Chronicles of America 

The Conquest of the Air

The most popular man in Europe in the year 1783 was still the United States Minister to France. The figure of plain Benjamin Franklin, his broad head, with the calm, shrewd eyes peering through the bifocals of his own invention, invested with a halo of great learning and fame, entirely captivated the people's imagination.

As one of the American Commissioners busy with the extraordinary problems of the Peace, Franklin might have been supposed too occupied for excursions into the paths of science and philosophy. But the spaciousness and orderly furnishing of his mind provided that no pursuit of knowledge should be a digression for him. So we find him, naturally, leaving his desk on several days of that summer and autumn and posting off to watch the trials of a new invention; nothing less indeed than a ship to ride the air. He found time also to describe the new invention in letters to his friends in different parts of the world.

On the 21st of November Franklin set out for the gardens of the King's hunting lodge in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris, with a quickened interest, a thrill of excitement, which made him yearn to be young again with another long life to live that he might see what should be after him on the earth. What bold things men would attempt! Today two daring Frenchmen, Pilatre de Rozier of the Royal Academy and his friend the Marquis d'Arlandes, would ascend in a balloon freed from the earth--the first men in history to adventure thus upon the wind. The crowds gathered to witness the event opened a lane for Franklin to pass through.

At six minutes to two the aeronauts entered the car of their balloon; and, at a height of two hundred and seventy feet, doffed their hats and saluted the applauding spectators. Then the wind carried them away toward Paris. Over Passy, about half a mile from the starting point, the balloon began to descend, and the River Seine seemed rising to engulf them; but when they fed the fire under their sack of hot air with chopped straw they rose to the elevation of five hundred feet. Safe across the river they dampened the fire with a sponge and made a gentle descent beyond the old ramparts of Paris.

At five o'clock that afternoon, at the King's Chateau in the Bois de Boulogne, the members of the Royal Academy signed a memorial of the event. One of the spectators accosted Franklin.

"What does Dr. Franklin conceive to be the use of this new invention?"

"What is the use of a new-born child?" was the retort.

A new-born child, a new-born republic, a new invention: alike dim beginnings of development which none could foretell. The year that saw the world acknowledge a new nation, freed of its ancient political bonds, saw also the first successful attempt to break the supposed bonds that held men down to the ground. Though the invention of the balloon was only five months old, there were already two types on exhibition: the original Montgolfier, or fireballoon, inflated with hot air, and a modification by Charles, inflated with hydrogen gas. The mass of the French people did not regard these balloons with Franklin's serenity. Some weeks earlier the danger of attack had necessitated a balloon's removal from the place of its first moorings to the Champ de Mars at dead of night. Preceded by flaming torches, with soldiers marching on either side and guards in front and rear, the great ball was borne through the darkened streets. The midnight cabby along the route stopped his nag, or tumbled from sleep on his box, to kneel on the pavement and cross himself against the evil that might be in that strange monster. The fear of the people was so great that the Government saw fit to issue a proclamation, explaining the invention. Any one seeing such a globe, like the moon in an eclipse, so read the proclamation, should be aware that it is only a bag made of taffeta or light canvas covered with paper and "cannot possibly cause any harm and which will some day prove serviceable to the wants of society."

Franklin wrote a description of the Montgolfier balloon to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London:

"Its bottom was open and in the middle of the opening was fixed a kind of basket grate, in which faggots and sheaves of straw were burnt. The air, rarefied in passing through this flame, rose in the balloon, swelled out its sides, and filled it. The persons, who were placed in the gallery made of wicker and attached to the outside near the bottom, had each of them a port through which they could pass sheaves of straw into the grate to keep up the flame and thereby keep the balloon full . . . . One of these courageous philosophers, the Marquis d'Arlandes, did me the honor to call upon me in the evening after the experiment, with Mr. Montgolfier, the very ingenious inventor. I was happy to see him safe. He informed me that they lit gently, without the least shock, and the balloon was very little damaged."

Franklin writes that the competition between Montgolfier and Charles has already resulted in progress in the construction and management of the balloon. He sees it as a discovery of great importance, one that "may possibly give a new turn to human affairs. Convincing sovereigns of the folly of war may perhaps be one effect of it, since it will be impracticable for the most potent of them to guard his dominions." The prophecy may yet be fulfilled. Franklin remarks that a short while ago the idea of "witches riding through the air upon a broomstick and that of philosophers upon a bag of smoke would have appeared equally impossible and ridiculous." Yet in the space of a few months he has seen the philosopher on his smoke bag, if not the witch on her broom. He wishes that one of these very ingenious inventors would immediately devise means of direction for the balloon, a rudder to steer it; because the malady from which he is suffering is always increased by a jolting drive in a fourwheeler and he would gladly avail himself of an easier way of locomotion.

The vision of man on the wing did not, of course, begin .with the invention of the balloon. Perhaps the dream of flying man came first to some primitive poet of the Stone Age, as he watched, fearfully, the gyrations of the winged creatures of the air; even as in a later age it came to Langley and Maxim, who studied the wing motions of birds and insects, not in fear but in the light and confidence of advancing science.

Crudely outlined by some ancient Egyptian sculptor, a winged human figure broods upon the tomb of Rameses III. In the Hebrew parable of Genesis winged cherubim guarded the gates of Paradise against the man and woman who had stifled aspiration with sin. Fairies, witches, and magicians ride the wind in the legends and folklore of all peoples. The Greeks had gods and goddesses many; and one of these Greek art represents as moving earthward on great spreading pinions. Victory came by the air. When Demetrius, King of Macedonia, set up the Winged Victory of Samothrace to commemorate the naval triumph of the Greeks over the ships of Egypt, Greek art poetically foreshadowed the relation of the air service to the fleet in our own day.

Man has always dreamed of flight; but when did men first actually fly? We smile at the story of Daedalus, the Greek architect, and his son, Icarus, who made themselves wings and flew from the realm of their foes; and the tale of Simon, the magician, who pestered the early Christian Church by exhibitions of flight into the air amid smoke and flame in mockery of the ascension. But do the many tales of sorcerers in the Middle Ages, who rose from the ground with their cloaks apparently filled with wind, to awe the rabble, suggest that they had deduced the principle of the aerostat from watching the action of smoke as did the Montgolfiers hundreds of years later? At all events one of these alleged exhibitions about the year 800 inspired the good Bishop Agobard of Lyons to write a book against superstition, in which he proved conclusively that it was impossible for human beings to rise through the air. Later, Roger Bacon and Leonardo da Vinci, each in his turn ruminated in manuscript upon the subject of flight. Bacon, the scientist, put forward a theory of thin copper globes filled with liquid fire, which would soar. Leonardo, artist, studied the wings of birds. The Jesuit Francisco Lana, in 1670, working on Bacon's theory sketched an airship made of four copper balls with a skiff attached; this machine was to soar by means of the lighter-than-air globes and to be navigated aloft by oars and sails.

But while philosophers in their libraries were designing airships on paper and propounding their theories, venturesome men, "crawling, but pestered with the thought of wings," were making pinions of various fabrics and trying them upon the wind. Four years after Lana suggested his airship with balls and oars, Besnier, a French locksmith, made a flying machine of four collapsible planes like book covers suspended on rods. With a rod over each shoulder, and moving the two front planes with his arms and the two back ones by his feet, Besnier gave exhibitions of gliding from a height to the earth. But his machine could not soar. What may be called the first patent on a flying machine was recorded in 1709 when Bartholomeo de Gusmao, a friar, appeared before the King of Portugal to announce that he had invented a flying machine and to request an order prohibiting other men from making anything of the sort. The King decreed pain of death to all infringers; and to assist the enterprising monk in improving his machine, he appointed him first professor of mathematics in the University of Coimbra with a fat stipend. Then the Inquisition stepped in. The inventor's suave reply, to the effect that to show men how to soar to Heaven was an essentially religious act, availed him nothing. He was pronounced a sorcerer, his machine was destroyed, and he was imprisoned till his death. Many other men fashioned unto themselves wings; but, though some of them might glide earthward, none could rise upon the wind.

While the principle by which the balloon, father of the dirigible, soars and floats could be deduced by men of natural powers of observation and little science from the action of clouds and smoke, the airplane, the Winged Victory of our day, waited upon two things--the scientific analysis of the anatomy of bird wings and the internal combustion engine.

These two things necessary to convert man into a rival of the albatross did not come at once and together. Not the dream of flying but the need for quantity and speed in production to take care of the wants of a modern civilization compelled the invention of the internal combustion engine. Before it appeared in the realm of mechanics, experimenters were applying in the construction of flying models the knowledge supplied by Cayley in 1796, who made an instrument of whalebone, corks, and feathers, which by the action of two screws of quill feathers, rotating in opposite directions, would rise to the ceiling; and the full revelation of the structure and action of bird wings set forth by Pettigrew in 1867.

