BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND HIS KITE
THE COMPASS AGAIN
FARADAY AND THE DYNAMO
THE FIRST OIL WELL IN AMERICA
ENGINES ON WHEELS—THE AUTOMOBILE
THE FIRST BALLOON FLIGHT
ENGINES ON WINGS—THE AIRPLANE
NEW SOURCES OF POWER
WHEN Matthew Boulton, partner of James Watt in producing and financing the first steam engines, was presented at court in honor of his services to science, the reigning monarch, George the Third, inquired graciously:
"In what business are you engaged?"
"I am engaged, your Majesty," replied Boulton, "in the production of a commodity which is the desire of kings."
"And what is that? what is that?" demanded the king.
"Power, your Majesty," replied Boulton.
King George was soon to lose some of the power which he then had. His circle of power was to grow smaller with the loss of his colonies in America. He little thought that the plain mechanic and business man who answered him so quietly was standing at the center of a circle of power that was to extend from England over the wide world. Great moments in the progress of invention were seldom recognized by kings and great folk of the times in which they occurred. King George had no idea that the funny little boiler that was running pumps in coal mines was to rule the world in another seventy-five or a hundred years.
Over in those same colonies which were to give the king so much trouble, a "wise man of the West," one of the master spirits of science as well, as of statecraft, was playing with another kind of power which was to change the world. Benjamin Franklin was flying a kite in an attempt to bring the very powers of the air under man’s control.
"Curiosity," said Plato, "is the mother of all knowledge." Benjamin Franklin was possessed with the divine gift of curiosity. Nothing was too small, nothing too great to interest him. He used the printing press of his time and left it better than he found it. He invented an open stove that still bears his name. His lightning rods were used all over France and America. Post offices, libraries, schools, savings banks are all in debt to him for some suggestion or invention that improved them.
Fortunately Franklin lived in the age when electricity was attracting much notice. He had one of the first friction machines in the United States, a queer little affair with a revolving glass globe by which a feeble current of electricity could be started. The Leyden jar was invented in his time, and he was as excited as any one over this marvelous idea of "bottling" the mysterious force of electricity. A French scientist had knocked over a whole company of soldiers whom he had persuaded to clasp hands so that he might get a circuit and send a charge of electricty through them. Franklin promptly experimented and knocked down six men with his six-gallon Leyden jar.
Franklin never left any subject just where he found it. His was the pioneer mind that went out ahead into reaches of knowledge as yet unexplored. He became convinced that this electricity with which he and his fellow experimenters were getting astonishing results was identical with the mysterious force in the air which showed itself in lightning.
There is a famous story, which we should be sorry to lose, that after he had conducted a series of tests that made him sure his theory was right, he went out one June night in the year 1752 and flew a kite in a thunderstorm. This story tells exactly how he fastened a bow of silk with a key tied into it at the end of a kite string, and sent the kite up into the overhanging thundercloud, with the result that he felt instantly an electric charge in the key in his hand. The friend who wrote the life of Franklin in which this story occurs undoubtedly believed that Franklin did that very thing. Indeed, Franklin described such an experiment as possible in a letter to a friend in England. But historians say that in all his own records there is no statement that he actually did fly his kite in a thunderstorm, and scientists tell us that if he had done it the chances are one in ten or even only one in a hundred that he would have lived to tell the tale. A Russian who tried a similar experiment fourteen months later paid for it with his life. So the wise men of our day insist that wise old Benjamin Franklin was altogether too careful and canny to risk his life by anything so rash; but that he proved his point by the much safer and equally important tests of which he left record in his written works. That Franklin flew a kite to make tests of cloud electricity, no one doubts. That he flew a kite in a thunderstorm and held in his hand a key tied to that kite string, many people do doubt. Anyway, if he did, no one of us had better try to repeat the experiment, lest we fail to be the one in one hundred who might escape without a death-dealing shock from that same lightning.
What Franklin did achieve was to prove once and for all that the friction-made electricity which man was creating in his workshops and the electricity of the clouds were one and the same thing. That was the most remarkable fact which any one had discovered about electricity in the two thousand years since the Greeks had found that amber rubbed with a cloth drew light objects to it. We make note of that early discovery in the name "electricity," which is from the Greek word "electron," meaning amber. Gilbert, a noted surgeon at Queen Elizabeth’s court and a brilliant student, gave the name in a book which he wrote in 1000 A.D. He had found that twenty other substances so rubbed would give the same effect; so he said that these other substances had been "amberized," or "electrified."
