The Mastery of the Air
William J. Claxton
Part 1 out of 3
This etext was created by Dianne Bean, Chino Valley, Arizona.
THE MASTERY OF THE AIR
by WILLIAM J. CLAXTON
This book makes no pretence of going minutely into the technical
and scientific sides of human flight: rather does it deal mainly
with the real achievements of pioneers who have helped to make
aviation what it is to-day.
My chief object has been to arouse among my readers an
intelligent interest in the art of flight, and, profiting by
friendly criticism of several of my former works, I imagine that
this is best obtained by setting forth the romance of triumph in
the realms of an element which has defied man for untold
centuries, rather than to give a mass of scientific principles
which appeal to no one but the expert.
So rapid is the present development of aviation that it is
difficult to keep abreast with the times. What is new to-day
becomes old to-morrow. The Great War has given a tremendous
impetus to the strife between the warring nations for the mastery
of the air, and one can but give a rough and general impression
of the achievements of naval and military airmen on the various
Finally, I have tried to bring home the fact that the fascinating
progress of aviation should not be confined entirely to the
airman and constructor of air-craft; in short, this progress is
not a retord of events in which the mass of the nation have
little personal concern, but of a movement in which each one of
us may take an active and intelligent part.
I have to thank various aviation firms, airmen, and others who
have kindly come to my assistance, either with the help of
valuable information or by the loan of photographs. In
particular, my thanks are due to the Royal Flying Corps and Royal
Naval Air Service for permission to reproduce illustrations
from their two publications on the work and training of their
respective corps; to the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain;
to Messrs. C. G. Spencer & Sons, Highbury; The Sopwith Aviation
Company, Ltd.; Messrs. A. V. Roe & Co., Ltd.; The Gnome Engine
Company; The Green Engine Company; Mr. A. G. Gross (Geographia,
Ltd.); and M. Bleriot; for an exposition of the
internal-combustion engine I have drawn on Mr. Horne's The Age of
PART I. BALLOONS AND AIR-SHIPS
I. MAN'S DUEL WITH NATURE
II. THE FRENCH PAPER-MAKER WHO INVENTED THE BALLOON
III. THE FIRST MAN TO ASCEND IN A BALLOON
IV. THE FIRST BALLOON ASCENT IN ENGLAND
V. THE FATHER OF BRITISH AERONAUTS
VI. THE PARACHUTE
VII. SOME BRITISH INVENTORS OF AIR-SHIPS
VIII. THE FIRST ATTEMPTS TO STEER A BALLOON
IX. THE STRANGE CAREER OF COUNT ZEPPELIN
X. A ZEPPELIN AIR-SHIP AND ITS CONSTRUCTION
XI. THE SEMI-RIGID AIR-SHIP
XII. A NON-RIGID BALLOON
XIII. THE ZEPPELIN AND GOTHA RAIDS
PART II. AEROPLANES AND AIRMEN
XIV. EARLY ATTEMPTS IN AVIATION
XV. A PIONEER IN AVIATION
XVI. THE "HUMAN BIRDS"
XVII. THE AEROPLANE AND THE BIRD
XVIII. A GREAT BRITISH INVENTOR OF AEROPLANES
XIX. THE WRIGHT BROTHERS AND THEIR SECRET EXPERIMENTS
XX. THE INTERNAL-COMBUSTION ENGINE
XXI. THE INTERNAL-COMBUSTION ENGINE (Con't.)
XXII. THE AEROPLANE ENGINE
XXIII. A FAMOUS BRITISH INVENTOR OF AVIATION ENGINES
XXIV. THE WRIGHT BIPLANE (CAMBER OF PLANES)
XXV. THE WRIGHT BIPLANE (Cont.)
XXVI. HOW THE WRIGHTS LAUNCHED THEIR BIPLANE
XXVII. THE FIRST MAN TO FLY IN EUROPE
XXVIII. M. BLARIOT AND THE MONOPLANE
XXIX. HENRI FARMAN AND THE VOISIN BIPLANE
XXX. A FAMOUS BRITISH INVENTOR
XXXI. THE ROMANCE OF A COWBOY AERONAUT
XXXII. THREE HISTORIC FLIGHTS
XXXIII. THREE HISTORIC FLIGHTS (Cont.
XXXIV. THE HYDROPLANE AND AIR-BOAT
XXXV. A FAMOUS BRITISH INVENTOR OF THE WATER-PLANE
XXXVI. SEA-PLANES FOR WARFARE
XXXVII. THE FIRST MAN TO FLY IN BRITAIN
XXXVIII.THE R.F.C. AND R.N.A.S.
XXXIX. AEROPLANES IN THE GREAT WAR
XL. THE ATMOSPHERE AND THE BAROMETER
XLI. HOW AN AIRMAN KNOWS WHAT HEIGHT HE REACHES
XLII. HOW AN AIRMAN FINDS HIS WAY
XLIII. THE FIRST AIRMAN TO FLY UPSIDE DOWN
XLIV. THE FIRST ENGLISHMAN TO FLY UPSIDE DOWN
XLV. ACCIDENTS AND THEIR CAUSE
XLVI. ACCIDENTS AND THEIR CAUSE (Cont.)
XLVII. ACCIDENTS AND THEIR CAUSE (COnt.)
XLVIII. SOME TECHNICAL TERMS USED By AVIATORS
XLIX. THE FUTURE IN THE AIR
THE MASTERY OF THE AIR
PART I-BALLOONS AND AIR-SHIPS
Man's Duel with Nature
Of all man's great achievements none is, perhaps, more full of
human interest than are those concerned with flight. We regard
ourselves as remarkable beings, and our wonderful discoveries in
science and invention induce us to believe we are far and away
the cleverest of all the living creatures in the great scheme of
Creation. And yet in the matter of flight the birds beat us;
what has taken us years of education, and vast efforts of
intelligence, foresight, and daring to accomplish, is known by
the tiny fledglings almost as soon as they come into the world.
It is easy to see why the story of aviation is of such romantic
interest. Man has been exercising his ingenuity, and
deliberately pursuing a certain train of thought, in an attempt
to harness the forces of Nature and compel them to act in what
seems to be the exact converse of Nature's own arrangements.
One of the mysteries of Nature is known as the FORCE OF GRAVITY.
It is not our purpose in this book to go deeply into a study of
gravitation; we may content ourselves with the statement, first
proved by Sir Isaac Newton, that there is an invisible force
which the Earth exerts on all bodies, by which it attracts or
draws them towards itself. This property does not belong to the
Earth alone, but to all matter--all matter attracts all other
matter. In discussing the problems of aviation we are concerned
mainly with the mutual attraction of The Earth and the bodies on
or near its surface; this is usually called TERRESTRIAL gravity.
It has been found that every body attracts very other body with a
force directly proportionate to its mass. Thus we see that, if
every particle in a mass exerts its attractive influence, the
more particles a body contains the greater will be the
attraction. If a mass of iron be dropped to the ground from the
roof of a building at the same time as a cork of similar size,
the iron and the cork would, but for the retarding effect of the
air, fall to the ground together, but the iron would strike the
ground with much greater force than the cork. Briefly stated, a
body which contains twice as much matter as another is attracted
or drawn towards the centre of the Earth with twice the force of
that other; if the mass be five times as great, then it will be
attracted with five times the force, and so on.
It is thus evident that the Earth must exert an overwhelming
attractive force on all bodies on or near its surface. Now, when
man rises from the ground in an aeroplane he is counter-acting
this force by other forces.
A short time ago the writer saw a picture which illustrated in a
very striking manner man's struggle with Nature. Nature was
represented as a giant of immense stature and strength, standing
on a globe with outstretched arms, and in his hands were shackles
of great size. Rising gracefully from the earth, immediately in
front of the giant, was an airman seated in a modern
flying-machine, and on his face was a happy-go-lucky look as
though he were delighting in the duel between him and the giant.
The artist had drawn the picture so skilfully that one could
imagine the huge, knotted fingers grasping the shackles were
itching to bring the airman within their clutch. The picture was
entitled "MAN TRIUMPHANT"
No doubt many of those who saw that picture were reminded of the
great sacrifices made by man in the past. In the wake of
the aviator there are many memorial stones of mournful
It says much for the pluck and perseverance of aviators that they
have been willing to run the great risks which ever accompany
their efforts. Four years of the Great War have shown how
splendidly airmen have risen to the great demands made upon them.
In dispatch after dispatch from the front, tribute has been paid
to the gallant and devoted work of the Royal Flying Corps and the
Royal Naval Air Service. In a long and bitter struggle British
airmen have gradually asserted their supremacy in the air. In
all parts of the globe, in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in Palestine,
in Africa, the airman has been an indispensable adjunct of the
fighting forces. Truly it may be said that mastery of the air is
the indispensable factor of final victory.
The French Paper-maker who Invented the Balloon
In the year 1782 two young Frenchmen might have been seen one
winter night sitting over their cottage fire, performing the
curious experiment of filling paper bags with smoke, and letting
them rise up towards the ceiling. These young men were brothers,
named Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier, and their experiments
resulted in the invention of the balloon.
The brothers, like all inventors, seem to have had enquiring
minds. They were for ever asking the why and the wherefore of
things. "Why does smoke rise?" they asked. "Is there not some
strange power in the atmosphere which makes the smoke from
chimneys and elsewhere rise in opposition to the force of
gravity? If so, cannot we discover this power, and apply it to
the service of mankind?"
We may imagine that such questions were in the minds of those two
French paper-makers, just as similar questions were in the mind
of James Watt when he was discovering the power of steam. But
one of the most important attributes of an inventor is an
infinite capacity for taking pains, together with great patience.
And so we find the two brothers employing their leisure in what
to us would, be a childish pastime, the making of paper balloons.
The story tells us that their room was filled with smoke, which
issued from the windows as though the house were on fire. A
neighbour, thinking such was the case, rushed in, but, on being
assured that nothing serious was wrong, stayed to watch the tiny
balloons rise a little way from the thin tray which contained the
fire that made the smoke with which the bags were filled. The
experiments were not altogether successful, however, for the bags
rarely rose more than a foot or so from the tray. The neighbour
suggested that they should fasten the thin tray on to the bottom
of the bag, for it was thought that the bags would not ascend
higher because the smoke became cool; and if the smoke were
imprisoned within the bag much better results would be obtained.
