Sunday, 5 April 2009

Airships Through History

Since the beginning of time, man has looked to the stars and dreamt of flying. The Greek legend of Icarus may be a fable warning against arrogance, but the legend of Daedalus was a story of human ingenuity and flight.

But these are only legends - who invented flight, and how, and why?
The Invention of the Kite
Kites are important because they were the forerunners of gliders and balloons. No one knows for sure when or how the first kite was invented; they could be as much as 3000 years old. There are many legends as to how they came to be.

The first recorded use of a kite was in 200 BC, when the Chinese general Han Hsin flew a kite over the walls of the city he was attacking, and used it to measure how far his men would have to tunnel to reach passed the defences.

Marco Polo wrote of kites so large they could carry men - in essence, the first gliders. Technically, a kite has a string going down to the earth, whilst a glider is free from the earth. It was the Italiens who first brought kites to Europe.

From gliders to... helicopters?

The next great flight invention is known as the first helicopter, although it was never built. The ornithopter is Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous invention, even though it was never built. In actual fact, Da Vinci wasn't the first to consider mechanical means of flight.

Here we see an ornithopter design:

The First Manned Flight

How long ago do you think the first manned flight was? The Wright brothers in 1903? Langley in 1891? George Cayley, in the early 1800s? 1783, when the Montgolfier beothers built their balloon? The first manned flight was... one thousand one hundred and thirty eight years ago. Yes, 1138.

Abbas Ibn Firnas covered himself in feathers, strapped on his mechanical wings and, by the accounts of all the witnesses he flew for a long time before returning to land from where he had taken off. But at that point there was a fault in his design; he hadn't realised the importance of a birds tail. Abbas Ibn Firnas fell from the sky, and hurt his back. He was 66 years old when he flew.

In 1870 Gustav Trouve built and flew and landed an ornithopter. The wings were flapped by gunpowder charges activated in a bourdon tube.

You can learn more about ornithopters at the ornithopter society, here. They also have a store online, here

All a Lot of Hot Air

In the 1780s the Montgolfier brothers built the first hot air balloons. The first passengers were a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. It almost sounds like a joke...

The Montgolfier brothers maybe the most well known of the airship or balloon pioneers, but they were not the only ones. Liutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier in 1783 proposed a design of an airship 260 feet in length, with internal ballonnets that were to be used to control the lift. The envelope would be attached to a long carriage that could double as a boat if the airship was forced to land in the water. It could even be propelled and steered.

Propulsion Technology

Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English channel in a balloon that had a bird like tail for steerage and flapping wings for propulsion, in 1785.
A year earlier he had taken a hand-powered propeller onto a balloon; the first recorded means of propulsion in flight.

Henry Giffard
It was Henry Giffard who finally invented the first dirigible. This passenger carrying airship had a 3 horse-power steam engine weighing over 400lbs, and was filled with hydrogen. It was 144 feet long, and had an average speed of just 3mph. This design wasn't improved upon until 1872.
The end of the Passenger Airships
Lots of things are said to end with a bang, but on the 6th of May, 1937, the passenger airships really did. This was the day that the Hindenberg exploded; the how is still controversial, but the fact is the airship burned completely in under a minute.
Airships Today
Finally, airships are still in use today, in the areas of advertising, sightseeing and surveillance.

1 comment:

  1. The balloon museum in Albuquerque,N.M. has quite a nice collection of antique airship collectibles. It also has some awesome airship and balloon displays. I like your site keep up the good work.