Franklin made careful studies into the whole theory of electricity. A French scientist had shown in 1733 that there were two kinds; Franklin named them "positive" and "negative," the names by which we know them to-day, thus grasping for the first time the epoch-making idea that electricity under whatever forms it showed itself, whether in one kind of charge or another, whether in the clouds or in man’s machines, was one great single force. He even showed that clouds might have negative or positive charges, thus explaining the cause of lightning displays in the heavens.
The great moment in science in which Franklin figures was when with his kite, whether in a thunderstorm or only in cloudy weather, he got an electric charge from the clouds through the key in his hand and proved that the electricity in rubbed amber and in friction machines was identical with the electricity in the distant clouds. That proof, it has been said, divided history much as the birth of Christ divided the forms of worship rendered by man to God.
When the Arab sailor of early days steered his ship by the compass needle, he knew no reason why that needle should point always to the north. It was enough for him that it did so. Scientists who lived eight hundred years after the compass was first used on the Mediterranean Sea knew little more than did the simple sailors of 1000 A.D. the reason for the needle’s action. They had come to call the force that ruled the compass needle "magnetism"; but they did not understand or explain it.
Then along came Hans Christian Oersted, of Denmark, who was to be called by men of his day the "Columbus of electricity." Hans was born in 1777, the year after the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, in a little Danish island town. His father was the village apothecary. There was no village school, but the two older boys, both of whom were to become famous, were sent to an old German wigmaker and his Danish wife to learn to read and write. Their teacher knew arithmetic only through addition and subtraction. Another boy who had been to a better school before he moved to their village showed them how to multiply, and the village pastor, who came often to their father’s house, taught them how to divide. Their father taught them everything he could at home, and took them into his shop when Hans was twelve. Meanwhile a university student came to the village and was promptly besought to give them some hours of work each day. The old wigmaker had taught them German, Danish was their mother tongue, and the mayor of the town taught them French and English. They borrowed every book in the village, and when Hans was seventeen they went with their father’s consent to Copenhagen to take six months of special training before they should try the entrance examinations. Their thirst for learning had served them well. They passed with high marks and entered the university, where they managed to support themselves, with small government scholarships, until both graduated with honors. Anders, who was a year younger than Hans, began as a lawyer; he was to become the most distinguished jurist in Denmark. Hans had been especially interested in medicine, astronomy, and physics, of which he had learned in his father’s shop. From the moment of his graduation he devoted himself to science, beginning almost at once to publish brilliant and original papers. In 1806, only seven years after he took his last degree from the university, he was called back to be professor of physics.
During all the years of new work with electricity, from 1750 on, there had been signs of some connection between electricity and magnetism. When houses or ships were struck by lightning, knives and forks were often found to have become magnets. Lightning affected the direction of a compass needle. A magnet pulled objects to it; so did a charged rod. In other ways the behavior was similar. But no one had been able to prove that they were related.
Hans Oersted went to work on the idea that there was some close bond between the two. He took electric batteries, such as Volta of Italy had invented in 1799, which produced a steady electric current. Then he took a compass. He knew that the needle of a compass was drawn to the north by magnetism. If an electric current could change the direction of a compass needle, it would prove that the two were in some way related.
He tried all sorts of experiments, with no results. Sometimes the compass needle seemed to be disturbed when electric wires were near it, sometimes not. It is said that Oersted, though a brilliant thinker, was not clever at laboratory experiments. Still he persisted, trying this way and that. One day when he was lecturing to his students in a small private course, he put a wire (through which an electric current was flowing) over the compass. As it happened he laid this wire parallel to the needle instead of across it, as he had done at other times. That made the difference between this and his other experiments. Instantly the needle of the compass swung around until it stood at right angles to the wire. He shut off the current; the needle swung back to its usual direction, pointing to the north. He let the current on again; the needle spun around again. He and his students went wild with joy as they saw that little needle spin. No wonder they did! Scientists everywhere were trying to accomplish this very thing. Oersted himself had been working at it for thirteen years. Now by a fortunate combination of the parts of his apparatus, he had done it. Magnetism by its nature kept the compass needle pointed always to the north. But at that moment an electric current was ruling that magnetic needle and proving strong enough to turn it away from the north. Electricity must be, at least, a twin force to magnetism.