This was done, and, to the great joy of the brothers and their
visitor, the bag at once rose quickly to the ceiling.
But though they could make the bags rise their great trouble was
that they did not know the cause of this ascent. They thought,
however, that they were on the eve of some great discovery, and,
as events proved, they were not far wrong. For a time they
imagined that the fire they had used generated some special gas,
and if they could find out the nature of this gas, and the means
of making it in large quantities, they would be able to add to
Of course, in the light of modern knowledge, it seems strange
that the brothers did not know that the reason the bags rose, was
not because of any special gas being used, but owing to the
expansion of air under the influence of heat, whereby hot air
tends to rise. Every schoolboy above the age of twelve knows
that hot air rises upwards in the atmosphere, and that it
continues to rise until its temperature has become the same as
that of the surrounding air.
The next experiment was to try their bags in the open air.
Choosing a calm, fine day, they made a fire similar to that used
in their first experiments, and succeeded in making the bag rise
nearly 100 feet. Later on, a much larger craft was built, which
was equally successful.
And now we must leave the experiments of the Montgolfiers for a
moment, and turn to the discovery of hydrogen gas by Henry
Cavendish, a well-known London chemist. In 1766 Cavendish proved
conclusively that hydrogen gas was not more than one-seventh the
weight of ordinary air. It at once occurred to Dr. Black, of
Glasgow, that if a thin bag could be filled with this light gas
it would rise in the air; but for various reasons his experiments
did not yield results of a practical nature for several years.
Some time afterwards, about a year before the Montgolfiers
commenced their experiments which we have already described,
Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian chemist, succeeded in making, with
hydrogen gas, soap-bubbles which rose in the air. Previous to
this he had experimented with bladders and paper bags; but the
bladders he found too heavy, and the paper too porous.
It must not be thought that the Montgolfiers experimented solely
with hot air in the inflation of their balloons. At one time
they used steam, and, later on, the newly-discovered hydrogen
gas; but with both these agents they were unsuccessful. It can
easily be seen why steam was of no use, when we consider that
paper was employed; hydrogen, too, owed its lack of success to
the same cause for the porosity of the paper allowed the gas
to escape quickly.
It is said that the name "balloon" was given to these paper craft
because they resembled in shape a large spherical vessel used
in chemistry, which was known by that name. To the brothers
Montgolfier belongs the honour of having given the name to this
type of aircraft, which, in the two succeeding centuries, became
After numerous experiments the public were invited to witness the
inflation of a particularly huge balloon, over 30 feet in
diameter. This was accomplished over a fire made of wool and
straw. The ascent was successful, and the balloon, after rising
to a height of some 7000 feet, fell to earth about two miles
It may be imagined that this experiment aroused enormous interest
in Paris, whence the news rapidly spread over all France and to
Britain. A Parisian scientific society invited Stephen
Montgolfier to Paris in order that the citizens of the metropolis
should have their imaginations excited by seeing the hero of
these remarkable experiments. Montgolfier was not a rich man,
and to enable him to continue his experiments the society granted
him a considerable sum of money. He was then enabled to
construct a very fine balloon, elaborately decorated and
painted, which ascended at Versailles in the presence of the
To add to the value of this experiment three animals were sent up
in a basket attached to the balloon. These were a sheep, a cock,
and a duck. All sorts of guesses were made as to what would be
the fate of the "poor creatures". Some people imagined that
there was little or no air in those higher regions and that the
animals would choke; others said they would be frozen to death.
But when the balloon descended the cock was seen to be strutting
about in his usual dignified way, the sheep was chewing the cud,
and the duck was quacking for water and worms.
At this point we will leave the work of the brothers Montgolfier.
They had succeeded in firing the imagination of nearly every
Frenchman, from King Louis down to his humblest subject.
Strange, was it not, though scores of millions of people had seen
smoke rise, and clouds float, for untold centuries, yet no one,
until the close of the eighteenth century, thought of making a
The learned Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, who lived in the
thirteenth century, seems to have thought of the possibility of
producing a contrivance that would float in air. His idea was
that the earth's atmosphere was a "true fluid", and that it had
an upper surface as the ocean has. He quite believed that on
this upper surface--subject, in his belief, to waves similar to
those of the sea--an air-ship might float if it once succeeded in
rising to the required height. But the difficulty was to reach
the surface of this aerial sea. To do this he proposed to make a
large hollow globe of metal, wrought as thin as the skill of man
could make it, so that it might be as light as possible, and this
vast globe was to be filled with "liquid fire". Just what
"liquid fire" was, one cannot attempt to explain, and it is
doubtful if Bacon himself had any clear idea. But he doubtless
thought of some gaseous substance lighter than air, and so he
would seem to have, at least, hit upon the principle underlying
the construction of the modern balloon. Roger Bacon had ideas
far in advance of his time, and his experiments made such an
impression of wonder on the popular mind that they were believed
to be wrought by black magic, and the worthy monk was classed
among those who were supposed to be in league with Satan.
The First Man to Ascend in a Balloon
The safe descent of the three animals, which has already been
related, showed the way for man to venture up in a balloon. In
our time we marvel at the daring of modern airmen, who ascend to
giddy heights, and, as it were, engage in mortal combat with the
demons of the air. But, courageous though these deeds are, they
are not more so than those of the pioneers of ballooning.
In the eighteenth century nothing was known definitely of the
conditions of the upper regions of the air, where, indeed, no
human being had ever been; and though the frail Montgolfier
balloons had ascended and descended with no outward happenings,
yet none could tell what might be the risk to life in committing
oneself to an ascent. There was, too, very special danger in
making an ascent in a hot-air balloon. Underneath the huge
envelope was suspended a brazier, so that the fabric of the
balloon was in great danger of catching fire.
It was at first suggested that two French criminals under
sentence of death should be sent up, and, if they made a safe
descent, then the way would be open for other aeronauts to
venture aloft. But everyone interested in aeronautics in those
days saw that the man who first traversed the unexplored regions
of the air would be held in high honour, and it seemed hardly
right that this honour should fall to criminals. At any rate
this was the view of M. Pilatre de Rozier, a French gentleman,
and he determined himself to make the pioneer ascent.
De Rozier had no false notion of the risks he was prepared to
run, and he superintended with the greatest care the construction
of his balloon. It was of enormous size, with a cage slung
underneath the brazier for heating the air. Befors making his
free ascent De Rozier made a trial ascent with the balloon held
captive by a long rope.
At length, in November, 1783, accompanied by the Marquis
d'Arlandes as a passenger, he determined to venture. The
experiment aroused immense excitement all over France, and a
large concourse of people were gathered together on the outskirts
of Paris to witness the risky feat. The balloon made a perfect
ascent, and quickly reached a height of about half a mile above
sea-level. A strong current of air in the upper regions caused
the balloon to take an opposite direction from that intended, and
the aeronauts drifted right over Paris. It would have gone hard
with them if they had been forced to descend in the city, but the
craft was driven by the wind to some distance beyond the suburbs
and they alighted quite safely about six miles from their
starting-point, after having been up in the air for about half an
Their voyage, however, had by no means been free from anxiety.
We are told that the fabric of the balloon repeatedly caught
fire, which it took the aeronauts all their time to extinguish.
At times, too, they came down perilously near to the Seine, or to
the housetops of Paris, but after the most exciting half-hour of
their lives they found themselves once more on Mother Earth.
Here we must make a slight digression and speak of the invention
of the hydrogen, or gas, balloon. In a previous chapter we read
of the discovery of hydrogen gas by Henry Cavendish, and the
subsequent experiments with this gas by Dr. Black, of Glasgow.
It was soon decided to try to inflate a balloon with this
"inflammable air"--as the newly-discovered gas was called--and
with this end in view a large public subscription was raised in
France to meet the heavy expenses entailed in the venture. The
work was entrusted to a French scientist, Professor Charles, and
two brothers named Robert.
It was quickly seen that paper, such as was used by the
Montgolfiers, was of little use in the construction of a gas
balloon, for the gas escaped. Accordingly the fabric was made of
silk and varnished with a solution of india-rubber and
turpentine. The first hydrogen balloon was only about 13 feet in
diameter, for in those early days the method of preparing
hydrogen was very laborious and costly, and the constructors
thought it advisable not to spend too much money over the initial
experiments, in case they should be a failure.
In August, 1783--an eventful year in the history of aeronautics--
the first gas-inflated balloon was sent up, of course
unaccompanied by a passenger. It shot up high in the air much
more rapidly than Montgolfier's hot-air balloon had done, and was
soon beyond the clouds. After a voyage of nearly an hour's
duration it descended in a field some 15 miles away. We are told
that some peasants at work near by fled in the greatest alarm at
this strange monster which settled in their midst. An old print
shows them cautiously approaching the balloon as it lay heaving
on the ground, stabbing it with pitchforks, and beating it with
flails and sticks. The story goes that one of the alarmed
farmers poured a charge of shot into it with his gun, no doubt
thinking that he had effectually silenced the panting demon
contained therein. To prevent such unseemly occurrences in the
future the French Government found it necessary to warn the
people by proclamation that balloons were perfectly harmless
objects, and that the experiments would be repeated.
We now have two aerial craft competing for popular favour: the
Montgolfier hot-air balloon and the "Charlier" or gas-inflated
balloon. About four months after the first trial trip of the
latter the inventors decided to ascend in a specially-constructed
hydrogen-inflated craft. This balloon, which was 27 feet in
diameter, contained nearly all the features of the modern
balloon. Thus there was a valve at the top by means of which the
gas could be let out as desired; a cord net covered the whole
fabric, and from the loop which it formed below the neck of the
balloon a car was suspended; and in the car there was a quantity
of ballast which could be cast overboard when necessary.
It may be imagined that this new method of aerial navigation had
thoroughly aroused the excitability of the French nation, so that
thousands of people were met together just outside Paris on the
17th December to see Professor Charles and his mechanic,
Robelt, ascend in their new craft. The ascent was successful in
every way; the intrepid aeronauts, who carried a barometer, found
that they had quickly reached an altitude of over a mile.
After remaining aloft for nearly two hours they came down.
Professor Charles decided to ascend again, this time by himself,
and with a much lighter load the balloon rose about two miles
above sea-level. The temperature at this height became very low,
and M. Charles was affected by violent pain in his right ear and
jaw. During the voyage he witnessed the strange phenomenon of a
double sunset; for, before the ascent, the sun had set behind the
hills overshadowing the valleys, and when he rose above the
hill-tops he saw the sun again, and presently saw it set again.
