The commercial prosperity of the automobile industry led to the invention of ever lighter yet more powerful motors.
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.
Henson and Le Bris had thus brought into notice the two chief difficulties that confronted the aeroplane, one being the procuring of an engine strong enough to drive the machine swiftly in a horizontal direction, yet light enough to rise with it from the ground, the other being the preservation of the balance of the wings at just the proper angle despite sudden puffs of wind and violent eddies such as one often sees whirling in the dust of the road.
The problem of the engine did not permit of solution until electric and gasoline motors had been invented. But Le Bris had shown that it was sometimes possible to soar without any motor, so from his time onward many men attacked the problem of floating upon artificial wings. Man set himself to learn to ride the air as he has learned to ride the bicycle. Soaring, or as it is more commonly called, gliding, has gradually become a not uncommon form of amusement. Its difficulties are every year better understood, more skillfully encountered. To mention all the men who have experimented with these gliding machines, or all the forms in which the machines have been constructed, would be impossible. The most important results were achieved by Otto Lilienthal, who practiced persistently in Germany from about 1890 to 1896, when he met his death by the fall of his machine, adding one more to the long roll of victims of this dangerous art. Lilienthal’s apparatus consisted of a pair of immovable wings with outstretched balancing tail behind, and feather curling tips worked by a tiny engine in such manner as he thought improved both the speed and the balance of the whole. Usually, however, he managed his apparatus without employing the engine. He himself stood between the wings holding them about breast high. He then ran forward down a steep slope until the lifting power of the air exerted on the under surface of the wings carried him off the ground and he glided forward, often rising to a point higher than his starting place. In this way he made many considerable flights in light winds and grew expert in balancing himself against all the inequalities of the air. He worked scientifically and made many observations, recorded notes, and comments, which have been of much use to later experimenters. His success had attracted the attention of the entire world; and then — there came an awkward puff of wind and he died. In this grimmest of man’s games there is no second chance; a single serious mistake ends life and game together.
Thus the problem of the engine came, after all, to be the first one solved. The commercial prosperity of the automobile industry led to the invention of ever lighter yet more powerful motors. Sir Hiram Maxim, the noted English inventor, built an airship which in 1894 actually lifted itself, including its engine, off the ground. Maxim’s machine was a heavy and ponderous one of very large size, weighing eight thousand pounds. He experimented with it upon wheels set on an iron track, while the machine was held in place and balanced by another iron rail overhead. He at length succeeded in getting such power into his engine that the machine fairly rose free of the lower track; but the moment the great wings were thus called upon to resist the full pressure of both the atmosphere and the machine, they bent, and thus lost their grip upon the air. The machine fell and was smashed. Maxim thereupon abandoned his experiments. He admitted that, while he had established the possibility of lifting an aeroplane, he saw no way of strengthening the huge wings so as to enable them to resist the enormous and uncertain air pressure. Flight, while theoretically possible, seemed practically hopeless.
This, then, was the status of aerial navigation when Professor Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution produced his successful little machine in 1896. Dirigible balloons had already proven fairly successful; but the limitations imposed upon them by their unwieldy size, fragile character, costly construction, and helplessness against a heavy wind, were clearly seen. Men like Lilienthal were acquiring practical skill in gliding through the air and balancing themselves, but were gaining scarcely any scientific knowledge of the qualities of wind currents or the laws relating to them. The gliders might in fact be compared to the first swimmers who ventured in the water, learning to keep afloat themselves, but helping little toward the art of shipbuilding or the science of navigation. The new obstacle which Maxim had encountered seemed insurmountable. How should the proper form and strength and flexibility be given to the wings of the aero plane to enable it to resist these unknown, ever-changing air currents, while balancing itself upon them? How could this possibly be done when the airship was likely to smash itself upon the very first trial, and have to be rebuilt at great expense, with, perchance, no clearer knowledge than on the previous attempt?
Professor Langley had set himself to solve this problem, with scientific thoroughness and patience. H ad seen where the real difficulty lay, as early as 1891, when he published what has been called “his epoch-making work,” Experiments in Aerodynamics. In this he asserted, “The mechanical suspension of heavy bodies in the air, combined with very great speeds, is not only possible, but within reach of mechanical means which we actually possess.” This Maxim demonstrated later in his ill-fated machine. But, meanwhile, Langley, foreseeing the other problem which must first be solved, had set himself resolutely to experiment on wind pressures and resistances to rapidly moving planes. His own writings give some account of his long and skillful labors.
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