Oersted’s discovery, announced in 1820, was seized upon with enthusiasm by men of science. "He opened the gates," said Michael Faraday, "of a domain in science dark until then, and filled it with a flood of light." "The electric current was a link," says a writer of our own day, "like the Panama Canal, between two great oceans: electricity and magnetism. These vast realms the electric current joined and converted into one inseparable body."
Within a few years other scientists and inventors turned Oersted’s discovery to practical uses. Magnets were made by wrapping wires around pieces of iron and sending a current through them. Ampère, Arago, and Davy became famous for their discoveries. But it all began in that small lecture room when at the bidding of the apothecary’s son a man-made machine for the first time in history set up a current of force which pulled the compass needle away from the north.
Michael Faraday was fourteen years younger than Hans Oersted. He was born in 1791 in a village on the outskirts of London. His father, a blacksmith, was not in good health, and the family was poor. Yet the parents gave their children what was worth far more than money or education, for they brought them up with the utmost care. Faraday never ceased to be thankful for the happy family circle and the example set there of industry, good habits, and strong religious principles.
Young Faraday learned to read and write and to do simple sums in arithmetic, but that was all the regular training he had, and much of that was given by his parents. At thirteen he had to go to work to help in the support of the family. His first job was given him by one of his father’s friends, the owner of a bookstore and bindery. This gave him his first chance at the books and learning which were to start him toward his famous discoveries.
There were wonderful new science books being printed then, and young Michael read them all. Those on electricity particularly fascinated him. He saved money penny by penny until he could buy some chemicals. With these, a glass bottle, and some metals and wires he made himself an electrical machine before he was fourteen.
Some years later, but while Michael was still an apprentice learning his trade, he saw in a window an advertisement of a series of lectures on science. He was eager to go, but the price of one shilling to get in was entirely beyond him. An elder brother, Robert, who was working with his father as a blacksmith, had a little more money. Seeing how eager Michael was to go, Robert came to his rescue and gave him the needed shillings, one by one, for twelve or thirteen lectures. That gave Michael his start. He made friends with older students at the lectures. From that time, as he wrote to a friend, he never swerved in his desire to devote himself "to the service of science." We who live more than a hundred years later may be grateful to that generous brother who gave the needed help.
It was a bold step in those days for one born and bred in one of the "trades" to venture to leave it for science. The story of how Michael came to do it starts with another set of lectures, given some years later by Sir Humphry Davy, one of the most interesting English scientists of the time. To these Faraday was taken as a guest by a customer of the bindery where he worked. This was a great adventure for the young man, who sat in the gallery and took full notes of all that the famous man said and did. Michael had long had the habit of writing up for his scrapbook everything he learned and making drawings of apparatus used in experiments. He wrote out the notes of these four lectures, with drawings, and bound them for himself in a neat cover. (The book is a treasure kept in the British Museum now.)
A year or more after the lectures had been given, young Faraday grew quite desperate in the trade where he seemed fixed for life and took a bold step to see if he could get out. He sent that little volume to Sir Humphry, asking if there was any chance that he could get work under him. This was in 1812.
Davy consulted his friend Pepys, who made a note of the fact in his diary.
"Pepys," said Davy, "what am I to do? Here is a letter from a young man named Faraday: he has been attending my lectures and wants me to give him employment at the Royal Institution. What can I do?" "Do?" echoed Pepys; "put him to wash bottles: if he is good for anything, he will do it directly; if he refuses, he is good for nothing."
Sir Humphry saw Faraday at that time and advised him to stick to his trade for a time, telling him that Science was a harsh mistress, rewarding poorly from a money point of view those who devoted themselves to her service. A few months later, however, when young Michael was undressing one night, he was startled to hear a loud knock at the door and to find a carriage standing before the house. Going downstairs he opened the door to receive from the hand of a pompous footman with powdered wig a note from Sir Humphry asking him to come to his laboratory in the morning if he still wanted a position.
