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Wonders of World Aviation

Some of the Fantastic Contraptions Invented by Man in his Attempts to Conquer the Air


THE earliest efforts and ideas of would-be flying men may appear to be ludicrous and often to border on lunacy. But it would be scarcely fair to deride them, or regard them as eccentric. Many have declared that the freakish products of over-ingenious inventors have no place in the history of aircraft, but there is little doubt that these pioneers did create an interest in aeronautical invention.


Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a man of remarkable gifts, is credited with the invention of gunpowder and of the air pump, and with knowledge of the principles of telescopes and submarines. He is also credited with the first notions of practical flying machines. He saw that clouds - which obviously had weight - floated in the air above, and that birds could carry more than their own weight. The idea of a flying machine is contained in his Secrets of Art and Nature, written about 1250, in which the following passage occurs: “Such a machine must be a large hollow globe of copper or other suitable metal, wrought extremely thin, in order to have it light as possible. It must then be filled with ethereal air or liquid fire and launched from some elevated point into the atmosphere, where it will float like a vessel on the water”.


Bacon was vague about the “ethereal air” and “liquid fire”. He envisaged such lighter-than-air gases as hydrogen and helium, though these had not then been discovered. It was known that the upper air was less dense than the lower, and his idea was that if the containers were filled with air from the upper atmosphere they would rise. The “liquid fire” was suggested by the dancing flames of fire, which seemed to be light in weight.


LA MINERVE, a fantastic balloon ideaIn the same work he propounds an idea for a bird-like flying machine: “ . . . some flying instrument so that a man sitting in the middle and turning some mechanism may put in motion some artificial wings which may beat the air like a bird flying.” Bacon was a theorist, not a practical man, and no attempt was made to build the machines. In any event, in those days he would have been accused of witchcraft. He adds, for this reason, “Not that I ever knew a man who had such an instrument, but I am particularly acquainted with the man who contrived one.”


Roger Bacon, as many others did, held to the idea - later proved a fallacy - that man could fly with artificial wings. Even the great Leonardo da Vinci went wrong here, yet he might have been excused, for, as balloons have no counterpart in Nature, it is only to be expected that the first speculations tended towards imitating bird flight. It was left to Borelli who, in his book De Motu Animalium (The Movements of Animals) published in 1680, proved that man could not possibly fly by means of artificial wings strapped to his arms.





LA MINERVE, a fantastic balloon idea suggested by E. G. Robertson of Vienna at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was seriously proposed to build such a craft with its galleries, churches, hanging cabins, sails and guns. The object was to send sixty people on a long balloon voyage of scientific observation.





Another suggestion put forward by Bacon’s contemporaries is that of filling swans’ eggs with dew and sealing them. It was known that the dew rose with the morning sun. Why not link together a number of dew-filled eggs, and let them rise too?


Laurentus, a monk, suggested that the eggs be filled with sulphur so that the heat of the sun would generate gas and make the eggs rise. Here, perhaps, is the glimmering of the idea of gas-filled balloons. Eggs were chosen for these experiments because, for their weight, they are the strongest of Nature’s products. In the romances of Cyrano de Bergerac the hero makes his imaginary aerial journeys by means of air-sacs attached to his belt. These were expanded by the morning sun.


John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester (1614-1672), also expressed his opinion that men could fly. He suggested four methods: with the help of spirits or angels, with the help of fowls, with wings fastened to the body, and the use of an aerial chariot.


Another bishop, Francis Godwin, wrote in 1638 a tale entitled The Man In the Moone. In this the hero, abandoned on an island, trained large birds first to obey his call, and then to lift weights. In time he trained them to lift himself. A quaint old print (reproduced below) shows the hero aloft in an apparatus to which the birds are harnessed. With this apparatus the man flew to the mainland and then to and round the moon, the journey taking eleven days.


A FLYING WOMAN from the book, Life and Adventures of Peter WilkinsBefore this can be dismissed as utterly absurd, it should be realized that horses and other beasts of burden have been trained to work for mankind. So why not train birds to carry men through the air? Godwin’s book contained the interesting speculation that once out of the pull of the Earth’s gravitation, the birds could float on the upper strata of air, just as they could float on a pond of water.





A FLYING WOMAN from the book, Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, by Robert Paltock. This book appeared in 1751 and is still in print. It is worth reading as one of the outstanding romances of literature. The book was published anonymously, the author’s name not being discovered until 1835, sixty-eight years after his death.





To Francesco Lana or de Lana, a Jesuit priest (1631 -1687) is given the credit of having made the first properly formulated plans for an aerial carriage (see page 242). He had already conducted experiments to determine the weight of air. He fitted a glass bottle with a stopcock and weighed it. He then heated the bottle to expel the air, closed the stopcock, and when the vessel had cooled, again weighed it. He also immersed the vessel in water, to determine what percentage of air had been expelled. Lana concluded that water was 640 times more dense than air. This is only slightly in excess of the figure since established by means of modern scientific apparatus.