There is no doubt that the balloon would have risen several
thousand feet higher, but the professor thought it would burst,
and he opened the valve, eventually making a safe descent about 7
miles from his starting-place.
England lagged behind her French neighbour's in balloon
aeronautics--much as she has recently done in aviation--for a
considerable time, and,it was not till August of the following
year (1784) that the first balloon ascent was made in Great
Britain, by Mr. J. M. Tytler. This took place at Edinburgh in
a fire balloon. Previous to this an Italian, named Lunardi, had
in November, 1783, dispatched from the Artillery Ground, in
London, a small balloon made of oil-silk, 10 feet in diameter and
weighing 11 pounds. This small craft was sent aloft at one
o'clock, and came down, about two and a half hours later, in
Sussex, about 48 miles from its starting-place.
In 1784 the largest balloon on record was sent up from Lyons.
This immense craft was more than 100 feet in diameter, and stood
about 130 feet high. It was inflated with hot air over a straw
fire, and seven passengers were carried, including Joseph
Montgolfier and Pilatre de Rozier.
But to return to de Rozier, whom we left earlier in the chapter,
after his memorable ascent near Paris. This daring Frenchman
decided to cross the Channel, and to prevent the gas cooling, and
the balloon falling into the sea, he hit on the idea of
suspending a small fire balloon under the neck of another balloon
inflated with hydrogen gas. In the light of our modern knowledge
of the highly-inflammable nature of hydrogen, we wonder how
anyone could have attempted such an adventure; but there had been
little experience of this newly-discovered gas in those days. We
are not surprised to read that, when high in the air, there was
an awful explosion and the brave aeronaut fell to the earth and
was dashed to death.
The First Balloon Ascent in England
It has been said that the honour of making the first ascent in a
balloon from British soil must be awarded to Mr. Tytler. This
took place in Scotland. In this chapter we will relate the
almost romantic story of the first ascent made in England.
This was carried out successfully by Lunardi, the Italian of whom
we have previously spoken. This young foreigner, who was engaged
as a private secretary in London, had his interest keenly aroused
by the accounts of the experiments being carried out in balloons
in France, and he decided to attempt similar experiments in this
But great difficulties stood in his way. Like many other
inventors and would-be airmen, he suffered from lack of funds to
build his craft, and though people whom he approached for
financial aid were sympathetic, many of them were unwilling to
subscribe to his venture. At length, however, by indomitable
perseverance, he collected enough money to defray the cost of
building his balloon, and it was arranged that he should ascend
from the Artillery Ground, London, in September, 1784.
His craft was a "Charlier"--that is, it was modelled after the
hydrogen-inflated balloon built by Professor Charles--and it
resembled in shape an enormous pear. A wide hoop encircled the
neck of the envelope, and from this hoop the car was suspended by
It is said that on the day announced for the ascent a crowd of
nearly 200,000 had assembled, and that the Prince of Wales was an
interested spectator. Farmers and labourers and, indeed, all
classes of people from the prince down to he humblest subject,
were represented, and seldom had London's citizens been more
Many of them, however, were incredulous, especially when an
insufficiency of gas caused a long delay before the balloon could
be liberated. Fate seemed to be thwarting the plucky Italian at
every step. Even at the last minute, when all arrangements had
been perfected as far as was humanly possible, and the crowd was
agog with excitement, it appeared probable that he would have to
postpone the ascent.
It was originally intended that Lunardi should be accompanied by
a passenger; but as there was a shortage of gas the balloon's
lifting power was considerably lessened, and he had to take the
trip with a dog and cat for companions. A perfect ascent was
made, and in a few moments the huge balloon was sailing
gracefully in a northerly direction over innumerable housetops.
This trip was memorable in another way. It was probably the only
aerial cruise where a Royal Council was put off in order to
witness the flight. It is recorded that George the Third was in
conference with the Cabinet, and when news arrived in the Council
Chamber that Lunardi was aloft, the king remarked: Gentlemen, we
may resume our deliberations at pleasure, but we may never see
poor Lunardi again!"
The journey was uneventful; there was a moderate northerly
breeze, and the aeronaut attained a considerable altitude, so
that he and his animals were in danger of frost-bite. Indeed,
one of the animals suffered so severely from the effects of the
cold that Lunardi skilfully descended low enough to drop it
safely to earth, and then, throwing out ballast, once more
ascended. He eventually came to earth near a Hertfordshire
village about 30 miles to the north of London.
The Father of British Aeronauts
No account of the early history of English aeronautics could
possibly be complete unless it included a description of the
Nassau balloon, which was inflated by coal-gas, from the
suggestion of Mr. Charles Green, who was one of Britain's most
famous aeronauts. Because of his institution of the modern
method of using coal-gas in a balloon, Mr. Green is generally
spoken of as the Father of British Aeronautics. During the close
of the eighteenth and the opening years of the nineteenth century
there had been numerous ascents in Charlier balloons, both in
Britain and on the Continent. It had already been discovered
that hydrogen gas was highly dangerous and also expensive, and
Mr. Green proposed to try the experiment of inflating a balloon
with ordinary coal-gas, which had now become fairly common in
most large towns, and was much less costly than hydrogen.
Critics of the new scheme assured the promoters that coal-gas
would be of little use for a balloon, averring that it had
comparatively little lifting power, and aeronauts could never
expect to rise to any great altitude in such a balloon. But
Green firmly believed that his theory was practical, and he put
it to the test. The initial experiments quite convinced him that
he was right. Under his superintendence a fine balloon about 80
feet high, built of silk, was made in South London, and the car
was constructed to hold from fifteen to twenty passengers. When
the craft was completed it was proposed to send it to Paris for
exhibition purposes, and the inventor, with two friends, Messrs.
Holland and Mason, decided to take it over the Channel by air.
It is said that provisions were taken in sufficient quantities to
last a fortnight, and over a ton of ballast was shipped.
The journey commenced in November, 1836, late in the afternoon,
as the aeronauts had planned to cross the sea by night. A fairly
strong north-west wind quickly bore them to the coast, and in
less than an hour they found themselves over the lights of
Calais. On and on they went, now and then entirely lost to Earth
through being enveloped in dense fog; hour after hour went by,
until at length dawn revealed a densely-wooded tract of country
with which they were entirely unfamiliar. They decided to land,
and they were greatly surprised to find that they had reached
Weilburg, in Nassau, Germany. The whole journey of 500 miles had
been made in eighteen hours.
Probably no British aeronaut has made more daring and exciting
ascents than Mr. Green--unless it be a member of the famous
Spencer family, of whom we speak in another chapter. It is said
that Mr. Green went aloft over a thousand times, and in later
years he was accompanied by various passengers who were making
ascents for scientific purposes. His skill was so great that
though he had numerous hairbreadth escapes he seldom suffered
much bodily harm. He lived to the ripe old age of eighty-five.
No doubt many of those who read this book have seen an aeronaut
descend from a balloon by the aid of a parachute. For many years
this performance has been one of the most attractive items on the
programmes of fetes, galas, and various other outdoor
The word "parachute" has been almost bodily taken from the French
language. It is derived from the French parer to parry, and
chute a fall. In appearance a parachute is very similar to an
M. Blanchard, one of the pioneers of ballooning, has the honour
of first using a parachute, although not in person. The first
"aeronaut" to descend by this apparatus was a dog. The
astonished animal was placed in a basket attached to a parachute,
taken up in a balloon, and after reaching a considerable altitude
was released. Happily for the dog the parachute acted quite
admirably, and the animal had a graceful and gentle descent.
Shortly afterwards a well-known French aeronaut, M. Garnerin, had
an equally satisfactory descent, and soon the parachute was used
by most of the prominent aeronauts of the day. Mr. Cocking, a
well-known balloonist, held somewhat different views from those
of other inventors as to the best form of construction of
parachutes. His idea was that a parachute should be very large
and rather heavy in order to be able to support a great weight.
His first descent from a great height was also his last. In
1837, accompanied by Messrs. Spencer and Green, he went up with
his parachute, attached to the Nassau balloon. At a height of
about a mile the parachute was liberated, but it failed to act
properly; the inventor was cast headlong to earth, and dashed to
From time to time it has been thought that the parachute might be
used for life-saving on the modern dirigible air-ship, and even
on the aeroplane, and experiments have been carried out with that
end in view. A most thrilling descent from an air-ship by means
of a parachute was that made by Major Maitland, Commander of the
British Airship Squadron, which forms part of the Royal Flying
Corps. The descent took place from the Delta air-ship, which
ascended from Farnborough Common. In the car with Major Maitland
were the pilot, Captain Waterlow, and a passenger. The parachute
was suspended from the rigging of the Delta, and when a height of
about 2000 feet had been reached it was dropped over to the side
of the car. With the dirigible travelling at about 20 miles an
hour the major climbed over the car and seated himself in the
parachute. Then it became detached from the Delta and shot
downwards for about 200 feet at a terrific rate. For a moment
or two it was thought that the opening apparatus had failed to
work; but gradually the "umbrella" opened, and the gallant major
had a gentle descent for the rest of the distance.
This experiment was really made in order to prove the stability
of an air-ship after a comparatively great weight was suddenly
removed from it. Lord Edward Grosvenor, who is attached to the
Royal Flying Corps, was one of the eyewitnesses of the descent.
In speaking of it he said: "We all think highly of Major
Maitland's performance, which has shown how the difficulty of
lightening an air-ship after a long flight can be surmounted.
During a voyage of several hours a dirigible naturally loses gas,
and without some means of relieving her of weight she might have
to descend in a hostile country. Major Maitland has proved the
practicability of members of an air-ship's crew dropping to the
ground if the necessity arises."
A descent in a parachute has also been made from an aeroplane by
M. Pegoud, the daring French airman, of whom we speak later. A
certain Frenchman, M. Bonnet, had constructed a parachute which
was intended to be used by the pilot of an aeroplane if on any
occasion he got into difficulties. It had been tried in many
ways, but, unfortunately for the inventor, he could get no pilot
to trust himself to it. Tempting offers were made to pilots of
world-wide fame, but either the risk was thought to be too great,
or it was believed that no practical good would come of the
experiment. At last the inventor approached M. Pegoud, who
undertook to make the descent. This was accomplished from a
great height with perfect safety. It seems highly probable that
in the near future the parachute will form part of the equipment
of every aeroplane and air-ship.