Faraday began his engagement as assistant at the Royal Institution on March 1, 1813. He was to have twenty-five shillings (a little more than $6) a week, for assisting lecturers, setting all instruments and apparatus in place for lectures, cleaning all the models and apparatus, and waiting on everybody. The youth who had preceded him had thought the work too hard and had been discharged for neglect of his duties. Faraday did all this work and in addition did private research for Sir Humphry. His first job, if not that of washing bottles, was the unpleasant task of extracting sugar from beetroot; his second, to work with a particularly evil-smelling chemical. For a year he spent most of his time on explosives, and he and his chief were several times injured from the unexpected behavior of some new compound. Both took all these things for granted in the service of their royal mistress, Science.
It is a remarkable story, this tale of a boy with hardly any regular education, with no money, a blacksmith’s son and a bookbinder’s apprentice, and of how he fitted himself to become the valued assistant of a great scientist before he was twenty-two years old. After we have read it, we are not surprised to find that he rose from the foot to the top of the ladder of learning and fame in the years that followed. "The greatest physical discoverer that ever lived," "the creator of the science of electricity"—these are some of the things that were said of him. Yet this quiet lad worked seven years in his laboratory toward one of his great discoveries before the moment came when his idea was proved to be right.
Oersted had done his experiment in 1820. He had shown that an electric current in a moving wire could change the course of the compass needle. That showed that electricity and magnetism were connected.
Faraday pondered on this discovery. If an electric current could pull a magnetic needle around, why should not a magnet start in some way an electric current? He thought it ought to be possible. But how?
Faraday worked for seven years on that idea. Then he found out it could be done. One day in 1831 he thrust a bar magnet into a hollow coil of wire and got a current of electricity. "There it goes! there it goes!" he shouted, dancing round the table and rubbing his hands with glee. So excited was he at the discovery that he took the rest of the day off for a holiday, going to Astley’s circus to see the performing horses.
If you want to know why Faraday’s discovery of this new way to get an electric current was a great moment in science, go to any electric power plant. You will find that the electric current which runs your street cars and lights your home is produced by dynamos. "Dynamo" is the Greek word for power. Faraday got an electric current with a magnet and a coil of wire in 1831. In 1832 he made a little machine which he called a "dynamo" because it furnished "power."
Wind, water, steam were man’s sources of power at that time; and steam power was new in its use. Now came the electric current, electricity caught and flowing in a wire. And the electric current could be gotten with this machine, the dynamo.
The idea of the dynamo is simple, a moving coil of wire turning about a magnet. All that has to be done to get a current is to keep the magnet charged and the wire moving. In the simplest dynamos the wire was wound on a spindle, and the spindle turned by hand. So long as the spindle turned, the current continued. But men could not stand turning a spindle all the while.
We add a new chapter to the romance of the wheel. Do you remember how in ancient Egypt they set water turning a wheel, so that man need not stand and turn it all the while? They did the same thing with the dynamo. With the invention of the dynamo, falling water, with the tremendous force that was in it, came into its own. It could turn the wheel which could produce electricity.
"White coal" they sometimes call water power now, for the foaming water of Niagara or of any great waterfall looks white as it drops tens and hundreds of feet. As black coal in its burning in the steam engine will give power to run man’s machines, so this "white coal," this falling water, will run the dynamo, and the dynamo will give power that need not be used right at its source but can be carried hundreds of miles to do man’s work for him.
Faraday’s dynamo was the key that unlocked for man enormous storehouses of power. Not only did it show how to get a steady electric current, but how to turn water power into electricity.
Long years ago—so the story goes—before the white man came to this country to live, an Indian squaw of the Seneca tribe lived near a stream which was called the "Water of Many Colors" because of the bright colors that could be seen on the surface of its waters. This squaw loved bright colors. As a child she had spent hours sitting by the stream, watching its surface change from blue to red and green and purple and orange in the sunlight. She made blankets as did all the women of her tribe, and sometimes she boiled the thread, which she was to weave on her crude loom of crossed sticks, in dyes which she got from berries picked in the fields. But they were never bright enough to suit her.