Lana therefore proposed to attach four copper globes, from which the air had been exhausted, to a carriage fitted with a sail for steering purposes. All being well, the contrivance would rise. Here are his calculations. Each of the four globes was to be 20 feet in diameter, so that each would have a superficial area of about 1,256 square feet, enclosing a volume of 4,189 cubic feet, thus giving a total displacement for the four globes of 16,756 cubic feet. From the weight of the copper given, it has been pointed out that the globes could have been only about 0·004-in thick. The atmospheric pressure exerted on the globes would have been millions of pounds and they would have instantly collapsed. The inventor seems to have been aware of the atmospheric pressure, but he underestimated it. He makes a fallacious application of Euclid’s proposition that the superficial area of globes increases in proportion to the square of the diameter, whereas the volume increases in proportion to the cube of the same diameter. Lana believed that by making the globes bigger he could increase the thickness of the copper and, although the weight would be more, the lifting power of the vacuum enclosed would be greater still. He seems, however, to have overlooked the fact that the atmospheric pressure would increase in due proportion.


Such a machine was never made, not because the inventor had small faith in it, but for religious motives. He foresaw that such a machine would be used for warfare, bombing an enemy with “fireworks” and “fireballs”. “God would surely never allow such a machine to be successful, since it would create many disturbances in the civil and political governments of mankind.” His idea, however, created a stir in the scientific circles of that period and served as an inspiration to others. The ideas were given in his book Prodromo, published in 1670.

flapping wings worked by the feet, operated on the principle of the butterfly valve





BESNIER, A LOCKSMITH, PRODUCED THIS IDEA towards the end of the seventeenth century. He is said to have made one successful flight with artificial wings. The flapping wings worked by the feet, operated on the principle of the butterfly valve, which, by opening and closing, offers more or less resistance. The apparatus was eventually acquired by a travelling showman.







A dreamer of a different type was Joseph Galien, a Dominican Friar and Professor of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Avignon, who, in 1755 published his Art of Navigating the Air. Galien based his dimensions for an aerial carriage on those of Noah’s Ark, but he made his aerial carriage ten times greater. Thus it was to be a cubical, rather than a spherical affair, each of the six faces to have an area of 1,000,000 square feet, and a cubical capacity of some 1,000 million cubic feet. It was to be made of varnished cloth, and to be filled with a gas lighter than air - though exactly how, the inventor did not state. Indeed, he was impatient of such trivial details, believing that “experienced engineers” would have no difficulty with them. It was claimed for the airship that it would have been able to lift 7,562,500,000 lb. and to have carried over 4,000,000 passengers.


Galien admitted that it would not generally be necessary to build every airship of such a prodigious size. He was fully alive to its uses in carrying armies “to as great a distance as Africa”, with all their arms and equipment. It is significant that, from the earliest times, the aerial warfare side of flying took first place. It is a coincidence that the Montgolfier brothers later conducted some of their first experiments at Avignon.


Propelled by a Sail


Another “inventor” was Friar Lourenco de Guzmao, who invented (on paper), in 1709, a flying machine which he called the Passarola, because it was supposed to achieve swallow-like flight. The machine was of boat-like shape, in the form of a bird, with a hood above it, parachute fashion. There were feathered wings and tail to guide it, and tubes were provided to conduct the wind against an area of sail. In calm weather bellows were provided to create artificial wind. Magnets in globes were to draw the machine upwards and keep it stable. Imaginative draughtsmen completed the picture in more than one sense of the word, and many ludicrous drawings of this fake machine were published.


DE LANA'S AERIAL CARRIAGE DESIGN had four copper globes from which all the air was to be exhaustedThe King of Portugal honoured de Guzmao by giving him a professorship at the College of Barcelos with a pension of 600,000 reis. It is not known whether de Guzmao was a charlatan and impostor, or whether he really believed in his Passarola and offered the plans in all sincerity. Also it is not known what happened to him when the King found that the machine was non-existent.





DE LANA'S AERIAL CARRIAGE DESIGN had four copper globes from which all the air was to be exhausted. The sail was to be used for steering purposes. The copper globes were to be 20 feet in diameter and so thin that the weight of the complete carriage would be less than the weight of the air removed from the copper globes. It was overlooked that this required the copper of the globes to be so thin that they would collapse under the pressure of the atmosphere.





