Aeronautics

During certain years which now follow it will possibly be thought that our history, so far as incidents of special interest are concerned, somewhat languishes. Yet it may be wrong to regard this period as one of stagnation or retrogression.

In the early nineties the air ship was engaging the attention of many inventors, and was making important strides in the hands of Mr. Maxim. This unrivalled mechanician, in stating the case, premises that a motive power has to be discovered which can develop at least as much power in proportion to its weight as a bird is able to develop. He asserts that a heavy bird, with relatively small wings - such as a goose - carries about 150 lb. to the horse power, while the albatross or the vulture, possessed of proportionately greater winged surface, can carry about 250 lbs. per horse power.

It has been in the hands of the Spencers that the parachute, as also many other practical details of aeronautics, has been perfected, and some due sketch of the career of this family of eminent aeronauts must be no longer delayed.

The balloon, which had gradually been dropping out of favour, had now been virtually laid aside, and, to all appearance, might have continued so, when, as if by chance concurrence of events, there arrived both the hour and the man to restore it to the world, and to invest it with a new practicability and importance.

After Mr. Coxwell's experiments at Aldershot in 1862 the military balloon, as far as England was concerned, remained in abeyance for nine long years, when the Government appointed a Commission to enquire into its utility, and to conduct further experiments. The members of this committee were Colonel Noble, R.E., Sir F. Abel, Captain Lee, R.E., assisted by Captain Elsdale, R.E., and Captain (now Colonel) Templer. Yet another nine years, however, elapsed before much more was heard of this modernised military engine.

All history is liable to repeat itself, and that of aeronautics forms no exception to the rule. The second year after the invention of the balloon the famous M. Blanchard, ascending from Frankfort, landed near Weilburg, and, in commemoration of the event, the flag he bore was deposited among the archives in the ducal palace of that town. Fifty-one years passed by when, outside the same city, a yet more famous balloon effected its landing, and with due ceremony its flag is presently laid beside that of Blanchard in the same ducal palace.

Among many suggestions, alike important and original, due to Major Baden-Powell, and coming within the field of aeronautics, is one having reference to the use of balloons for geographical research generally and more particularly for the exploration of Egypt, which, in his opinion, is a country possessing many most desirable qualifications on the score of prevailing winds, of suitable base, and of ground adapted for such steering as may be effected with a trail rope.

By this period the domination of the air was being pursued in a fresh part of the world. England and her Continental neighbours had vied with each in adding to the roll of conquests, and it could hardly other be supposed that America would stand by without taking part in the campaign which was now being revived with so much fresh energy in the skies.

In the autumn of 1898 the aeronautical world was interested to hear that a young Brazilian, M. Santos Dumont, had completed a somewhat novel dirigible balloon, cylindrical in shape, with conical ends, 83 feet long by 12 feet in diameter, holding 6,500 cubic feet of gas, and having a small compensating balloon of 880 cubic feet capacity.

Before proceeding to introduce the chief actors and their achievements in the period next before us, it will be instructive to glance at some of the principal ideas and methods in favour with aeronauts up to the date now reached. It will be seen that Wise in America, contrary to the practice of Green in our own country, had a strong attachment to the antique mode of inflation with hydrogen prepared by the vitriolic process; and his balloons were specially made and varnished for the use of this gas.

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