One day, as she sat by the stream, the thought came to her that perhaps if she dipped her blanket in the many-colored water, as she dipped her threads in the pot of berry juice, she could catch some of the colors and keep them in her blanket. She waited till a day when the colors were particularly bright, and floated her blanket on the surface of the water. When she pulled it out, she looked at it eagerly to see if the colors stayed. Alas! the blanket was of the same dull color as before, but it was heavy with a liquid which did not seem like water. At first she was so disappointed not to get the colors for which she longed that she paid little heed to this stuff which she was wringing out. But then she caught some of it in a jar and looked at it and tasted it and smelled it. She took some of it to the Medicine Man of the tribe to see if he knew what it was. He, too, looked at it, smelled it, tasted it, and then rubbed some of it on his hand. When she came back another day to ask him about it, he told her that she had found a wonderful medicine that the Great Spirit had put in these waters for the healing of the red men.
That "Water of Many Colors" is a Pennsylvania stream known to-day as "Oil Creek." Indians followed the squaw’s method of getting oil, using that which they obtained in the blankets for medicine and for rubbing on the skin. It is said that Indian runners liked to rub their bodies with it for the tingling sensation that it gave. White men followed their example. We read that two men, working together and wringing it out of a blanket, could get nearly a barrel of medicine oil in a day.
When our forefathers occasionally struck oil as they were sinking a well, they thought it a nuisance. All their work was wasted, and there was only this stuff to show. They must begin to dig again for water.
There came a time when someone thought of using this natural oil in place of whale oil in lamps. It was tried, and though the odor was fearful, some persistent souls kept on working with this oil to try to make it clear and fairly odorless. Matters had gone as far as this in the years between 1840 and 1855. Oil had begun to be of value, and it was known that there were a good many places, particularly in Pennsylvania, where there was natural oil in the ground.
In 1854 two New York lawyers, George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth, formed a company to explore for oil. They leased the very region where the Indian squaw had dipped oil out of the stream with her blanket, the land on which the oil spring of Oil Creek was located. Then they set men digging ditches with pick and shovel; in those ditches the oil would gather, to be dipped out and put in barrels for sale.
In 1856 Bissell, in New York, saw a picture of the derricks over a salt well which gave him a bright idea. Pennsylvania had great salt deposits, and it was the custom to drive wells in order to get the brine (salt and water mixed) from which the salt could be evaporated. The height of the derricks gave Bissell a notion of how deep they sometimes dug. If they could dig as deep as this for brine, why not drive wells to an even greater depth for oil? Wells! oil wells! that was Bissell’s idea. If there really were big pools of oil underground, would it not pay to drive deep enough to find them? Eveleth agreed to the proposition, and they engaged as superintendent of their company an oil enthusiast like themselves by the name of Drake.
In May, 1858, Colonel Drake went to Oil Creek and began to drive a well. But as others had done before him, he struck water, so much water that the shaft of his well was flooded. Drake hit on the practical way to avoid this difficulty by forcing an iron pipe down through the water and the brine to the rock where oil would probably be found. Then the oil when it came would drive straight up through the pipe. To drive this pipe was no simple matter. Drake had to send away for an engine which was delayed in arriving. Skilled workmen could not be found. Needed money failed to come in. The summer and fall wore away. The following spring Drake was fortunate in getting Uncle Billy Smith, a skilled old salt-well man, to drive his well for him. At this time Colonel Drake was financing the work with his own money, as that of the New York partners had been exhausted. Uncle Billy began to work in May; by August they had gotten down only seventy feet, and were working through solid rock.
On August 28, 1859, as Uncle Billy and his sons were preparing to quit work for the night, they noticed a liquid rising in the seventy-foot iron pipe.
"Look at this," he said to Colonel Drake.
"What does it mean?" asked Colonel Drake.
"That’s your fortune coming," said Uncle Billy. And so it was. By the next morning several barrels of petroleum had been drawn from the well. Colonel Drake rigged up a pump. Eight barrels of oil were pumped up that day, and still it continued to come. They had expected to have to go down five hundred or a thousand feet before they should strike oil. If it did come they thought they would be lucky to get a barrel a day. So there were few barrels ready, and no tanks. They filled everything they could lay hands on with oil, and still it came. By October they were drawing twenty barrels a day, and the well yielded oil at that or a greater rate for several years.
This was the first oil well in America. In a few months there were hundreds. Now there are thousands upon thousands. The United States proved to be particularly rich in this liquid fuel stored by Nature thousands of years earlier in deep underground reservoirs.