Some British Inventors of Air-ships
The first Englishman to invent an air-ship was Mr. Stanley
Spencer, head of the well-known firm of Spencer Brothers, whose
worksare at Highbury, North London.
This firm has long held an honourable place in aeronautics, both
in the construction of air-craft and in aerial navigation.
Spencer Brothers claim to be the premier balloon manufacturers in
the world, and, at the time of writing, eighteen balloons and two
dirigibles lie in the works ready for use. In these works there
may also be seen the frame of the famous Santos-Dumont air-ship,
referred to later in this book.
In general appearance the first Spencer air-ship was very similar
to the airship flown by Santos-Dumont; that is, there was the
cigar-shaped balloon, the small engine, and the screw propellor
for driving the craft forward.
But there was one very important distinction between the two
air-ships. By a most ingenious contrivance the envelope was made
so that, in the event of a large and serious escape of gas, the
balloon would assume the form of a giant umbrella, and fall to
earth after the manner of a parachute.
All inventors profit, or should profit, by the experience of
others, whether such experience be gained by success or failure.
It was found that Santos-Dumont's air-ship lost a considerable
amount of gas when driven through the air, and on several
occasions the whole craft was in great danger of collapse. To
keep the envelope inflated as tightly as possible Mr. Spencer, by
a clever contrivance, made it possible to force air into the
balloon to replace the escaped gas.
The first Spencer air-ship was built for experimental purposes.
It was able to lift only one person of light weight, and was thus
a great contrast to the modern dirigible which carries a crew of
thirty or forty people. Mr. Spencer made several exhibition
flights in his little craft at the Crystal Palace, and so
successful were they that he determined to construct a much
The second Spencer air-ship, first launched in 1903, was nearly
100 feet long. There was one very important distinction between
this and other air-ships built at that time: the propeller was
placed in front of the craft, instead of at the rear, as is the
case in most air-ships. Thus the craft was pulled through the
air much after the manner of an aeroplane.
In the autumn of 1903 great enthusiasm was aroused in London by
the announcement that Mr. Spencer proposed to fly from the
Crystal Palace round the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and back to
his starting-place. This was a much longer journey than that
made by Santos-Dumont when he won the Deutsch prize.
Tens of thousands of London's citizens turned out to witness the
novel sight of a giant air-ship hovering over the heart of their
city, and it was at once seen what enormous possibilities there
were in the employment of such craft in time of war. The writer
remembers well moving among the dense crowds and hearing
everywhere such remarks as these:
"What would happen if a few bombs were thrown over the side of
the air-ship?" "Will there be air-fleets in future, manned by
the soldiers or sailors?" Indeed the uppermost thought in
people's minds was not so much the possibility of Mr. Spencer
being able to complete his journey successfully--nearly everyone
recognized that air-ship construction had now advanced so far
that it was only a matter of time for an ideal craft to be
built--but that the coming of the air-ship was an affair of grave
The great craft, glistening in the sunlight, sailed majestically
from the south, but when it reached the Cathedral it refused to
turn round and face the wind. Try how he might, Mr. Spencer
could not make any progress. It was a thrilling sight to witness
this battle with the elements, right over the heart of the
largest city in the world. At times the air-ship seemed to be
standing quite still, head to wind. Unfortunately, half a gale
had sprung up, and the 24-horse-power engine was quite incapable
of conquering so stiff a breeze, and making its way home again.
After several gallant attempts to circle round the dome, Mr.
Spencer gave up in despair, and let the monster air-ship drift
with the wind over the northern suburbs of the city until a
favourable landing-place near Barnet was reached, where he
The Spencer air-ships are of the non-rigid type. Spencer air-ship
A comprises a gas vessel for hydrogen 88 feet long and 24 feet
in diameter, with a capacity of 26,000 cubic feet. The framework
is of polished ash wood, made in sections so that it can easily
be taken to pieces and transported, and the length over all
is 56 feet. Two propellers 7 feet 6 inches diameter, made of
satin-wood, are employed to drive the craft, which is equipped
with a Green engine of from 35 to 40 horse-power.
Spencer's air-ship B is a much larger vessel, being 150 feet long
and 35 feet in diameter, with a capacity for hydrogen of 100,000
cubic feet. The framework is of steel and aluminium, made in
sections, with cars for ten persons, including aeronauts,
mechanics, and passengers. It is driven with two petrol aerial
engines of from 50 to 60 horse-power.
About the time that Mr. Spencer was experimenting with his large
air-ship, Dr. Barton, of Beckenham, was forming plans for an even
larger craft. This he laid down in the spacious grounds of the
Alexandra Park, to the north of London. An enormous shed was
erected on the northern slopes of the park, but visitors to the
Alexandra Palace, intent on a peep at the monster air-ship under
construction, were sorely disappointed, as the utmost secrecy in
the building of the craft was maintained.
The huge balloon was 43 feet in diameter and 176 feet long, with
a gas capacity of 235,000 cubic feet. To maintain the external
form of the envelope a smaller balloon, or compensator, was
placed inside the larger one. The framework was of bamboo, and
the car was attached by about eighty wire-cables. The wooden
deck was about 123 feet in length. Two 50-horse-power engines
drove four propellers, two of which were at either end.
The inventor employed a most ingenious contrivance to preserve
the horizontal balance of the air-ship. Fitted, one at each end
of the carriage, were two 50-gallon tanks. These tanks were
connected with a long pipe, in the centre of which was a
hand-pump. When the bow of the air-ship dipped, the man at the
pump could transfer some of the water from the fore-tank to the
after-tank, and the ship would right itself. The water could
similarly be transferred from the after-tank to the fore-tank
when the stern of the craft pointed downwards.
There were many reports, in the early months of 1905, that the
air-ship was going to be brought out from the shed for its trial
flights, and the writer, in common with many other residents in
the vicinity of the park, made dozens of journeys to the shed in
the expectation of seeing the mighty dirigible sail away. But
for months we were doomed to disappointment; something always
seemed to go wrong at the last minute, and the flight had to be
At last, in 1905, the first ascent took place. It was
unsuccessful. The huge balloon, made of tussore silk, cruised
about for some time, then drifted away with the breeze, and came
to grief in landing.
A clever inventor of air-ships, a young Welshman, Mr. E. T.
Willows, designed in 1910, an air-ship in which he flew from
Cardiff to London in the dark--a distance of 139 miles. In the
same craft he crossed the English Channel a little later.
Mr. Willows has a large shed in the London aerodrome at Hendon,
and he is at present working there on a new air-ship. For some
time he has been the only successful private builder of air-ships
in Great Britain. The Navy possess a small Willows air-ship.
Messrs. Vickers, the famous builders of battleships, are giving
attention to the construction of air-ships for the Navy, in their
works at Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness. This firm has erected
an enormous shed, 540 feet long, 150 feet broad, and 98 feet
high. In this shed two of the largest air-ships can be built
side by side. Close at hand is an extensive factory for the
production of hydrogen gas.
At each end of the roof are towers from which the difficult task
of safely removing an air-ship from the shed can be directed.
At the time of writing, the redoubtable DORA (Defence of the
Realm Act) forbids any but the vaguest references to what is
going forward in the way of additions to our air forces. But it
may be stated that air-ships are included in the great
constructive programme now being carried out. It is not long
since the citizens of Glasgow were treated to the spectacle of a
full-sized British "Zep" circling round the city prior to her
journey south, and so to regions unspecified. And use, too, is
being found by the naval arm for that curious hybrid the "Blimp",
which may be described as a cross between an aeroplane and an
The First Attempts to Steer a Balloon
For nearly a century after the invention of the Montgolfier and
Charlier balloons there was not much progress made in the science
of aeronautics. True, inventors such as Charles Green suggested
and carried out new methods of inflating balloons, and scientific
observations of great importance were made by balloonists both in
Britain and on the Continent. But in the all-important work of
steering the huge craft, progress was for many years practically
at a standstill. All that the balloonist could do in controlling
his balloon was to make it ascend or descend at will; he could
not guide its direction of flight. No doubt pioneers of
aeronautics early turned their attention to the problem of
providing some apparatus, or some method, of steering their
craft. One inventor suggested the hoisting of a huge sail at the
side of the envelope; but when this was done the balloon simply
turned round with the sail to the front. It had no effect on the
direction of flight of the balloon. "Would not a rudder be of
use?" someone asked. This plan was also tried, but was equally
Perhaps some of us may wonder how it is that a rudder is not as
serviceable on a balloon as it is on the stern of a boat. Have
you ever found yourself in a boat on a calm day, drifting idly
down stream, and going just as fast as the stream goes? Work the
rudder how you may, you will not alter the boat's course. But
supposing your boat moves faster than the stream, or by some
means or other is made to travel slower than the current, then
your rudder will act, and you may take what direction you will.
It was soon seen that if some method could be adopted whereby the
balloon moved through the air faster or slower than the wind,
then the aeronaut would be able to steer it. Nowadays a
balloon's pace can be accelerated by means of a powerful
motor-engine, but the invention of the petrol-engine is very
recent. Indeed, the cause of the long delay in the construction
of a steerable balloon was that a suitable engine could not be
found. A steam-engine, with a boiler of sufficient power to
propel a balloon, is so heavy that it would require a balloon of
impossible size to lift it.
One of the first serious attempts to steer a balloon by means of
engine power was that made by M. Giffard in 1852. Giffard's
balloon was about 100 feet long and 40 feet in diameter, and
resembled in shape an elongated cigar. A 3-horse-power
steam-engine, weighing nearly 500 pounds, was provided to work a
propeller, but the enormous weight was so great in proportion to
the lifting power of the balloon that for a time the aeronaut
could not leave the ground. After several experiments the
inventor succeeded in ascending, when he obtained a speed against
the wind of about 6 miles an hour.
A balloon of great historical interest was that invented by
Dtipuy du Lonie, in the year 1872. Instead of using steam he
employed a number of men to propel the craft, and with this
air-ship he hoped to communicate with the besieged city of Paris.
His greatest speed against a moderate breeze was only about 5
miles an hour, and the endurance of the men did not allow of even
this speed being kept up for long at a time.
Dupuy foreshadowed the construction of the modern dirigible
air-ship by inventing a system of suspension links which
connected the car to the envelope; and he also used an internal
ballonet similar to those described in Chapter X.
