How Men Fly—The First Balloons—Vain Attempts to steer Balloons—The Story of the Dirigible—A Long Series of Disasters.

THAT to fly has always been one of man’s greatest ambitions is proved by the fact that so many of the great mythical heroes were provided with wings or winged horses, and that in modern times countless people have spent time and money, and even their lives, in vain attempts to make flying machines.

Perhaps you have heard that the Chinese claim that they were the first people to fly. We have as evidence in favor of their claim, that a French missionary to China, writing in the year 1694, mentions that the people at Pekin sent up a balloon in celebration of a new emperor. Unfortunately, we are not told what the balloon was made of or how it was inflated.

The first record of ballooning in Europe dates from the year 1709. A Brazilian named Bartolome Lorenzo di Guzmao, who was born at Santos in 1689, came home to Portugal in 1708, and, so it is stated, made trial of a balloon on August 8, 1709. His "globe", as it is called, rose from the courtyard of the building called the House of the Indies in Lisbon. It was caused to rise by the burning of a certain material to which the inventor applied fire. We are told that the King and Queen watched the ascent; but the account, unfortunately, gives no details of how the balloon was made or of the actual height to which it rose. Whether the story is true or not, I cannot guarantee; but the best proof that Di Guzmao did do something very much out of the common is that he was prosecuted for being a wizard and had to fly the country.

Even before his time, in 1670, a Jesuit, Francis Lana, had proposed an airship which should be lifted by four hollow copper vacuum balls, each twenty-five feet in
Lana's machine
Lana's Aeronautical Machine
diameter. Lana was right, of course, in believing that these would be lighter than air. But he failed to realize that the atmospheric pressure on each ball would crush it quite flat before all the air had been exhausted from its interior.

In 1766 the great British chemist Cavendish showed the scientific world that hydrogen gas was lighter than air, and Dr. Black of Edinburgh made a little balloon of calf gut and filled it with hydrogen. But the balloon proved too heavy to be lifted by the gas, and when others experimented with paper envelopes they found that this material would not hold the gas.

A little later the brothers Montgolfier began their experiments. It is an interesting coincidence that, just as the first heavier-than-air machine was invented by two brothers, the Wrights, so the first real balloon was also the work of two brothers. Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier were the sons of Peter Montgolfier, a paper manufacturer of Annonay in France. They got the idea that if they could fill a paper bag with some cloudlike substance it would rise, so they made some huge paper bags under which they burned fires of chopped straw. To their great delight, up went the bags, but it was some time before they realized that it was not the smoke, but the hot air with which the bags were filled, that caused them to rise.

However, as soon as this knowledge dawned upon them the rest was comparatively simple, and after experiments with small balloons they made a big spherical paper balloon thirty feet in diameter, which they sent up from Annonay on June 5, 1783. A great crowd watched it dwindling into the blue sky, and it rose to a height of about a mile and a half before it cooled enough to descend.

This balloon had no passengers, nor had the next, which went up in the following August. This was made of thin silk covered with the newly discovered caoutchouc, or India rubber, and, though thirteen feet in diameter, weighed only twenty pounds. It was filled not with hot air but with hydrogen, and its inventors were M. de Saint Fond, a well-known naturalist, M. Charles, and two brothers named Robert. The balloon was sent up from the Champs de Mars in Paris, and rose rapidly to three thousand feet, when it burst. The remains fell in a field fifteen miles away, and were destroyed by terrified peasants.

Meantime the Montgolfiers were busy building a much bigger balloon, and this had a car in which were placed a sheep, a cock, and a duck. The balloon itself was of linen covered with paper. It was sent up from Versailles on September 19, 1783, stayed in the air eight minutes, and came down quite gently. The sheep and the duck were unhurt, but the cock was in a bad way. The wise men decided that the poor bird was suffering from the effects of the thin air in the higher regions, but it was presently discovered that it had been trodden on by the sheep.

So far, no human being had trusted himself in the air, but a few weeks later a pilot was found, M. Pilâtre de Rozier, brave enough to trust himself aloft. The balloon in which he ascended was, however, a captive one, and did not rise to more than a hundred feet. On the following November 21 De Rozier and a friend, the Marquis d’Arlandes, made the first free balloon ascension from Paris, and, drifting for twenty minutes at a height of five hundred feet, came safely down in a field five miles from the starting point. The great Benjamin Franklin was among the spectators of this ascent, and when some one asked him what he thought of this wonderful new means of travel, he smiled. "Of what use," he asked, "is a new-born babe?"