It is always a wonderful event when man finds out some new treasure stored in the ground. The next great step is for man to learn how to put that treasure to some useful purpose. For a time oil was used chiefly for making kerosene for lamps. That was a gain over the dim candle lighting and the whale-oil lamps of the time. But the next great moment came when man learned to burn this oil in engines, turning it, as he had turned steam and electricity, into power.
The first engine on wheels was a steam engine. But the steam engine was bound to be a big, heavy affair. Think of how much it has to carry about with it to keep it going! There must be coal to feed its fire; there must be plenty of water to be turned into steam in its boiler; and besides the boiler and the pistons and all the rest of the machinery there must be someone to shovel in the coal. With a coal bin, a water tank, and a fireman as necessary parts of its equipment, a steam engine could never taste the joys of freedom on the road.
When oil had been discovered, and an engine had been devised that could be run by one of its light, liquid fuels, it became a simple matter to put an engine on wheels. The automobile—"able to move itself," as the familiar name might be translated—waited on the invention of a new kind of engine. The small portable engine could not come until a liquid, quick-burning fuel was found. With the discovery of oil, and its use as a fuel, the automobile was the next step.
Even after gasoline was distilled from petroleum it took a long time to find out how to make an engine in which the energy it gave off in burning could be turned into power. The first gasoline engines were made by different inventors in France and Germany between 1860 and 1880. Gottlieb Daimler, of Germany, was probably the first to build one of the new engines into a four-wheeled vehicle for road use. He and another German, Carl Benz, both had gasoline automobiles on the road between 1885 and 1890. George Selden of Rochester, New York, applied for patents on a self-driving, horseless machine of his own invention in 1877, but could get no one to finance its building. Charles Duryea and his brother Frank, two young mechanics, are credited with putting the first successful gasoline-engine machines on the road in America. In a road race in the snow from Chicago to Waukegan on Thanksgiving Day, 1894, one of their "buggies" won the first prize offered in this country in an automobile race. They also took their machines to England and surprised their French competitors by winning in the first contest ever held there.
By this time others were in the field. Familiar names begin to appear in the lists: Haynes, the Apperson brothers, Henry Ford, Maxwell, Olds, and a dozen more. Ford built his first little gasoline machine and drove it at a rate of twenty-five miles an hour on the road in 1893.
With the beginning of the present century the day of the automobile had come. America soon led the world, as she does to-day, in producing cars of all kinds, makes, and prices, both for pleasure and business use. In 1925, when only a quarter of a century had passed, one American in every seven was supposed to have an automobile, while the United States as a whole had seven times as many machines on the road as any other country in the world. The engine on wheels had made over American life in a brief twenty-five years.
Man has always wanted to fly. From the Greek myth of Icarus who tried to fly over water with wax wings that melted in the sun, down through the Middle Ages, there are records here and there of men who tried to leap out into the air on wings of their own making.
The first man who did leave the solid ground and ascend into the air did so not with the aid of wings or machinery but by the simple yet brilliant device of being floated there by the lifting power of hot air enclosed in a paper bag.
Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier were Frenchmen, living a century and a half ago in a little village where their father was a paper manufacturer. Before their time men desiring to fly had watched the birds. These brothers watched the clouds and the smoke that rose from a fire. They got paper bags from their father, filled them with smoke over a fire, and watched them float off into the air. "If smoke rises," they said, "perhaps hot air will rise." So they got larger and larger bags and sealed them tightly and held them as near as they could to a fire without burning them. These rose and floated high into the air.
At last they were ready to show how their air-ball or balloon worked. On June 5, 1783, they announced a public demonstration. They had built a bag some thirty feet in diameter for the occasion. People came to the little village from miles around to see what was going to happen. The huge paper bag, made stronger by being covered with cotton, was held by ropes over a low fire of straw. At first the bag was limp and had to be held above the fire. Gradually it filled out, as a child’s toy balloon fills when it is blown up, until eight men were needed to hold it to the ground. Then the ropes were cut, and it sailed up into the air amid the cheers of the crowd. Watching it they thought it went a mile into the air. As the air in the bag cooled, the balloon slowly dropped. There was little wind; so it came down within a mile of the place where it started, having been off the ground for ten minutes.
