A Niche in Time: Human Flight Through the Ages

Montgolfier brothers balloon

UPDATE: The series is now complete with publication of parts 4 and 5. Links to all the stories are below.

During an extended stay in Paris some years ago, I ventured out beyond the Le Boulevard Périphérique to the Le Musée de l’air et de l’espace at Le Bouget. Having made many a pilgrimage to the American museum with a similar name on the National Mall in Washington, DC, I was interested to see how the French interpreted the history of human flight. It was an eye-opening experience.

Having often gazed up at the Wright Flyer suspended over my head in the Milestones of Flight Gallery, I was accustomed to thinking of human flight as a strictly 20th century development. But, the French museum dated it back 120 years earlier to a pair of equally ambitious brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfiers, who launched piloted balloons. A good part of the museum was devoted to this much earlier phase of flight.

I was reminded of the visit some years later watching HBO’s adaptation of David McCullough’s book, “John Adams.” There’s a great scene of the acerbic, candid-to-a-fault founding father watching a Montgolfier balloon launch with his urbane and delightful wife, Abigail, and the equally urbane and delightful Thomas Jefferson.

It’s a terrific scene in a great mini-series. Watching it you get a sense of the wonder that Parisians felt at the time watching something that would have seemed impossible to them not long before. There’s something universal about flying that excites people no matter what century they live in or what technology is used. The same sense of wonder and excitement connects the Parisians of 1793 to early 20th century Americans who saw an airplane for the first time and those who watched Alan Shepard’s launch from Cape Canaveral in 1961.

Despite the differences in time periods and technologies, there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

Today, Parabolic Arc begins a five-part series looking at three different periods in powered human flight. We will compare and contrast them to see what essential lessons can be drawn from them. If the first two installments appear to have little to do with spaceflight, please be patient. All will be revealed.

The first post takes us not to 18th century France but to a lake in Southern Germany at the turn of the last century where an aristocrat gave the Montgolfier brothers’ invention a major upgrade.

The Series

Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Yay! I think these series-type of pieces are among your best work, Doug! I’m looking forward to reading them!

