CHAPTER XXV. THE MODERN AIRSHIP - IN SEARCH OF THE LEONIDS.
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. For a net was substituted a simple contrivance, consisting of two side pockets, running the length of the balloon, and containing battens of wood, to which were affixed the suspension cords, bands being also sewn over the upper part of the balloon connecting the two pockets. The most important novelty, however, was the introduction of a small petroleum motor similar to those used for motor tricycles.
The inventor ascended in this balloon, inflated with pure hydrogen, from the Jardin d'Acclimatation, Paris, and circled several times round the large captive balloon in the Gardens, after which, moving towards the Bois de Boulogne, he made several sweeps of 100 yards radius. Then the pump of the compensator caused the engine to stop, and the machine, partially collapsing, fell to the ground. Santos Dumont was somewhat shaken, but announced his intention of making other trials. In this bold and successful attempt there was clear indication of a fresh phase in the construction of the airship, consisting in the happy adoption of the modern type of petroleum motor. Two other hying machines were heard of about this date, one by Professor Giampietre, of Pavia, cigar-shaped, driven by screws, and rigged with masts and sails. The other, which had been constructed and tested in strict privacy, was the invention of a French engineer, M. Ader, and was imagined to imitate the essential structure of a bird. Two steam motors of 20-horse power supplied the power. It was started by being run on the ground on small wheels attached to it, and it was claimed that before a breakdown occurred the machine had actually raised itself into the air.
Of Santos Dumont the world was presently to know more, and the same must be said of another inventor, Dr. Barton, of Beckenham, who shortly completed an airship model carrying aeroplanes and operated by clockwork. In an early experiment this model travelled four miles in twenty-three minutes.
But another airship, a true leviathan, had been growing into stately and graceful proportions on the shores of the Bodenzee in Wurtemberg, and was already on the eve of completion. Count Zeppelin, a lieut.-general in the German Army, who had seen service in the Franco-German War, had for some years devoted his fortune and energy to the practical study of aerial navigation, and had prosecuted experiments on a large scale. Eventually, having formed a company with a large capital, he was enabled to construct an airship which in size has been compared to a British man-of-war. Cigar-shaped, its length was no less than 420 feet, and diameter 40 feet, while its weight amounted to no more than 7,250 lbs. The framework, which for lightness had been made of aluminium, was, with the object of preventing all the gas collecting at one end of its elongated form, subdivided into seventeen compartments, each of these compartments containing a completely fitted gas balloon, made of oiled cotton and marvellously gas tight. A steering apparatus was placed both fore and aft, and at a safe distance below the main structure were fixed, also forward and aft, on aluminium platforms, two Daimler motor engines of 16-horse power, working aluminium propellers of four blades at the rate of 1,000 revolutions a minute. Finally, firmly attached to the inner framework by rods of aluminium, were two cars of the same metal, furnished with buffer springs to break the force of a fall. The trial trip was not made till the summer following - June, 1900 - and, in the meanwhile, experiments had gone forward with another mode of flight, terminating, unhappily, in the death of one of the most expert and ingenious of mechanical aeronauts.
Mr. Percy S. Pilcher, now thirty-three years of age, having received his early training in the Navy, retired from the Service to become a civil engineer, and had been for some time a partner in the firm of Wilson and Pilcher. For four or five years he had been experimenting in soaring flight, using a Lilienthal machine, which he improved to suit his own methods. Among these was the device of rising off the ground by being rapidly towed by a line against the wind.
At the end of September he gave an exhibition at Stamford Park before Lord Bray and a select party of friends - this in spite of an unsuitable afternoon of unsteady wind and occasional showers. A long towing line was provided, which, being passed round pulley blocks and dragged by a couple of horses, was capable of being hauled in at high speed. The first trial, though ending in an accident, was eminently satisfactory. The apparatus, running against the wind, had risen some distance, when the line broke, yet the inventor descended slowly and safely with outstretched wings. The next trial also commenced well, with an easy rise to a height of some thirty feet. At that point, however, the tail broke with a snap, and the machine, pitching over, fell a complete wreck. Mr. Pilcher was found insensible, with his thigh broken, and though no other serious injury was apparent, he succumbed two days afterwards without recovering consciousness. It was surmised that shrinkage of the canvas of the tail, through getting wet, had strained and broken its bamboo stretcher.