"The day of flying will soon be here," said the people, as they returned to their homes. The news of the event reached the king, who desired to have it repeated before him. On September 19th the Montgolfiers sent up a balloon from the king’s gardens at Versailles. This balloon was larger than the first and oval in shape, with an opening at the narrow end. A basket was fastened to it, and a sheep, a rooster, and a duck were the unwilling passengers. The ascent was successful, the balloon sailed off for some distance, and came down in the field of a peasant who was badly frightened by this visitor from the sky. But the animals were none the worse for their experience. That fact was most interesting to the Montgolfiers, for no one had known up to that time whether there was any air as high as a mile above the earth, or whether, if there was any, it was fit to breathe.
What animals could survive, men dared risk. A month later a captive balloon fastened to the ground by long cables was sent up with a daring Frenchman, De Rozier, aboard. He stayed up twenty-five minutes, at a height of about one hundred feet above the ground, and came down most enthusiastic about the experience, declaring that he had greatly enjoyed the view of the country. A month later he and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free balloon flight. Their friends bade them farewell as if they were going to certain death. But they went up several hundred feet, were carried by the wind over Paris, and came down in safety.
This was the first time men had cut loose from the earth and voyaged in the great ocean of air.
The great moment in the history of aviation came on December 17, 1903. It happened in a barren, sandy stretch of country among the Kill Devil hills of North Carolina, to which the Wright brothers had retired to be free from interruption and observation.
On that day Orville Wright took his seat in a flying machine which he and his brother Wilbur had built and equipped with a small engine. As the machine had no wheels on which to give it a running start, it was set on a car which was at the top of an inclined track built on the side of a low sand hill. Wilbur gave the car a push to start it down the hill. Orville tipped the rudder to steer the machine into the air as the car shot down the track. Slowly but surely the machine left the car and soared into the air. The first flight lasted twelve seconds. They took the airplane back to the top of the track and gave it another start; this time it stayed up longer. A fourth flight lasted fifty-nine seconds; in that time the machine covered a distance of 852 feet.
In the early history of the world great moments stole on men unawares. They did not know that they were making history. The Wright brothers must have known exactly what it meant when their machine stayed in the air. In that moment an age-long desire of man was fulfilled. He flew. He flew in a heavier-than-air machine driven by an engine, as a bird drives its plump little body through the air on outstretched wings.
The balloon had lifted man off the ground and carried him along through the air. In the hundred and more years between the early balloon flights and this first successful airplane flight men had learned how to construct balloon airships, the forerunners of our dirigibles, which they could steer and control with considerable success. But sailing through the air in a balloon basket or even motoring through it with a dirigible filled with lighter-than-air gas above you to support your engine-driven passenger car is not real flight like that of the birds. The Wright brothers knew what it was that they had succeeded in doing.
They had not stumbled on their invention by accident or without effort. Theirs was a triumph of sheer hard work and persistence, built on the patient work of men who had preceded them, and crowned with success because of certain new ideas which they had tried out. They were mechanics and kept a bicycle shop where they built and repaired bicycles. They read everything there was to read in books, magazines, and newspapers about flying machines, and there was much to read. When the Montgolfier brothers launched their first balloons, no one knew anything about the upper air. There was doubt whether it was safe for a man to go up into it, whether there was any air for him to breathe. Ballooning had changed all that, and had taught men much about air currents. Sir George Cayley of England had written a remarkable book early in the nineteenth century in which he had given the result of his studies of the flight of birds and of his experiments with small models of what we to-day call "gliders." He had shown that a bird must keep moving to stay in the air, and that any machine heavier than air must do the same. He had also suggested the difficulties of balancing a flying machine, which was just the problem that the Wright brothers solved a hundred years later.
Doctor Langley had built steam-driven models which flew short distances and had launched that autumn the big machine which should have made real flights if accidents had not befallen it. Otto Lilienthal had done wonders with gliders which he tried to balance and steer by throwing his own weight from side to side, and had met his death in a daring attempt in 1896. Chanute had built successful gliders; indeed, the Wrights modeled their first gliders on his and were in correspondence with the older man in all these years.
So with all these other men at work on the same problem, the two young bicycle makers began to build gliders. They practised with them for three years, adding various improvements. Then in 1903 they put a home-made gasoline engine on the wing of one of their best gliders and tried to fly with it. That time they failed, but they kept right on, making one change and then another until, on December 17th, the great moment came when they stayed in the air for fifty-nine seconds.
