent one of glory, not of shame. A young nobleman named Pilatre De Rozier was the first to offer, and he it was who on October 15, 1783, was the first of men who is positively known to have risen above earth and floated in the blue of heaven.
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