In the year 1883 Tissandier invented a steerable balloon which
was fitted with an electric motor of 1 1/2 horse-power. This
motor drove a propeller, and a speed of about 8 miles an hour was
attained. It is interesting to contrast the power obtained from
this engine with that of recent Zeppelin air-ships, each of which
is fitted with three or four engines, capable of producing over
The first instance on record of an air-ship being steered back to
its starting-point was that of La France. This air-craft was the
invention of two French army captains, Reynard and Krebs. By
special and much-improved electric motors a speed of about 14
miles an hour was attained.
Thus, step by step, progress was made; but notwithstanding the
promising results it was quite evident that the engines were far
too heavy in proportion to the power they supplied. At length,
however, the internal-combustion engine, such as is used in
motor-cars, arrived, and it became at last possible to solve the
great problem of constructing a really-serviceable, steerable
The Strange Career of Count Zeppelin
In Berlin, on March 8, 1917, there passed away a man whose name
will be remembered as long as the English language is spoken.
For Count Zeppelin belongs to that little band of men who giving
birth to a work of genius have also given their names to the
christening of it; and so the patronymic will pass down the ages.
In the most sinister sense of the expression Count Zeppelin may
be said to have left his mark deep down upon the British race.
In course of time many old scores are forgiven and forgotten, but
the Zeppelin raids on England will survive, if only as a curious
failure. Their failure was both material and moral.
Anti-aircraft guns and our intrepid airmen brought one after
another of these destructive monsters blazing to the ground, and
their work of "frightfulness" was taken up by the aeroplane;
while more lamentable still was the failure of the Zeppelin as an
instrument of terror to the civil population. In the long list
of German miscalculations must be included that which pictured
the victims of bombardment from the air crying out in terror for
peace at any price.
Before the war Count Zeppelin was regarded by the British public
as rather a picturesque personality. He appeared in the romantic
guise of the inventor struggling against difficulties and
disasters which would soon have overwhelmed a man of less
resolute character. Even old age was included in his handicap,
for he was verging on seventy when still arming against a sea of
The ebb and flow of his fortunes were followed with intense
interest in this country, and it is not too much to say that the
many disasters which overtook his air-ships in their experimental
stages were regarded as world-wide calamities.
When, finally, the Count stood on the brink of ruin and the
Kaiser stepped forward as his saviour, something like a cheer
went up from the British public at this theatrical episode.
Little did the audience realize what was to be the outcome of
the association between these callous and masterful minds.
And now for a brief sketch of Count Zeppelin's life-story. He
was born in 1838, in a monastery on an island in Lake Constance.
His love of adventure took him to America, and when he was about
twenty-five years of age he took part in the American Civil War.
Here he made his first aerial ascent in a balloon belonging to
the Federal army, and in this way made that acquaintance with
aeronautics which became the ruling passion of his life.
After the war was over he returned to Germany, only to find
another war awaiting him--the Austro-Prussian campaign. Later on
he took part in the Franco-Prussian War, and in both campaigns he
But his heart was not in the profession of soldiering. He had
the restless mind of the inventor, and when he retired, a
general, after twenty years' military service, he was free to
give his whole attention to his dreams of aerial navigation. His
greatest ambition was to make his country pre-eminent in aerial
Friends to whom he revealed his inmost thoughts laughed at him
behind his back, and considered that he was "a little bit wrong
in his head". Certainly his ideas of a huge aerial fleet
appeared most extravagant, for it must be remembered that the
motor-engine had not then arrived, and there appeared no
reasonable prospect of its invention.
Perseverance, however, was the dominant feature of Count
Zeppelin's character; he refused to be beaten. His difficulties
were formidable. In the first place, he had to master the whole
science of aeronautics, which implies some knowledge of
mechanics, meteorology, and electricity. This in itself was no
small task for a man of over fifty years of age, for it was not
until Count Zeppelin had retired from the army that he began to
study these subjects at all deeply.
The next step was to construct a large shed for the housing of
his air-ship, and also for the purpose of carrying out numerous
costly experiments. The Count selected Friedrichshafen, on the
shores of Lake Constance, as his head-quarters. He decided to
conduct his experiments over the calm waters of the lake, in
order to lessen the effects of a fall. The original shed was
constructed on pontoons, and it could be turned round as desired,
so that the air-ship could be brought out in the lee of any wind
from whatsoever quarter it came.
It is said that the Count's private fortune of about L25,000 was
soon expended in the cost of these works and the necessary
experiments. To continue his work he had to appeal for funds to
all his friends, and also to all patriotic Germans, from the
At length, in 1908, there came a turning-point in his fortunes.
The German Government, which had watched the Count's progress
with great interest, offered to buy his invention outright if he
succeeded in remaining aloft in one of his dirigibles for
twenty-four hours. The Count did not quite succeed in his task,
but he aroused the great interest of the whole German nation, and
a Zeppelin fund was established, under the patronage of the
Kaiser, in every town and city in the Fatherland. In about a
month the fund amounted to over L300,000. With this sum the
veteran inventor was able to extend his works, and produce
air-ship after air-ship with remarkable rapidity.
When, war broke out it is probable that Germany possessed at
least thirteen air-ships which had fulfilled very difficult
tests. One had flown 1800 miles in a single journey. Thus the
East Coast of England, representing a return journey of less than
600 miles was well within their range of action.
A Zeppelin Air-ship and its Construction
After the Zeppelin fund had brought in a sum of money which
probably exceeded all expectations, a company was formed for the
construction of dirigibles in the Zeppelin works on Lake
Constance, and in 1909 an enormous air-ship was produced.
In shape a Zeppelin dirigible resembled a gigantic cigar, pointed
at both ends. If placed with one end on the ground in Trafalgar
Square, London, its other end would be nearly three times the
height of the Nelson Column, which, as you may know, is 166 feet.
From the diagram here given, which shows a sectional view of a
typical Zeppelin air-ship, we may obtain a clear idea of the main
features of the craft. From time to time, during the last dozen
years or so, the inventor has added certain details, but the main
features as shown in the illustration are common to all air-craft
of this type.
Zeppelin L1 was 525 feet in length, with a diameter of 50 feet.
Some idea of the size may be obtained through the knowledge that
she was longer than a modern Dreadnought. The framework was made
of specially light metal, aluminium alloy, and wood. This
framework, which was stayed with steel wire, maintained the shape
and rigidity of her gas-bags; hence vessels of this type are
known as RIGID air-ships. Externally the hull was covered with a
Though, from outside, a rigid air-ship looks to be all in one
piece, within it is divided into numerous compartments. In
Zeppelin L1 there were eighteen separate compartments, each of
which contained a balloon filled with hydrogen gas. The object
of providing the vessel with these small balloons, or ballonets,
all separate from one another, was to prevent the gas collecting
all at one end of the ship as the vessel travelled through the
air. Outside the ballonets there was a ring-shaped, double
bottom, containing non-inflammable gas, and the whole was
enclosed in rubber-coated fabric.
The crew and motors were carried in cars slung fore and aft. The
ship was propelled by three engines, each of 170 horse-power.
One engine was placed in the forward car, and the two others in
the after car. To steer her to right or left, she had six
vertical planes somewhat resembling box-kites, while eight
horizontal planes enabled her to ascend or descend.
In Zeppelin L2, which was a later type of craft, there were four
motors capable of developing 820 horse-power. These drove four
propellers, which gave the craft a speed of about 45 miles an
The cars were connected by a gangway built within the framework.
On the top of the gas-chambers was a platform of aluminium alloy,
carrying a 1-pounder gun, and used also as an observation
station. It is thought that L1 was also provided with four
machine-guns in her cars.
Later types of Zeppelins were fitted with a "wireless"
installation of sufficient range to transmit and receive messages
up to 350 miles. L1 could rise to the height of a mile in
favourable weather, and carry about 7 tons over and above her own
Even when on ground the unwieldy craft cause many anxious moments
to the officers and mechanics who handle them. Two of the line
have broken loose from their anchorage in a storm and have been
totally destroyed. Great difficulty is also experienced in
getting them in and out of their sheds. Here, indeed, is a
contrast with the ease and rapidity with which an aeroplane is
removed from its hangar.
It was maintained by the inventor that, as the vessel is rigid,
and therefore no pressure is required in the gas-chamber to
maintain its shape, it will not be readily vulnerable to
projectiles. But the Count did not foresee that the very
"frightfulness" of his engine of war would engender
counter-destructives. In a later chapter an account will be
given of the manner in which Zeppelin attacks upon these
islands were gradually beaten off by the combined efforts of
anti-aircraft guns and aeroplanes. To the latter, and the
intrepid pilots and fighters, is due the chief credit for the
final overthrow of the Zeppelin as a weapon of offence. Both the
British and French airmen in various brilliant sallies succeeded
in gradually breaking up and destroying this Armada of the Air;
and the Zeppelin was forced back to the one line of work in which
it has proved a success, viz., scouting for the German fleet in
the few timid sallies it has made from home ports.
The Semi-rigid Air-ship
Modern air-ships are of three general types: RIGID, SEMI-RIGID,
and NON-RIGID. These differ from one another, as the names
suggest, in the important feature, the RIGIDITY, NON-RIGIDITY,
and PARTIAL RIGIDITY of the gas envelope.
Hitherto we have discussed the RIGID type of vessel with which
the name of Count Zeppelin is so closely associated. This vessel
is, as we have seen, not dependent for its form on the gas-bag,
but is maintained in permanent shape by means of an aluminium
framework. A serious disadvantage to this type of craft is that
it lacks the portability necessary for military purposes. It is
true that the vessel can be taken to pieces, but not quickly.
The NON-RIGID type, on the other hand, can be quickly deflated,
and the parts of the car and engine can be readily transported to
the nearest balloon station when occasion requires.
In the SEMI-RIGID type of air-ship the vessel is dependent for
its form partly on its framework and partly on the form of the
gas envelope. The under side of the balloon consists of a flat
rigid framework, to which the planes are attached, and from which
the car, the engine, and propeller are suspended.
As the rigid type of dirigible is chiefly advocated in Germany,
so the semi-rigid craft is most popular in France. The famous
Lebaudy air-ships are good types of semi-rigid vessels. These
were designed for the firm of Lebaudy Freres by the well-known
French engineer M. Henri Julliot.