The first ascent in England of an aeronaut was made by Vincent Lunardi from the grounds of the Honorable Artillery Company in London on September 15, 1784, but James Sadler is usually regarded as the father of English aeronauts. His first ascent was made at Oxford

Internal ballonets of a Zeppelin

a month later than Lunardi’s, and during the next thirty years he made many others. He had various narrow escapes, one of which was when he endeavored to cross the Irish Channel from Dublin. His balloon, with its highly decorated car, was blown out to sea by a contrary wind, and the aeronaut was rescued from the water.

Benjamin Franklin was right; and until men learned, more than a century after its birth, to control the flight of a gas bag, the balloon remained little more than a toy.

Meantime many experiments were made. In 1852 Giffard succeeded in making a small steam engine of three horsepower which weighed only a hundred pounds, and this he attached to the car of a cigar-shaped balloon. The power was just enough to move the balloon in still air, but the experiments were so costly that he had to give them up. Later, Haenlein, a German, made a dirigible—that is, an airship lighter than air—on more modern lines, for he had the internal ballonet now always used in dirigibles. A small gas engine drove a four-bladed propeller at forty revolutions a minute; but the balloon, filled only with coal gas, did not lift very well.

"La France", built by Captain Renard in 1884 and driven by an electric engine, was the first dirigible that would steer at all. But it was slow and its range too limited to make it of any practical use.

After "La France", sixteen years elapsed before a young Brazilian, Santos-Dumont, began his historic

"La France"
"La France"

experiments with dirigibles, and after several attempts succeeded in winning the Deutsch prize of three thousand pounds by traveling from St. Cloud round the Eiffel Tower and back. This was on October 9, 1901. The distance was nine miles and the time taken thirty minutes. His airship was 108 feet long, 20 feet in diameter, and drawn by a sixteen-horsepower motor engine. Two years later the Lebaudy brothers built a larger dirigible with a speed of twenty-four miles an hour. After this, each year saw fresh dirigibles built in France, England, and Germany. Each year also saw fresh disasters in connection with these lighter-than-air machines. The Wellman airship, built to conquer the North Pole, was destroyed by a gale. Of the Lebaudy ships, one was destroyed by a storm at Châlons, a town on the river Marne, another was torn from its moorings by a gale which hurled it across England and flung its shattered remains into the Atlantic. The first British air dirigible was destroyed by fire at its moorings, and the first Zeppelin also disappeared in flames. The dirigible invented by Severo burst into flames in mid-air, and the inventor and his mechanic fell from a fearful height.

Six of Count Zeppelin’s great airships were destroyed by accidents, and in 1913 a seventh, a huge craft nearly five hundred feet long, was wrecked in a gale.

But for the Great War the various Governments would probably have abandoned the apparently hopeless attempt to build dirigibles. But then, as we all know, Germany devoted immense sums to the building of large airships, and in 1915 succeeded in dropping bombs on London from such vessels. Zeppelins, however, gave way to aeroplanes of the large Gotha type as soon as it was shown that the former were practically defenceless against attack from above by the more nimble aeroplane.

England was driven to build "blimps" and other types of lighter-than-air craft for the purpose of hunting submarines, and much progress was made. Since the War the Atlantic has been crossed by airships; yet, even so, the tale of disaster is not at an end. In August, 1921, the world was shocked by news of the dreadful end of the giant R 38, which broke in two at a height of a thousand feet, caught fire, and fell blazing into the river Humber. She had a crew of no fewer than forty, of whom only four survived.

The most recent tragedy was the wreck, in 1925, of the gigantic airship, the Shenandoah, with loss of a number of her crew.

Up to the date of the Great War and for some time afterward, the only gases that could be used for inflating lighter-than-air machines were coal gas and hydrogen, both of which are highly inflammable and, when mixed with ordinary air, terribly explosive. When R 38 blew up, so fearful was the force of the explosion that glass was blown across the streets from the windows of warehouses on Hull quayside. The only gas that is both lighter than air and not inflammable is helium, with which the Shenandoah was equipped, and up to a recent date helium was only a curiosity of the laboratory. Now means have been found of making it in large quantities, but it is still extremely costly. Nevertheless, it seems to offer the best hope for the future of the dirigible, and to-day all the great Powers are busy with the construction of these monsters. The plans are, of course, closely guarded, but it may be that new discoveries will result in a dirigible which will be both safe and manageable. If so, the triumph will be as great as any that man has ever won over the forces of nature, for never has any problem of invention been more difficult to solve, nor has any been the cause of more frequent and terrible disasters.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman