In the 3rd century bc with his famous “Eureka!” Archimedes, a Syracusian, announced to the world that he had found the answer to his experiments, leading him to state his well-known principle of fluids. But for him, “fluid” meant water since there was no scientific knowledge about the existence of air as a physical entity.
Mythology tells us of experiments by Icarus, Simon Mago and others, but another 18 centuries from Archimedes’ experiments would pass before the birth of the first man seriously interested in the possibility of human flight.
This was Leonardo da Vinci, who designed a flying machine with wings and even theorized about the possibility of building a helicopter.
Unfortunately, Leonardo could only be inspired by the flight of birds as he had no knowledge of Newton’s Laws of Motion (17th Century) nor of Daniel Bernoulli’s principle that the Swiss mathematician would announce in the 18th century nor of the Coanda˘ Effect (early 20th Century) which form the basis of the physics of flight.
Two Torricelli tubes
New discoveries followed at an increasingly rapid pace, providing more and more knowledge which, in a variety of different ways, permitted the formulation of ideas that led to human flight in the 18th century.
Towards the middle of the 17th century Evangelista Torricelli from Faenza established that air had weight and invented the barometer to measure it.
Also in the 17th century, Isaac Newton was hit on the head by a falling apple, an event which is said to have led to the equations of gravity.
In 1766 Henry Cavendish (a Scotsman born in Nice) isolated hydrogen gas by mixing sulfuric acid with particles of iron, tin or zinc. Diatomic gaseous hydrogen (h2) had already been formally described in the 16th Century by Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim (known to us as Paracelsus) but despite this, the discovery of hydrogen is generally attributed to Cavendish.
In the centuries after Leonardo’s death, many people put forward theories about flight and one worthy of mention was a “flying boat” proposed in 1670 by Francesco Lana, an Italian Jesuit priest. Having learned from Torricelli that air had a weight and therefore something without air must be lighter (for example a vacuum) he hypothesized a flying machine based on this idea.
His idea consisted of lifting the device by attaching it to a container made lighter than air by removing the air. The project consisted of a small boat (with a sail to steer it!) sustained by four evacuated globes made from thin sheets of copper. Luckily, no attempt was made to build it since the globes would have been crushed by the surrounding air pressure.
Francesco Lana, the “flying boat”
All these discoveries and/or notions contributed, albeit indirectly, to ensuring that in the magical year 1783 the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier discovered that warm air was lighter than “normal” air.
In truth, they believed they had discovered a new gas, which at first they called “Montgolfier” gas and subsequently “volatile” gas, but in fact they had only discovered hot air.
The brothers Joseph-Michel e Jacques-Étienne Montgolfiere
The first experiment (empty or rather without loads) took place on June 4, 1783 in Annonay near Lyon, followed by others until, on September 19, 1783, the balloon rose into the sky of Versailles in the presence of King Louis xvi and Queen Marie Antoinette, carrying a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The flight lasted about 8 minutes and covered a distance of almost 3 km.
4 June 1783. The Montgolfiere brothers’ first public attempt at Annonay
19 September 1783. A sheep, a duck and a chicken take flight before Louis XIV of France
Finally, on November 21, 1783, instead of the animals, two volunteers, Knights of the King, called Pilâtre de Rozier and François D’Arlandres, climbed into the craft, and took their place in history as being the first humans to fly, marking what is considered to be the most important event in the scientific history of humanity after the invention of the wheel. This flight lasted about 25 minutes and covered some 8 km.
The way was now open.
Pilâtre de Rozier Francois D’Arlandres
A short time later, Jacques Alexandre Cesar CHARLES, a French physicist, filled a balloon with hydrogen rather than with hot air, using the gas that Cavendish had isolated only a few years earlier. In honour of its inventor, the hydrogen filled envelope should really be known as a “charliere”, although many people still wrongly insist on calling it a “balloon”, despite the fact that “balloons” contain no gas but only hot air.
Jaques Charles’ project dates back to August 1783, and its first flight, with no one on board, took place from the Champs de Mars in Paris. Carried by the wind, after a perflight of about 15 km, the balloon, crashed in Gonesse (north-east of Paris) greatly frightening the inhabitants who destroyed it with hay-forks, believing it to be a monster from the skies.
Illustration of August 1783 showing the balloon made by Jacques Charles which having landed was attacked by the inhabitants of Gonesse believing it to be the work of the devil
It was only on the 1st December that year that it lifted off with people aboard – Jacques Charles himself and his assistant, Nicolas Marie-Noel Robert – and rose to a height of about 550 m (some 1800 feet) from the Tuilleries gardens in Paris in front of an immense crowd.
In memory of this feat, the Aero Club of France erected a commemorative stone at the site of the experiment.
Charles’s hydrogen ballon, the first of its type in the hystory of flight, takes off from the Tuileries Garden in Paris on December 1 - 1783. The “Charlière” had Charles and his assistant Nicolas Marie-Noel Robert on board
The plaque erected by the aero club de France to the Tuileries gardens in Paris
to remember Charles' feat.
Meanwhile Pilâtre de Rozier (who, as previously mentioned, was one of the first two men ever to take to the air) was determined to take it a step further, and after a number of ascents, combined a hot-air “balloon” with a hydrogen “charlière”. As was easily predictable, after just a few minutes of flight, the hydrogen caught fire.
Pilâtre de Rozier died in the crash, but since he was a nobleman, it is probable that he would have met his end ten years later - this time on a guillotine of the French Revolution!
Contemporary drawing illustrating Pilâtre de Rozier’s unfortunate crash
On December 11, 1783, only a few months after its inception, the members of the Turin Academy of Science conducted the first aeronautical experiment in Piedmont “behind closed doors” (this was actually the second ascent in Italy, following that of Chevalier Landriani on November 15 at Monza).
A balloon filled with hydrogen, which they knew to be lighter than air, rose from the ground, over the gardens of Palazzo Carignano (today’s Piazza Carlo Alberto). It bore no passengers and was tethered by a rope.
The following day, the experiment was repeated in public in the city’s Parade Square, which was then situated just beyond the Susina Gate (today’s Piazza Statuto), and the balloon, this time untethered, swiftly disappeared from view.
This event is described in the annals of the Academy by the protagonists themselves:
1809. Sir George Cayley’s flight
The first flights by human beings took place thanks to “lighter than air” devices, and it was not until the 19th Century “heavier than air” flight was attempted, and this time by quite a large number of people.
Among the many, the following merit a mention:
Sir George Cayley, Aviation pioneer (considered as the “father of British aviation”) in 1809 designed a type of glider which actually flew. He attached canvas “wings” to a boat which was towed by four horses at full gallop down a hillside slope. It became airborne and was capable of gliding for several hundred metres.
1891. Otto Lilienthal and his glider
Lilienthal’s jump from the Lichterfelde hill (Berlin)
Lilienthal’s gliding flight with the biplane
Octave Chanute, Francis Herbert Wenham and Clement Ader were also among the many pioneers.
Which brings us to the 20th Century, and the famous date of December 17, 1903 in which the Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright, at Kity Hawk (Kill Devil Hills, in North Carolina u.s.a.) made that flight which, despite not being the first “heavier than air”, marked the beginning of the modern era of aviation.
1903. The Wright brothers’ first flight
But it was the first flight of a heavier than air machine which left the ground under its own power, using an engine designed and built by the brothers themselves.
With Orville at the controls, the aircraft rolled along a wooden track, built to prevent the skids from digging into the sand, and remained in flight for 12 seconds, covering about 36 metres before landing reasonably well.
During the course of that same day, taking turns at piloting, the two brothers made another three flights, the last of which, with Wilbur at the controls, lasted 59 seconds, covering 260 metres.