In November, 1902, M. Julliot and M. Surcouf completed an
air-ship for M. Lebaudy which attained a speed of nearly 25 miles
an hour. The craft, which was named Lebaudy I, made many
successful voyages, and in 1905 M. Lebaudy offered a second
vessel, Lebaudy II, to the French Minister of War, who accepted
it for the French nation, and afterwards decided to order another
dirigible, La Patrie, of the same type. Disaster, however,
followed these air-ships. Lebaudy I was torn from its anchorage
during a heavy gale in 1906, and was completely wrecked. La
Patrie, after travelling in 1907 from Paris to Verdun, in seven
hours, was, a few days later, caught in a gale, and the pilot was
forced to descend. The wind, however, was so strong that 200
soldiers were unable to hold down the unwieldy craft, and it was
torn from their hands. It sailed away in a north-westerly
direction over the Channel into England, and ultimately
disappeared into the North Sea, where it was subsequently
discovered some days after the accident.
Notwithstanding these disasters the French military authorities
ordered another craft of the same type, which was afterwards
named the Republique. This vessel made a magnificent flight of
six and a half hours in 1908, and it was considered to have quite
exceptional features, which eclipsed the previous efforts
of Messrs. Julliot and Lebaudy.
Unfortunately, however, this vessel was wrecked in a very
terrible manner. While out cruising with a crew of four officers
one of the propeller blades was suddenly fractured, and, flying
off with immense force, it entered the balloon, which it ripped
to pieces. The majestic craft crumpled up and crashed to the
ground, killing its crew in its fall.
In the illustration facing p. 17, of a Lebaudy air-ship, we have
a good type of the semi-rigid craft. In shape it somewhat
resembles an enormous porpoise, with a sharply-pointed nose.
The whole vessel is not as symmetrical as a Zeppelin dirigible,
but its inventors claim that the sharp prow facilitates the
steady displace ment of the air during flight. The stern is
rounded so as to provide sufficient support for the rear planes.
Two propellers are employed, and are fixed outside the car, one
on each side, and almost in the centre of the vessel. This is a
some what unusual arrangement. Some inventors, such as Mr.
Spencer, place the propellers at the prow, so that the air-ship
is DRAWN along; others prefer the propeller at the stern, whereby
the craft is PUSHED along; but M. Julliot chose the central
position, because there the disturbance of the air is smallest.
The body of the balloon is not quite round, for the lower part is
flattened and rests on a rigid frame from which the car is
suspended. The balloon is divided into three compartments, so
that the heavier air does not move to one part of the balloon
when it is tilted.
In the picture there is shown the petrol storage-tank, which is
suspended immediately under the rear horizontal plane, where it
is out of danger of ignition from the hot engine placed in the
A Non-rigid Balloon
Hitherto we have described the rigid and semi-rigid types of
air-ships. We have seen that the former maintains its shape
without assistance from the gas which inflates its envelope and
supplies the lifting power, while the latter, as its name
implies, is dependent for its form partly on the flat rigid
framework to which the car is attached, and partly on the gas
We have now to turn our attention to that type of craft known as
a NON-RIGID BALLOON. This vessel relies for its form ENTIRELY
upon the pressure of the gas, which keeps the envelope distended
with sufficient tautness to enable it to be driven through the
air at a considerable speed.
It will at once be seen that the safety of a vessel of this type
depends on the maintenance of the gas pressure, and that it is
liable to be quickly put out of action if the envelope becomes
torn. Such an occurrence is quite possible in war. A
well-directed shell which pierced the balloon would undoubtedly
be disastrous to air-ship and crew. For this reason the
non-rigid balloon does not appear to have much future value as a
fighting ship. But, as great speed can be obtained from it, it
seems especially suited for short overland voyages, either for
sporting or commercial purposes. One of its greatest advantages
is that it can be easily deflated, and can be packed away into a
very small compass.
A good type of the non-rigid air-ship is that built by Major Von
Parseval, which is named after its inventor. The Parseval has
been described as "a marvel of modern aeronautical construction",
and also as "one of the most perfect expressions of modern
aeronautics, not only on account of its design, but owing to its
The balloon has the elongated form, rounded or pointed at one
end, or both ends, which is common to most air-ships. The
envelope is composed of a rubber-texture fabric, and externally
it is painted yellow, so that the chemical properties of the
sun's rays may not injure the rubber. There are two smaller
interior balloons, or COMPENSATORS, into which can be pumped air
by means of a mechanically-driven fan or ventilator, to make up
for contraction of the gas when descending or meeting a cooler
atmosphere. The compensators occupy about one-quarter of the
To secure the necessary inclination of the balloon while in
flight, air can be transferred from one of the compensators, say
at the fore end of the ship, into the ballonet in the aft part.
Suppose it is desired to incline the bow of the craft upward,
then the ventilating fan would DEFLATE the fore ballonet and
INFLATE the aft one, so that the latter, becoming heavier, would
lower the stern and raise the bow of the vessel.
Along each side of the envelope are seen strips to which the car
suspension-cords are attached. To prevent these cords being
jerked asunder, by the rolling or pitching of the vessel,
horizontal fins, each 172 square feet in area, are provided at
each side of the rear end of the balloon. In the past several
serious accidents have been caused by the violent pitching of
the balloon when caught in a gale, and so severe have been the
stresses on the suspension cords that great damage has been done
to the envelope, and the aeronauts have been fortunate if they
have been able to make a safe descent.
The propeller and engine are carried by the car, which is slung
well below the balloon, and by an ingenious contrivance the car
always remains in a horizontal position, however much the balloon
may be inclined. It is no uncommon occurrence for the balloon to
make a considerable angle with the car beneath.
The propeller is quite a work of art. It has a diameter of about
14 feet, and consists of a frame of hollow steel tubes covered
with fabric. It is so arranged that when out of action its
blades fall lengthwise upon the frame supporting it, but when it
is set to work the blades at once open out. The engine weighs
770 pounds, and has six cylinders, which develop 100 horse-power
at 1200 revolutions a minute.
The vessel may be steered either to the right or the left by
means of a large vertical helm, some 80 square feet in area,
which is hinged at the rear end to a fixed vertical plane of 200
square feet area.
An upward or downward inclination is, as we have seen, effected
by the ballonets, but in cases of emergency these compensators
cannot be deflated or inflated sufficiently rapidly, and a large
movable weight is employed for altering the balance of the
In this country the authorities have hitherto favoured the
non-rigid air-ship for military and naval use. The Astra-Torres
belongs to this type of vessel, which can be rapidly deflated and
transported, and so, too, the air-ship built by Mr. Willows.
The Zeppelin and Gotha Raids
In the House of Commons recently Mr. Bonar Law announced that
since the commencement of the war 14,250 lives had been lost as
the result of enemy action by submarines and air-craft. A large
percentage of these figures represents women, children, and
One had become almost hardened to the German method of making war
on the civil population--that system of striving to act upon
civilian "nerves" by calculated brutality which is summed up in
the word "frightfulness". But the publication of these figures
awoke some of the old horror of German warfare. The sum total of
lives lost brought home to the people at home the fact that
bombardment from air and sea, while it had failed to shake their
MORAL, had taken a large toll of human life.
At first the Zeppelin raids were not taken very seriously in this
country. People rushed out of their houses to see the unwonted
spectacle of an air-ship dealing death and destruction from the
clouds. But soon the novelty began to wear off, and as the raids
became more frequent and the casualty lists grew larger, people
began to murmur against the policy of taking these attacks "lying
down". It was felt that "darkness and composure" formed but a
feeble and ignoble weapon of defence. The people spoke with no
uncertain voice, and it began to dawn upon the authorities that
the system of regarding London and the south-east coast as part
of "the front" was no excuse for not taking protective measures.
It was the raid into the Midlands on the night of 31st January,
1916, that finally shelved the old policy of do nothing. Further
justification, if any were needed, for active measures was
supplied by a still more audacious raid upon the east coast of
Scotland, upon which occasion Zeppelins soared over England--at
their will. Then the authorities woke up, and an extensive
scheme of anti-aircraft guns and squadrons of aeroplanes was
devised. About March of the year 1916 the Germans began to break
the monotony of the Zeppelin raids by using sea-planes as
variants. So there was plenty of work for our new defensive air
force. Indeed, people began to ask themselves why we should not
hit back by making raids into Germany. The subject was well
aired in the public press, and distinguished advocates came
forward for and against the policy of reprisals. At a
considerably later date reprisals carried the day, and, as we
write, air raids by the British into Germany are of frequent
In March, 1916, the fruits of the new policy began to appear, and
people found them very refreshing. A fleet of Zeppelins found,
on approaching the mouth of the Thames, a very warm reception.
Powerful searchlights, and shells from new anti-aircraft guns,
played all round them. At length a shot got home. One of the
Zeppelins, "winged" by a shell, began a wobbly retreat which
ended in the waters of the estuary. The navy finished the
business. The wrecked air-ship was quickly surrounded by a
little fleet of destroyers and patrol-boats, and the crew were
brought ashore, prisoners. That same night yet another Zeppelin
was hit and damaged in another part of the country.
Raids followed in such quick succession as to be almost of
nightly occurrence during the favouring moonless nights. Later,
the conditions were reversed, and the attacks by aeroplane were
all made in bright moonlight. But ever the defence became more
strenuous. Then aeroplanes began to play the role of "hornets",
as Mr. Winston Churchill, speaking rather too previously,
Lieutenant Brandon, R.F.C., succeeded in dropping several aerial
bombs on a Zeppelin during the raid on March 31, but it was not
until six months later that an airman succeeded in bringing down
a Zeppelin on British soil. The credit of repeating Lieutenant
Warneford's great feat belongs to Lieutenant W. R. Robinson, and
the fight was witnessed by a large gathering. It occurred in the
very formidable air raid on the night of September 2.
Breathlessly the spectators watched the Zeppelin harried by
searchlight and shell-fire. Suddenly it disappeared behind a veil
of smoke which it had thrown out to baffle its pursuers. Then it
appeared again, and a loud shout went up from the watching
thousands. It was silhouetted against the night clouds in a
faint line of fire. The hue deepened, the glow spread all round,
and the doomed airship began its crash to earth in a smother of
flame. The witnesses to this amazing spectacle naturally
supposed that a shell had struck the Zeppelin. Its tiny
assailant that had dealt the death-blow had been quite invisible
during the fight. Only on the following morning did the public
learn of Lieutenant Robinson's feat. It appeared that he had
been in the air a couple of hours, engaged in other conflicts
with his monster foes. Besides the V.C. the plucky airman won
considerable money prizes from citizens for destroying the first
Zeppelin on British soil.
