Aeronautics

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.

The first trial of the Zeppelin air ship was arranged to take place on June 30th, 1900, a day which, from absence of wind, was eminently well suited for the purpose; but the inflation proved too slow a process, and operations were postponed to the morrow. The morrow, however, was somewhat windy, causing delay, and by the time all was in readiness darkness had set in and the start was once more postponed.

Resuming the roll of progressive aeronauts in England whose labours were devoted to the practical conquest of the air, and whose methods and mechanical achievements mark the road of advance by which the successes of to-day have been obtained, there stand out prominently two individuals, of whom one has already received mention in these pages.

Clearly the time has not yet arrived when the flying machine will be serviceable in war. Yet we are not without those theorisers who, at the present moment, would seriously propose schemes for conveying dynamite and other explosives by air ship, or dropping them over hostile forces or fortresses, or even fleets at sea. They go yet further, and gravely discuss the point whether such warfare would be legitimate. We, however, may say at once, emphatically, that any such scheme is simply impracticable.

At this point we must, for a brief while, drop the history of the famous aeronaut whose early career we have been briefly sketching in the last chapter, and turn our attention to a new feature of English ballooning. We have, at last, to record some genuinely scientific ascents, which our country now, all too tardily, instituted. It was the British Association that took the initiative, and the two men they chose for their purpose were both exceptionally qualified for the task they had in hand.

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