Aeronautics - Early history of Flying                                                                          Home


The real science or art of aeronautics definately dates from 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers at
Annonay in France, constructed their first balloons.

It is the term used to designate the entire science of aerial navigation. Aviation is specifically limited to denote flight
in machines that are heavier than the air. A free-flying or spherical balloon, also called an aerostat, is an apparatus
with an envelope which is filled with a gas whose specific gravity is lighter than the atmosphere near the surface
of the earth. It cannot be steered by the the pilot, and is practically at the mercy of the air currents. A dirigible balloon
usually has an elongated envelope, and is equipped with a motor, propellers and rodder, with which it can be steered
at will against a moderate wind.

                                            
Images. A spherical balloon. A Montgolfiers balloon. A Blanchard's balloon. A Charles & Roberts balloon.

Kite balloons, used almost, exclusively in Germany, for military purposes, are a combination of the elongated balloon
and kite principles. Though it is said that Laurenzo de Gusmann constructed a lighter-than-air apparatus at lisbon in
1685, which succeeded in raising itself from the ground by means of the lifting power of hot air, the real science or art
of aeronautics definately dates from 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers at Annonay in France, constructed their
first balloons. They, and their co-workers Charles, Pilatre de Rozier, Robert and the Marquis d' Arlandes rapidly deve-
loped the spherical balloon to a state of efficiency. In the balloon used by M.M Roberts and Charles in 1783 there
were present all the details of a modern balloon with the exception of the guide-rope and the ripping-cord. In all of
Europe and principally in France, ballooning became a great fad and object of scientific inquiry, but languished in 1812
owing to a number of untoward accidents.

 'Man-lifting War Kite' 1908

In the meantime it had been adapted to military uses, and a balloon company with a ballooning school was instituted
in France. On June 13, 1794, the French at Mauberge, in a battle with the Austrians, for the first time used an aerial
vessel in warfare. It proved exceptionally useful for purposes of reconnaissance and aroused a superstitious dread in
the ranks of the enemy. in the meantime general Meusnier, an exceptionally far-sighted officer of the French army, had
been studying the resistance of the air, and had planned an elliptical dirigible airship, which in the main included all the
important principles involved in the modern dirigible. It is probable that he would have carried out his scheme if he had
not been killed fighting the Prussians at Mayence in 1793. The king of Prussia had such respect for the general's
scientific attainments that he ordered the firing to cease until Meusnier's body had been buried. When Napoleon, in
1799, closed the French ballooning school and disbanded the two companies, the airship in warfare sank out of sight.

After the early years of the nineteenth century the science of aeronautics was left almost entirely to showmen. In the
interval meteorologists used the balloon to obtain remarkable atmospheric data, and several powers utilized the appa-
ratus in their military operations, notably the United States during the civil war and the French at the siege of Paris.
But the improvements were insignificant and the science was popularly held in contempt. A passing interest was arou-
sed by Giffard in France, who in 1852 constructed an airship with a small steam engine of 5 H.P., with which he suc-
ceeded in navigating. Paul Haenlein in Germany shortly afterwards managed to propel a dirigible by means of a gas
engine, the first in historyto be used. It is believed that if he had been able to utilize modern motors, and he had filled
his envelope with hydrogen instead of coal gas, he would have achied relatively the same results as the Lybaudys.

Image. Henry Gifford's balloon before ascension.Tuileries, Paris created: 1878

Another great impetus was given to the science by the French army officers Renard and Krebs, in 1885, who descri-
bed a figure eight in their dirigible and returned to their starting point. Modern dirigibles are but slightly superior to
'La France', the airship they evolved. Contemporary popular interest in the science of aeronautics dates from 1898,
when Santos-Dumont, the wealthy young Brazilian, performed his spectacular feats. Immediately ballooning became
the sporting fad in France, and spread rapidly over the continent and England. Aero clubs were established through-
out Europe, and the various governments established aeronautical military divisions. Numerous airships of the
dirigible type made their appearance and many balloon factories were established. During the last few years spheri-
cal balloons have been common everywhere in France. In Germany every considerable community has its aero club.

In Europe the clubs in the various sections of a country are federated divisionally and are banded together under a
national organization. The aero clubs of the world are combined in an organization known as the Federation Aero-
nautique Internationale. In France Germany, Italy, Russia and other countries the aero clubs are encouraged by
the government, and in some instances receive subsidies and form an aeronautic military reserve to be called upon
in time of war. In every club it is required that the person who guides a balloon be certified as a pilot, according to
a system of examination involving a series of practical demonstrations in the air by day and by night, as well as the
approval of the candidates theoretical knowledge by a board of experts. In the local, sectional, national and interna-
tional contests, held every year, only pilots of record are permitted to participate.  In the United States there are
now about 300 000 aero club members scattered throughout the land, who individually or collectively owned over
200 balloons. The United States, France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Russia and other countries own one or more
aerial warships of the dirigible type, as well as numerous spherical balloons.

The efford to fly by means of heavier-than-air craft antedates all other experiments in aerial navigation. The first
authentic instance is recorded in 67 A.D. One of the early students of heavier-than-air machines was the celebrated
painter, Leonardo da Vinci, whose sketches are still in existence and indicate an extraordinary technical knowledge
of the mechanical problems involved. The first aeroplane to fly by mechanical propulsion was invented by an English-
man named Henson, who in 1843 flew under power of a 20 H.P. steam engine. Sir Hiram Maxim built a machine in
1888 which was practically successful, and Ader flew in Paris in 1900. Langley, who began experimenting in 1885,
managed to fly over the Potomac in 1896. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, following along the lines of
Lilienthal and Langley, made their initial flights under motor power in 1903.

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Ref. Nelson's Encyclopedia. This article was written in the early 1900's and is published here in its original form.