The Zeppelin raids continued at varying intervals for the
remainder of the year. As the power of the defence increased the
air-ships were forced to greater altitudes, with a corresponding
decrease in the accuracy with which they could aim bombs on
specified objects. But, however futile the raids, and however
widely they missed their mark, there was no falling off in the
outrageous claims made in the German communiques. Bombs dropped
in fields, waste lands, and even the sea, masqueraded in the
reports as missiles which had sunk ships in harbour, destroyed
docks, and started fires in important military areas. So
persistent were these exaggerations that it became evident that
the Zeppelin raids were intended quite as much for moral effect
at home as for material damage abroad. The heartening effect of
the raids upon the German populace is evidenced by the mental
attitude of men made prisoners on any of the fronts. Only with
the utmost difficulty were their captors able to persuade them
that London and other large towns were not in ruins; that
shipbuilding was not at a standstill; and that the British people
was not ready at any moment to purchase indemnity from the raids
by concluding a German peace. When one method of terrorism fails
try another, was evidently the German motto. After the Zeppelin
the Gotha, and after that the submarine.
The next year--1917--brought in a very welcome change in the
situation. One Zeppelin after another met with its just deserts,
the British navy in particular scoring heavily against them. Nor
must the skill and enterprise of our French allies be forgotten.
In March, 1917, they shot down a Zeppelin at Compiegne, and seven
months later dealt the blow which finally rid these islands of
the Zeppelin menace.
For nearly a year London, owing to its greatly increased
defences, had been free from attack. Then, on the night of
October 19, Germany made a colossal effort to make good
their boast of laying London in ruins. A fleet of eleven
Zeppelins came over, five of which found the city. One, drifting
low and silently, was responsible for most of the casualties,
which totalled 34 killed and 56 injured.
The fleet got away from these shores without mishap. Then, at
long last, came retribution. Flying very high, they seem to have
encountered an aerial storm which drove them helplessly over
French territory. Our allies were swift to seize this golden
opportunity. Their airmen and anti-aircraft guns shot down no
less than four of the Zeppelins in broad daylight, one of which
was captured whole. Of the remainder, one at least drifted
over the Mediterranean, and was not heard of again. That was the
last of the Zeppelin, so far as the civilian population was
concerned. But, for nearly a year, the work of killing citizens
had been undertaken by the big bomb-dropping Gotha aeroplanes.
The work of the Gotha belongs rightly to the second part of this
book, which deals with aeroplanes and airmen; but it would be
convenient to dispose here of the part played by the Gotha in the
air raids upon this country.
The reconnaissance took place on Tuesday, November 28, 1916, when
in a slight haze a German aeroplane suddenly appeared over
London, dropped six bombs, and flew off. The Gotha was
intercepted off Dunkirk by the French, and brought down. Pilot
and observer-two naval lieutenants-were found to have a
large-scale map of London in their possession. The new era of
raids had commenced.
Very soon it became evident that the new squadron of Gothas were
much more destructive than the former fleets of unwieldy
Zeppelins. These great Gothas were each capable of dropping
nearly a ton of bombs. And their heavy armament and swift flight
rendered them far less vulnerable than the air-ship.
From March 1 to October 31, 1917, no less than twenty-two raids
took place, chiefly on London and towns on the south-east coast.
The casualties amounted to 484 killed and 410 wounded. The two
worst raids occurred June 13 on East London, and September 3 on
the Sheerness and Chatham area.
A squadron of fifteen aeroplanes carried out the raid, on June
13, and although they were only over the city for a period of
fifteen minutes the casualty list was exceedingly heavy--104
killed and 432 wounded. Many children were among the killed and
injured as the result of a bomb which fell upon a Council school.
The raid was carried out in daylight, and the bombs began to drop
before any warning could be given. Later, an effective and
comprehensive system of warnings was devised, and when people had
acquired the habit of taking shelter, instead of rushing out into
the street to see the aerial combats, the casualties began to
It is worthy of record that the possible danger to schools had
been anticipated, and for some weeks previously the children had
taken part in "Air Raid Drill". When the raid came, the children
behaved in the most exemplary fashion. They went through the
manoeuvres as though it was merely a rehearsal, and their bearing
as well as the coolness of the teachers obviated all danger from
panic. In this raid the enemy first made use of aerial
Large loss of life, due to a building being struck, was also the
feature of the moonlight raid on September 4. On this occasion
enemy airmen found a mark on the Royal Naval barracks at
Sheerness. The barracks were fitted with hammocks for sleeping,
and no less than 108 bluejackets lost their lives, the number of
wounded amounting to 92. Although the raid lasted nearly an hour
and powerful searchlights were brought into play, neither guns
nor our airmen succeeded in causing any loss to the raiders.
Bombs were dropped at a number of other places, including Margate
and Southend, but without result.
No less than six raids took place on London before the end of the
month, but the greatest number of killed in any one of the raids
was eleven, while on September 28 the raiders were driven off
before they could claim any victims. The establishment of a
close barrage of aerial guns did much to discourage the raiders,
and gradually London, from being the most vulnerable spot in the
British Isles, began to enjoy comparative immunity from attack.
Paris, too, during the Great War has had to suffer bombardment
from the air, but not nearly to the same extent as London. The
comparative immunity of Paris from air raids is due partly to the
prompt measures which were taken to defend the capital. The
French did not wait, as did the British, until the populace was
goaded to the last point of exasperation, but quickly instituted
the barrage system, in which we afterwards followed their lead.
Moreover, the French were much more prompt in adopting
retaliatory tactics. They hit back without having to wade
through long moral and philosophical disquisitions upon the
ethics of "reprisals". On the other hand, it must be remembered
that Paris, from the aerial standpoint, is a much more difficult
objective than London. The enemy airman has to cross the French
lines, which, like his own, stretch for miles in the rear.
Practically he is in hostile country all the time, and he has to
get back across the same dangerous air zones. It is a far easier
task to dodge a few sea-planes over the wide seas en route to
London. And on reaching the coast the airman has to evade or
fight scattered local defences, instead of penetrating the close
barriers which confront him all the way to Paris.
Since the first Zeppelin attack on Paris on March 21, 1915, when
two of the air-ships reached the suburbs, killing 23 persons and
injuring 30, there have been many raids and attempted raids, but
mostly by single machines. The first air raid in force upon the
French capital took place on January 31, 1918, when a squadron of
Gothas crossed the lines north of Compiegne. Two hospitals were
hit, and the casualties from the raid amounted to 20 killed and
After the Italian set-back in the winter of 1917, the Venetian
plain lay open to aerial bombardment by the Germans, who had
given substantial military aid to their Austrian allies. This
was an opportunity not to be lost by Germany, and Venice and
other towns of the plain were subject to systematic bombardment.
At the time of writing, Germany is beginning to suffer some of
the annoyances she is so ready to inflict upon others. The
recently constituted Air Ministry have just published figures
relating to the air raids into Germany from December 1, 1917, to
February 19, 1918 inclusive. During these eleven weeks no fewer
than thirty-five raids have taken place upon a variety of towns,
railways, works, and barracks. In the list figure such important
towns as Mannheim (pop. 20,000) and Metz (pop. 100,000). The
average weight of bombs dropped at each raid works out about 1000
lbs. This welcome official report is but one of many signs which
point the way to the growing supremacy of the Allies in the air.
AEROPLANES AND AIRMEN
Early Attempts in Aviation
The desire to fly is no new growth in humanity. For countless
years men have longed to emulate the birds--"To soar upward and
glide, free as a bird, over smiling fields, leafy woods, and
mirror-like lakes," as a great pioneer of aviation said. Great
scholars and thinkers of old, such as Horace, Homer, Pindar,
Tasso, and all the glorious line, dreamt of flight, but it has
been left for the present century to see those dreams fulfilled.
Early writers of the fourth century saw the possibility of aerial
navigation, but those who tried to put their theories in practice
were beset by so many difficulties that they rarely succeeded in
leaving the ground.
Most of the early pioneers of aviation believed that if a man
wanted to fly he must provide himself with a pair of wings
similar to those of a large bird. The story goes that a certain
abbot told King James IV of Scotland that he would fly from
Stirling Castle to Paris. He made for himself powerful wings
of eagles' feathers, which he fixed to his body and launched
himself into the air. As might be expected, he fell and broke
But although the muscles of man are of insufficient strength to
bear him in the air, it has been found possible, by using a motor
engine, to give to man the power of flight which his natural
weakness denied him.
Scientists estimate that to raise a man of about 12 stone in the
air and enable him to fly there would be required an immense pair
of wings over 20 feet in span. In comparison with the weight of
a man a bird's weight is remarkably small--the largest bird does
not weigh much more than 20 pounds--but its wing muscles are
infinitely stronger in proportion than the shoulder and arm
muscles of a man.
As we shall see in a succeeding chapter, the "wing" theory was
persevered with for many years some two or three centuries ago,
and later on it was of much use in providing data for the gradual
development of the modern aeroplane.
A Pioneer in Aviation
Hitherto we have traced the gradual development of the balloon
right from the early days of aeronautics, when the brothers
Montgolfier constructed their hot-air balloon, down to the most
modern dirigible. It is now our purpose, in this and subsequent
chapters, to follow the course of the pioneers of aviation.
It must not be supposed that the invention of the steerable
balloon was greatly in advance of that of the heavier-than-air
machine. Indeed, developments in both the dirigible airship and
the aeroplane have taken place side by side. In some cases men
like Santos Dumont have given earnest attention to both forms of
air-craft, and produced practical results with both. Thus, after
the famous Brazilian aeronaut had won the Deutsch prize for a
flight in an air-ship round the Eiffel tower, he immediately set
to work to construct an aeroplane which he subsequently piloted
at Bagatelle and was awarded the first "Deutsch prize" for
It is generally agreed that the undoubted inventor of the
aeroplane, practically in the form in which it now appears, was
an English engineer, Sir George Cayley. Just over a hundred
years ago this clever Englishman worked out complete plans for an
aeroplane, which in many vital respects embodied the principal
parts of the monoplane as it exists to-day.