Did they rush off and tell the world that they had mastered the secret of flight? Not at all. They went to work to improve their machine and to patent their inventions. Also, they kept their results as secret as they could until they should be ready to announce them. Reports filtered out of what these brothers were doing. But no one took much stock in them. After they had put in two more years of hard work, the startling fact came out in the newspapers that while Frenchmen, Englishmen, and other Americans were trying out different machines every month or two, there were down in the wilds of North Carolina two unknown young men who had made a flight of twenty miles.
The United States Government, disappointed in the results of the Langley machine into which it had put $50,000, refused to buy the Wright patents when they were offered. Great Britain did the same. But the day of the flying machine was at hand. The United States Army wanted a flying machine if one could be built to meet their requirements. Orville Wright offered to build one for $25,000 and astonished the world on the day of its official test by remaining in the air for an hour and three minutes. Wilbur Wright took one of their biplanes to France, and won great successes there. This was in 1908, five years after that first flight. From that time on the world was aviation mad. One invention crowded on another, one success followed another. Santos-Dumont made spectacular flights; Glenn Curtiss won a speed prize by flying at a rate of forty-seven miles an hour; Wilbur Wright, an altitude prize by climbing 400 feet into the air; Farman, a distance prize by traveling sixty-eight miles; and Blériot crossed the English Channel. But there was hardly a machine which had not gained some secret as to balancing, steering, or placing the engine from the early machines of the Wright brothers.
"Engines on wings," we named our story, for it was the engine which made all these successes possible. In order to fly, a machine must be moving. It must therefore have an engine. It might still be heavier than air, as the birds were, provided only it had sufficient strength and motive power. But how could a machine carry a steam engine into the air? The lightest steam engine weighed at least ten pounds for every unit of energy it produced, and must carry supplies of coal and water as well. The crude gasoline engine used by the Wright brothers produced just power enough in proportion to its weight to allow itself to be lifted off the ground in this way. Five years later an engine had been made that would give one unit of power for every 5½ pounds of its weight. Soon the ratio was brought down to one unit of power for every 1¾ pound of weight. Then men could loop and twist and turn, and could fly to unbelievable heights and over long reaches of country, for long hours without landing. Wonderful as are the other parts which go to make up the modern airplane, the engine is at the center of it all. Without a light-weight fuel capable of running a small, powerful engine, man could never get in his airplane the power that would lift him off the ground and keep him in the air.
To fly at all was for long centuries the goal of man’s ambition; to fly for long distances, his next aim; to attain great speed in flying, his third desire; and now a fourth goal surpasses them all. No longer is he content to remain within that blanket of air immediately encircling the earth in which his body is fitted to live. He must go higher into that "thin-air" region eight, ten, twelve, thirteen miles above the earth’s surface; that "stratosphere" into which he must carry his own oxygen or use a pressure machine to condense the air, else he will be unable to breathe; that windless region of intense cold where the stars shine by day and clouds never form.
To Professor Auguste Piccard belongs the honor of two record-breaking balloon flights in 1931 and 1932. A news despatch tells the story of the first. "Out of that infinite ocean we call the sky there descended to-day a strange object, a huge bag attached to a ball, and came to rest on a glacier high in the alps. From the ball crawled two men, fresh from the longest trip away from the earth’s surface ever made by man."
The answers to the questions of the reporters reflect the strangeness of the adventure. "As we rose, the earth seemed at times like a huge disk with an upturned edge. . . Then it all disappeared in a copper-colored haze." Again, "the moon was as bright as when seen from the earth at midnight. There was nothing much to see but blue space."
Into this eerie region others have since ventured. Three Russians lost their lives in 1934 in the crash of their balloon on their return. Each year sees Americans attempting with scientific instruments to explore this remote level of atmosphere which may prove to be highly important to man. Even these partial successes bear testimony both to the endurance of which human beings are capable and to the skillful construction of their machines.
So man has turned and is turning to his use new sources of power. Coal turned to power in steam, electricity generated and carried in a wire, water power turned into electricity by the dynamo, and liquid fuel driving light-weight, machines—all serve him as he seeks new goals. In the discovery of other hidden sources of power on which he may draw lies the promise of great moments of the future.
Back to Legacy
© 2001, by Lynn Waterman