Published on July 13, 2016
Early flying machines include all forms of aircraft studied or constructed before the development of the modern aeroplane by 1910. The story of modern flight begins more than a century before the first successful manned aeroplane, and the earliest aircraft thousands of years before.
Main article: History of ballooning
Francesco Lana de Terzi’s flying boat concept c.1670
The modern era of lighter-than-air flight began early in the 17th century with Galileo’s experiments in which he showed that air has weight. Around 1650, Cyrano de Bergerac wrote some fantasy novels in which he described the principle of ascent using a substance (dew) he supposed to be lighter than air, and descending by releasing a controlled amount of the substance. Francesco Lana de Terzi measured the pressure of air at sea level and in 1670 proposed the first scientifically credible lifting medium in the form of hollow metal spheres from which all the air had been pumped out. These would be lighter than the displaced air and able to lift an airship. His proposed methods of controlling height are still in use today; by carrying ballast which may be dropped overboard to gain height, and by venting the lifting containers to lose height. In practice de Terzi’s spheres would have collapsed under air pressure, and further developments had to wait for more practicable lifting gases.
The first documented balloon flight in Europe was of a model made by the Brazilian priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão. On 8 August 1709, in Lisbon, he made a small hot-air balloon of paper with a fire burning beneath it, lifting it about 4 metres (13 ft) in front of king John V and the Portuguese court.
In the mid-18th century the Montgolfier brothers began experimenting with parachutes and balloons in France. Their balloons were made of paper, and early experiments using steam as the lifting gas were short-lived due to its effect on the paper as it condensed. Mistaking smoke for a kind of steam, they began filling their balloons with hot smoky air which they called “electric smoke”. Despite not fully understanding the principles at work they made some successful launches and in December 1782 flew a 20 m3 (710 cu ft) balloon to a height of 300 m (980 ft). The French Académie des Sciences soon invited them to Paris to give a demonstration.
Meanwhile, the discovery of hydrogen led Joseph Black to propose its use as a lifting gas in about 1780, though practical demonstration awaited a gastight balloon material. On hearing of the Montgolfier Brothers’ invitation, the French Academy member Jacques Charles offered a similar demonstration of a hydrogen balloon and this was accepted. Charles and two craftsmen, the Robert brothers, developed a gastight material of rubberised silk and set to work.
First public hot air balloon demonstration by the Montgolfier brothers, 4 June 1783
1783 was a watershed year for ballooning. Between June 4 and December 1 five separate French balloons achieved important aviation firsts:
4 June: The Montgolfier brothers’ unmanned hot air balloon lifted a sheep, a duck and a chicken in a basket hanging beneath at Annonay.
27 August: Professor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers flew an unmanned hydrogen balloon. The hydrogen gas was generated by chemical reaction during the filling process.
19 October: The Montgolfiers launched the first manned flight, a tethered balloon with humans on board, at the Folie Titon in Paris. The aviators were the scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the manufacture manager Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, and Giroud de Villette.
21 November: The Montgolfiers launched the first free flight balloon with human passengers. King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, but Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, along with the Marquis François d’Arlandes, successfully petitioned for the honor. They drifted 8 km (5.0 mi) in a balloon powered by a wood fire. 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) covered in 25 minutes,
1 December: Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert launched a manned hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. They ascended to a height of about 1,800 feet (550 m) and landed at sunset in Nesles-la-Vallée after a flight of 2 hours and 5 minutes, covering 22 miles (35 km). After Robert alighted Charles decided to ascend alone. This time he ascended rapidly to an altitude of about 3,000 metres (9,800 ft), where he saw the sun again but also suffered extreme pain in his ears.
The Montgolfier designs had several shortcomings, not least the need for dry weather and a tendency for sparks from the fire to set light to the paper balloon. The manned design had a gallery around the base of the balloon rather than the hanging basket of the first, unmanned design, which brought the paper closer to the fire. On their free flight, De Rozier and d’Arlandes took buckets of water and sponges to douse these fires as they arose. On the other hand, the manned design of Charles was essentially modern. As a result of these exploits, the hot-air balloon became known as the Montgolfière type and the hydrogen balloon the Charlière.
Charles and the Robert brothers’ next balloon, La Caroline, was a Charlière that followed Jean Baptiste Meusnier’s proposals for an elongated dirigible balloon, and was notable for having an outer envelope with the gas contained in a second, inner ballonet. On 19 September 1784, it completed the first flight of over 100 kilometres (62 mi), between Paris and Beuvry, despite the man-powered propulsive devices proving useless.
In January the next year Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries crossed the English Channel from Dover to the Bois de Felmores in a Charlière. But a similar attempt the other way ended in tragedy. In an attempt to provide both endurance and controllability, de Rozier developed a balloon with both hot air and hydrogen gas bags, a design which was soon named after him as the Rozière. His idea was to use the hydrogen section for constant lift and to navigate vertically by heating and allowing to cool the hot air section, in order to catch the most favourable wind at whatever altitude it was blowing. The balloon envelope was made of goldbeaters skin. Shortly after the flight began, de Rozier was seen to be venting hydrogen when it was ignited by a spark and the balloon went up in flames, killing those on board. The source of the spark is not known, but suggestions include static electricity or the brazier for the hot air section.
Ballooning quickly became a major “rage” in Europe in the late 18th century, providing the first detailed understanding of the relationship between altitude and the atmosphere. By the early 1900s, ballooning was a popular sport in Britain. These privately owned balloons usually used coal gas as the lifting gas. This has about half the lifting power of hydrogen, so the balloons had to be larger; however, coal gas was far more readily available, and the local gas works sometimes provided a special lightweight formula for ballooning events.
Tethered balloons were used during the American Civil War by the Union Army Balloon Corps. In 1863, the young Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who was acting as a military observer with the Union Army of the Potomac, first flew as a balloon passenger in a balloon that had been in service with the Union army. Later that century, the British Army would make use of observation balloons during the Boer War.