In fiction writings there are many romances besides Bishop Godwin’s Man in the Moone and the tales of Cyrano de Bergerac. The folk-lore of all countries from the earliest times contains many examples of legendary flying men and of flying machines. Romantic writers have fully exploited the idea of flying men. In Samuel Brunt’s Voyage to Cacklogallinia (1727) the frontispiece shows the hero being borne aloft in a palanquin with large birds in the shafts. In 1751 appeared Robert Paltock’s Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, still in print and worth reading. About a century later came the romances of Jules Verne, particularly From the Earth to the Moon, which tells how the Gun Club members were shot in an aluminium shell from a huge gun up to the moon.


Turning back the pages of aviation history we find a description of an aerial carriage devised by one Grimaldi, referred to by his biographer as “a famous and unique engineer”. Grimaldi had spent twenty years as a missionary in India, and had devised the machine in his spare time. The body was made of cork, wired together into the shape of a bird, covered with parchment and feathers.


Wings, with a span of 25 feet, were of whalebone, catgut, parchment and feathers, and designed to fold into three seams. Steering was effected by a long, feathered tail connected by leather straps to the aeronaut’s legs. The means of flapping the wings was rather vague, but the description states that there were to be “thirty wheels of unique work, with two brass globes and little chains which alternately wind up a counterpoise.”


To maintain equilibrium there were to be six brass vases of quicksilver, some of which ran in pulleys. “By means, then, of the friction between a steel wheel adequately tempered and a very heavy and surprising piece of lodestone the whole is kept in regulated forward motion.” Grimaldi realized that his contrivance would fly only-in calm winds and recommended flying only sufficiently high to clear tree-tops, because if anything went wrong the machine would fall like a stone. The inventor claims to have flown the English Channel, but it is questionable whether such a machine was ever built, let alone flown. The speed of this machine was stated to have been twenty-one miles an hour.


In his book Le Philosophe sans Pretention (1775), La Follie describes an (obviously imaginary) aerial carriage. The contrivance is in shape and size very much like a lift-cage. At the top are two glass globes, each 3 feet in diameter, with a disk, rotated by large cranks and gearwheels at the operator’s side, placed between them. The author is vague as to how the machine works, but indicates that when the disk revolves the globes light up and reduce the atmospheric pressure above. Thus the cage rises in proportion to the energy with which the operator turns the cranks.


In the latter part of the eighteenth century chemists had been investigating the nature of gases, and this led to an unexpected solution of flight and the first human ascent by Pilatre de Rozier in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon on October 15, 1783. Thus the fertile brains of inventors set to work on balloons, and many were the freakish designs evolved. Though some designs appear utterly absurd, their inventors were in earnest, and even in the least practical of their designs there was often the germ of a good idea worth noting.


One of the most fantastic ideas for balloons was given by E. G. Robertson of Vienna at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The drawing of La Minerve, with its galleries, churches, tents, cannon, wings and cabins hanging from the balloon - like ornaments on a Christmas-tree will show the inventor’s brain-wave far better than any written description (see illustration above). It was seriously proposed to build such a craft and to send sixty people on a long voyage of scientific observation.


All the early designs for balloons and airships look quaint because, to steer and stabilize them, numerous sails and kites were attached. One inventor suggested stringing twenty-five balloons together in the form of a “necklace”.


A SCENE FROM THE MAN IN THE MOONE, written by Francis GodwinIn 1825, a French scientist, E. C. Genet, suggested having a long balloon, 152 feet overall, with a platform underneath. On this platform there was to be a treadmill upon which horses were to be induced to gallop, thus turning paddle-wheels to propel the ship.


In 1851 John Luntley proposed his Rotary Balloon. This was to have been 120 feet long, with deep helical grooves at either end. The balloon was arranged to turn horizontally on its own axis by means of a belt passing round its circumference and connected to an engine. The grooves were intended to act as an air-screw and thus propel the airship.


Some of the early prints show aerial vessels equipped with oars for propulsion. The basic idea is not really absurd, as the modern airscrew works on much the same principle as the boat oar.


No mention has yet been made of omithopter (artificial wings) ideas, because it is difficult to prove any of the claims. The daring inventors generally jumped off towers.


There is an account of such a device made by a locksmith, Besnier, towards the end of the seventeenth century. His flapping wings worked on the principle of the well known butterfly valve. Besnier is said to have made one successful flight, but there is no real proof that he did. His apparatus was either sold to or stolen by some travelling showman.





A SCENE FROM THE MAN IN THE MOONE, written by Francis Godwin in 1638. In this story, the hero, abandoned on an island, trained birds to carry him on a light harness to which the birds were strapped, and thus flew to and round the moon in eleven days after having flown to the mainland.





[From Part 12, published 24 May 1938]



You can read more on “The First Aerial Voyages”, “The First English Aeronaut” and “The Romance of Ballooning” on this website.


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