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Actually it was Europe that was trying harder to achieve heavier than air controlled flight. The efforts in those days were very much like the alt-space days with XCor, Armadillo, and Masten. The Wrights were the first to give it a thoroughly scientific approach, but they then used their methodical methods to weigh down American aviation with a long string of lawsuits. Meanwhile the Europeans took the Wright’s work and flew with it.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Rivalry seems to kill innovation and progress in private or commercial aerospace efforts. It seems almost every alt-space innovator wanted some new method or some new invention for propulsion and flight profile to try and reach suborbital space. In America, there was XCOR attempting to employ a LOX/kerosene fueled rocket plane using horizontal take-off to try & reach the ‘edge of space’; Scaled Composites used rubber & nitrous-oxide for propellant & an airborne launch platform; Armadillo alternated between storable H2O2/kerosene propellant and LOX/kerosene before the company folded; another American planned to use a large aircraft to tow a rocket-plane into the air and fuel it with LOX in mid-air; a Canadian started the Da Vinci Project to try to use a balloon to hoist a manned rocket to a high-altitude launch point (a scam or incompetence; the jury’s out); The Romanian ARCA project tried to use a balloon launch platform for a pendulum rocket (what a joke!); some Swiss investors planned to use a converted commercial jet to piggyback a winged rocket-plane for space-tourism (they went bankrupt); a British innovator who planned to use a conventional LOX/paraffin suborbital rocket for space tourism (Starchaser?) lost most of his original investment money to a scammer, but he has not given up (God bless him) and he has even launched the largest non-military British rocket in history in the past few weeks to a few thousand feet; Copenhagen Suborbitals? (their reputation has now been tarnished, regardless if a Danish jury finds Peter not-guilty.). I’m going to make a separate post showing (hypothetically) how cooperation between different individuals, even in different countries, could have worked to advance aviation in the 19th Century. Cooperation is better than rivalry IMHO.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    OK! Here’s my second post; the one that will paint a hypothetical historical scenario about “what might have been” if cooperation instead of rivalry had been tried; if information and contacts had been widely shared and not jealously guarded or ignored.
    Around 1845 -1849, a British bobbin manufacturer and aviation pioneer, John Stringfellow, built an alcohol-burner heated steam-engine intended to propel an heavier-than-air winged flying machine through the air in sustained, controlled flight (more than 1/2 century before the Wright Brothers).
    The unique steam engine (remarkably light for its time; no more than 1/4 of a ton fully loaded) and capable of generating upto 20 horsepower, alas did not have the power-to-weight ratio to provide the power required to propel and lift the planned winged aircraft of his, and his American colleague, George Henson, into the air….But, across the English Channel, a Frenchman named Henri Giffard had different SECRET aviation plans involving the use of steam power. He built the world’s first airship and flew it under power in 1852, using a 770 Ib weight steam-engine that only generated three horsepower, and sluggishly moved through calm air for less than 3-1/2 hours, covering a distance of only 17 miles. Average speed, about 5 miles-per-hour. It didn’t help that his airship had a gas bag that was 48 feet in diameter, and a gondola that was NOT streamlined. Furthermore, he was forced to use dangerous hot coals to operate his steam-engine (with their danger of sparks, drifting hot cinders) instead of liquid fuels like benzene, turpentine or alcohol available then. And he was forced to use coal gas (mostly methane) as a lifting agent instead of hydrogen, reducing the amount of weight his airship could ascend with, robbing him of over a ton of lift.
    If Henri Giffard had corresponded with aviation pioneers and innovators, like Mr Stringfellow, instead of jealously guarding his work in secrecy, then perhaps Mr Stringfellow would have graciously shipped his 1/4 ton 20 HP steam engine to Henri Giffard, realizing he, John, had no further use for it. Then, if Henri Giffard had also corresponded with English aviation pioneer Sir George Cayley, as well as chemists and physicists in the French Academy of Sciences, then it’s quite possible that Henri Giffard could have received valuable information and advice and slimmed down and stretched his airship gas bag from 48ft x 144ft to something like 33ft x 165ft, using bamboo for a sturdy frame between the gas bag and an aerodynamic envelope. He could have switched to hydrogen from coal gas, using red-hot iron piping to mix steam and methane to produce CO2 and inexpensive H20, So there! With two alcohol or turpentine heated 1/4 ton steam-engines in a sturdy streamlined gondola, producing 40 Hp combined, and enough fuel for 10 hours, he could have cruised through calm French skies at an average speed of (my calculation) of about 17 miles-per-hour, sometime in the years between 1852 – 1855, covering a distance of upto 170 miles. At that point, hypothetically, though still very dangerous, and very expensive, and of limited utility, the practical airship would have been born…Obviously improvements would have been speedily made to increase the power output of the steam engines (double expansion cylinders, boiler piping inserted in asbestos-lined thin-metal fire boxes, improved propellers, and improvements in stabilizing and steering). Could you imagine an airship in say 1857 doing a double-crossing of the English Channel using an 80 HP steam engine, cruising through the air at an average speed of maybe 22 MPH for 15 hours, dropping off a 50 -100 Ib bag of mail down onto Hyde Park in London? Do you realize what kind of commotion and fear that would cause the British? And the result? By 1863, the American Union would have picked up on the military potential and built a squadron of like airships that would have dropped 100’s of pounds of explosive ordinance on Richmond, Virginia.

  • redneck

    Of course cooperation is better than rivalry, if it works. Excessive cooperation means that only one solution is tried. When only one, or very few solutions are tried, the core concept had better be right or else. Any of us can look back and find the technologies that should have been pushed that languished for years or decades before implementation. The problem is that at any given time there are many ideas pushing forth with insufficient clue as to which is the best.

    Can you picture the efficiency gains if the world settled on two or three automobile types and just produced them in sufficient numbers of the demand? Now can you picture the likelihood of one of those types being the one you like? And further the likelihood that consumer costs would actually increase because of dealing with a monopoly?

    Cooperation is good in some theory and some practice. It is not a cure all. Elon, we will let you license build the Titan III that we have perfected.

  • Paul451

    Copenhagen Suborbitals? (their reputation has now been tarnished, regardless if a Danish jury finds Peter not-guilty.).

    As Doug reminded me, Madsen left CS over 3 years ago to found a new rocket start-up.

  • Paul451

    Jacob isn’t suggesting cooperation/competition as mutually exclusive. He’s referring to secrecy vs publication, which is a different thing, indeed the opposite thing.

    Science is such a successful method because it combines competition (sometimes bitter rivalries) with publication. Anyone can build on the results of others, but also can critique and even destroy the work of others.

    Loan inventors wallowing in excessive secrecy has undermined so many inventions. Whether it’s Giffard above, or Harrison’s longitude clock, or Ward’s Starlite.

    [Likewise, the restrictions of patents, being monopoly rights, get published but prevent many partial inventions from being built upon; and worse, are often permitted for things which are actually discoveries, not inventions, especially in biology/medicine.]

  • redneck

    Good points as always. My perceptions are influenced by the number of times I have been exposed to the “Shut up and do it my way”version of cooperation.