There were wings which were inclined so that they formed a
lifting plane; moreover, the wings were curved, or "cambered",
similar to the wing of a bird, and, as we shall see in a later
chapter, this curve is one of the salient features of the plane
of a modern heavier-than-air machine. Sir George also advocated
the screw propeller worked by some form of "explosion" motor,
which at that time had not arrived. Indeed, if there had been a
motor available it is quite possible that England would have led
the way in aviation. But, unfortunately, owing to the absence of
a powerful motor engine, Sir George's ideas could not be
practically carried out till nearly a century later, and then
Englishmen were forestalled by the Wright brothers, of America,
as well as by several French inventors.
The distinguished French writer, Alphonse Berget, in his book,
The Conquest of the Air, pays a striking tribute to our English
inventor, and this, coming from a gentleman who is writing from a
French point of view, makes the praise of great value. In
alluding to Sir George, M. Berget says: "The inventor, the
incontestable forerunner of aviation, was an Englishman, Sir
George Cayley, and it was in 1809 that he described his project
in detail in Nicholson's Journal. . . . His idea embodied
'everything'--the wings forming an oblique sail, the empennage,
the spindle forms to diminish resistance, the screw-propeller,
the 'explosion' motor, . . . he even described a means of
securing automatic stability. Is not all that marvellous, and
does it not constitute a complete specification for everything in
"Thus it is necessary to inscribe the name of Sir George Cayley
in letters of gold, in the first page of the aeroplane's history.
Besides, the learned Englishman did not confine himself to
'drawing-paper': he built the first apparatus (without a motor)
which gave him results highly promising. Then he built a second
machine, this time with a motor, but unfortunately during the
trials it was smashed to pieces."
But were these ideas of any practical value? How is it that he
did not succeed in flying, if he had most of the component parts
of an aeroplane as we know it to-day?
The answer to the second question is that Sir George did not fly,
simply because there was no light petrol motor in existence; the
crude motors in use were far too heavy, in proportion to the
power developed, for service in a flying machine. It was
recognized, not only by Sir George, but by many other English
engineers in the first half of the nineteenth century, that as
soon as a sufficiently powerful and light engine did appear, then
half the battle of the conquest of the air would be won.
But his prophetic voice was of the utmost assistance to such
inventors as Santos Dumont, the Wright brothers, M. Bleriot, and
others now world-famed. It is quite safe to assume that they
gave serious attention to the views held by Sir George, which
were given to the world at large in a number of highly-interest-
ing lectures and magazine articles. "Ideas" are the very
foundation-stones of invention--if we may be allowed the figure
of speech--and Englishmen are proud, and rightly proud, to number
within their ranks the original inventor of the heavier-than-air
The "Human Birds"
For many years after the publication of Sir George Cayley's
articles and lectures on aviation very little was done in the way
of aerial experiments. True, about midway through the nineteenth
century two clever engineers, Henson and Stringfellow, built a
model aeroplane after the design outlined by Sir George; but
though their model was not of much practical value, a little more
valuable experience was accumulated which would be of service
when the time should come; in other words, when the motor engine
should arrive. This model can be seen at the Victoria and Albert
Museum, at South Kensington.
A few years later Stringfellow designed a tiny steam-engine,
which he fitted to an equally tiny monoplane, and it is said that
by its aid he was able to obtain a very short flight through the
air. As some recognition of his enterprise the Aeronautical
Society, which was founded in 1866, awarded him a prize of L100
for his engine.
The idea of producing a practical form of flying machine was
never abandoned entirely. Here and there experiments continued
to be carried out, and certain valuable conclusions were arrived
at. Many advanced thinkers and writers of half a century ago set
forth their opinions on the possibilities of human flight. Some
of them, like Emerson, not only believed that flight would come,
but also stated why it had not arrived. Thus Emerson, when
writing on the subject of air navigation about fifty years ago,
remarked: "We think the population is not yet quite fit for
them, and therefore there will be none. Our friend suggests so
many inconveniences from piracy out of the high air to orchards
and lone houses, and also to high fliers, and the total
inadequacy of the present system of defence, that we have not the
heart to break the sleep of the great public by the repetition of
these details. When children come into the library we put the
inkstand and the watch on the high shelf until they be a little
About the year 1870 a young German engineer, named Otto
Lilienthal, began some experiments with a motorless glider, which
in course of time were to make him world-famed. For nearly
twenty years Lilienthal carried on his aerial research work in
secrecy, and it was not until about the year 1890 that his
experimental work was sufficiently advanced for him to give
demonstrations in public.
The young German was a firm believer in what was known as the
"soaring-plane" theory of flight. From the picture here given we
can get some idea of his curious machine. It consisted of large
wings, formed of thin osiers, over which was stretched light
fabric. At the back were two horizontal rudders shaped
somewhat like the long forked tail of a swallow, and over these
was a large steering rudder. The wings were arranged around the
glider's body. The whole apparatus weighed about 40 pounds.
Lilienthal's flights, or glides, were made from the top of a
specially-constructed large mound, and in some cases from the
summit of a low tower. The "birdman" would stand on the top of
the mound, full to the wind, and run quickly forward with
outstretched wings. When he thought he had gained sufficient
momentum he jumped into the air, and the wings of the glider bore
him through the air to the base of the mound.
To preserve the balance of his machine--always a most difficult
feat--he swung his legs and hips to one side or the other, as
occasion required, and, after hundreds of glides had been made,
he became so skilful in maintaining the equilibrium of his
machine that he was able to cover a distance, downhill, of
Later on, Lilienthal abandoned the glider, or elementary form of
monoplane, and adopted a system of superposed planes,
corresponding to the modern biplane. The promising career of
this clever German was brought to an untimely end in 1896, when,
in attempting to glide from a height of about 80 yards, his
apparatus made a sudden downward swoop, and he broke his neck.
Now that Lillenthal's experiments had proved conclusively the
efficiency of wings, or planes, as carrying surfaces, other
engineers followed in his footsteps, and tried to improve on his
The first "birdman" to use a glider in this country was Mr. Percy
Pilcher who carried out his experiments at Cardross in Scotland.
His glides were at first made with a form of apparatus very
similar to that employed by Lilienthal, and in time he came to
use much larger machines. So cumbersome, however, was his
apparatus--it weighed nearly 4 stones--that with such a great
weight upon his shoulders he could not run forward quickly enough
to gain sufficient momentum to "carry off" from the hillside. To
assist him in launching the apparatus the machine was towed by
horses, and when sufficient impetus had been gained the tow-rope
was cast off.
Three years after Lilienthal's death Pilcher met with a similar
accident. While making a flight his glider was overturned, and
the unfortunate "birdman " was dashed to death.
In America there were at this time two or three "human birds",
one of the most famous being M. Octave Chanute. During the years
1895-7 Chanute made many flights in various types of gliding
machines, some of which had as many as half a dozen planes
arranged one above another. His best results, however, were
obtained by the two-plane machine, resembling to a remarkable
extent the modern biplane.
The Aeroplane and the Bird
We have seen that the inventors of flying machines in the early
days of aviation modelled their various craft somewhat in the
form of a bird, and that many of them believed that if the
conquest of the air was to be achieved man must copy nature and
provide himself with wings.
Let us closely examine a modern monoplane and discover in what
way it resembles the body of a bird in build.
First, there is the long and comparatively narrow body, or
FUSELAGE, at the end of which is the rudder, corresponding to the
bird's tail. The chassis, or under carriage, consisting of
wheels, skids, &c., may well be compared with the legs of a bird,
and the planes are very similar in construction to the bird's
wings. But here the resemblance ends: the aeroplane does not
fly, nor will it ever fly, as a bird flies.
If we carefully inspect the wing of a bird--say a large bird,
such as the crow--we shall find it curved or arched from front to
back. This curve, however, is somewhat irregular. At the front
edge of the wing it is sharpest, and there is a gradual dip or
slope backwards and downwards. There is a special reason for
this peculiar structure, as we shall see in a later chapter.
Now it is quite evident that the inventors of aeroplanes have
modelled the planes of their craft on the bird's wing. Strictly
speaking, the word "plane" is a misnomer when applied to the
supporting structure of an aeroplane. Euclid defines a plane, or
a plane surface, as one in which, any two points being taken, the
straight line between them lies wholly in that surface. But the
plane of a flying machine is curved, or CAMBERED, and if one
point were taken on the front of the so-called plane, and another
on the back, a straight line joining these two points could not
possibly lie wholly on the surface.
All planes are not cambered to the same extent: some have a very
small curvature; in others the curve is greatly pronounced.
Planes of the former type are generally fitted to racing
aeroplanes, because they offer less resistance to the air than do
deeply-cambered planes. Indeed, it is in the degree of camber
that the various types of flying machine show their chief
diversity, just as the work of certain shipmasters is known by
the particular lines of the bow and stern of the vessels which
are built in their yards.
Birds fly by a flapping movement of their wings, or by soaring.
We are quite familiar with both these actions: at one time the
bird propels itself by means of powerful muscles attached to its
wings by means of which the wings are flapped up and down; at
another time the bird, with wings nicely adjusted so as to take
advantage of all the peculiarities of the air currents, keeps
them almost stationary, and soars or glides through the air.
The method of soaring alone has long since been proved to be
impracticable as a means of carrying a machine through the air,
unless, of course, one describes the natural glide of an
aeroplane from a great height down to earth as soaring. But the
flapping motion was not proved a failure until numerous
experiments by early aviators had been tried.
Probably the most successful attempt at propulsion by this method
was that of a French locksmith named Besnier. Over two hundred
years ago he made for himself a pair of light wooden paddles,
with blades at either end, somewhat similar in shape to the
double paddle of a canoe. These he placed over his shoulders,
his feet being attached by ropes to the hindmost paddles.
Jumping off from some high place in the face of a stiff breeze,
he violently worked his arms and legs, so that the paddles beat
the air and gave him support. It is said that Besnier became so
expert in the management of his simple apparatus that he was able
to raise himself from the ground, and skim lightly over fields
and rivers for a considerable distance.
Now it has been shown that the enormous extent of wing required
to support a man of average weight would be much too large to be
flapped by man's arm muscles. But in this, as with everything
else, we have succeeded in harnessing the forces of nature into
our service as tools and machinery.
And is not this, after all, one of the chief, distinctions
between man and the lower orders of creation? The latter fulfil
most of their bodily requirements by muscular effort. If a horse
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