Aeronautics

It was a November night of the year 1782, in the little town of Annonay, near Lyons. Two young men, Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier, the representatives of a firm of paper makers, were sitting together over their parlour fire. While watching the smoke curling up the chimney one propounded an idea by way of a sudden inspiration: "Why shouldn't smoke be made to raise bodies into the air?"

Within a few months of the completion of the period covered by the records of the last chapter, France was destined to receive a more urgent stimulus than ever before to develop the resources of ballooning, and, in hot haste, to turn to the most serious and practical account all the best resources of aerial locomotion. The stern necessity of war was upon her, and during four months the sole mode of exit from Paris - nay, the only possible means of conveying a simple message beyond the boundary of her fortifications - was by balloon.

As may be supposed, it was not long before the balloon was introduced into England. Indeed, the first successful ascent on record made in our own country took place in the summer of 1784, ten months previous to the fatal venture narrated at the close of the last chapter. Now, it is a remarkable and equally regrettable circumstance that though the first ascent on British soil was undoubtedly made by one of our own countrymen, the fact is almost universally forgotten, or ignored, and the credit is accorded to a foreigner.

The mechanical air ship had, by this time, as may be inferred, begun seriously to occupy the attention of both theoretical and practical aeronauts. One of the earliest machines deserving of special mention was designed by M. Giffard, and consisted of an elongated balloon, 104 feet in length and 39 feet in greatest diameter, furnished with a triangular rudder, and a steam engine operating a screw. The fire of the engine, which burned coke, was skilfully protected, and the fuel and water required were taken into calculation as so much ballast to be gradually expended.

In less than two years not only had the science of ballooning reached almost its highest development, but the balloon itself, as an aerostatic machine, had been brought to a state of perfection which has been but little improved upon up to the present t hour.

It will have been gathered from what has been already stated that the balloonist is commonly in much uncertainty as to his precise course when he is above the clouds, or when unable from darkness to see the earth beneath him. With a view of overcoming this disadvantage some original experiments were suggested by a distinguished officer, who during the seventies had begun to interest himself in 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.

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.

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.

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