"The wing, both when at rest and when in motion," Pettigrew declared, "may not inaptly be compared to the blade of an ordinary screw propeller as employed in navigation. Thus the general outline of the wing corresponds closely with the outline of the propeller, and the track described by the wing in space IS TWISTED UPON ITSELF propeller fashion." Numerous attempts to apply the newly discovered principles to artificial birds failed, yet came so close to success that they fed instead of killing the hope that a solution of the problem would one day ere long be reached.

"Nature has solved it, and why not man?"

From his boyhood days Samuel Pierpont Langley, so he tells us, had asked himself that question, which he was later to answer. Langley, born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1834, was another link in the chain of distinguished inventors who first saw the light of day in Puritan New England. And, like many of those other inventors, he numbered among his ancestors for generations two types of men--on the one hand, a line of skilled artisans and mechanics; on the other, the most intellectual men of their time such as clergymen and schoolmasters, one of them being Increase Mather. We see in Langley, as in some of his brother New England inventors, the later flowering of the Puritan ideal stripped of its husk of superstition and harshness--a high sense of duty and of integrity, an intense conviction that the reason for a man's life here is that he may give service, a reserved deportment which did not mask from discerning eyes the man's gentle qualities of heart and his keen love of beauty in art and Nature.

Langley first chose as his profession civil engineering and architecture and the years between 1857 and 1864 were chiefly spent in prosecuting these callings in St. Louis and Chicago. Then he abandoned them; for the bent of his mind was definitely towards scientific inquiry. In 1867 he was appointed director of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh. Here he remained until 1887, when, having made for himself a world-wide reputation as an astronomer, he became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington.

It was about this time that he began his experiments in "aerodynamics." But the problem of flight had long been a subject of interested speculation with him. Ten years later he wrote:

"Nature has made her flying-machine in the bird, which is nearly a thousand times as heavy as the air its bulk displaces, and only those who have tried to rival it know how inimitable her work is, for the "way of a bird in the air" remains as wonderful to us as it was to Solomon, and the sight of the bird has constantly held this wonder before men's minds, and kept the flame of hope from utter extinction, in spite of long disappointment. I well remember how, as a child, when lying in a New England pasture, h watched a hawk soaring far up in the blue, and sailing for a long time without any motion of its wings, as though it needed no work to sustain it, but was kept up there by some miracle. But, however sustained, I saw it sweep in a few seconds of its leisurely flight, over a distance that to me was encumbered with every sort of obstacle, which did not exist for it . . . . How wonderfully easy, too, was its flight! There was not a flutter of its pinions as it swept over the field, in a motion which seemed as effortless as that of its shadow. After many years and in mature life, I was brought to think of these things again, and to. ask myself whether the problem of artificial flight was as hopeless and as absurd as it was then thought to be"... In three or four years Langley made nearly forty models. "The primary difficulty lay in making the model light enough and sufficiently strong to support its power," he says. "This difficulty continued to be fundamental through every later form; but, beside this, the adjustment of the center of gravity to the center of pressure of the wings, the disposition of the wings themselves, the size of the propellers, the inclination and number of the blades, and a great number of other details, presented themselves for examination."

By 1891 Langley had a model light enough to fly, but proper balancing had not been attained. He set himself anew to find the practical conditions of equilibrium and of horizontal flight. His experiments convinced him that "mechanical sustenation of heavy bodies in the air, combined with very great speeds, is not only possible, but within the reach of mechanical means we actually possess."

After many experiments with new models Langley at length fashioned a steam-driven machine which would fly horizontally. It weighed about thirty pounds; it was some sixteen feet in length, with two sets of wings, the pair in front measuring forty feet from tip to tip. On May 6, 1896, this model was launched over the Potomac River. It flew half a mile in a minute and a half. When its fuel and water gave out, it descended gently to the river's surface. In November Langley launched another model which flew for three-quarters of a mile at a speed of thirty miles an hour. These tests demonstrated the practicability of artificial flight.

The Spanish-American War found the military observation balloon doing the limited work which it had done ever since the days of Franklin. President McKinley was keenly interested in Langley's design to build a power-driven flying machine which would have innumerable advantages over the balloon. The Government provided the funds and Langley took up the problem of a flying machine large enough to carry a man. His initial difficulty was the engine. It was plain at once that new principles of engine construction must be adopted before a motor could be designed of high power yet light enough to be borne in the slender body of an airplane. The internal combustion engine had now come into use. Langley went to Europe in 1900, seeking his motor, only to be told that what he sought was impossible.

His assistant, Charles M. Manly, meanwhile found a builder of engines in America who was willing to make the attempt. But, after two years of waiting for it, the engine proved a failure. Manly then had the several parts of it, which he deemed hopeful, transported to Washington, and there at the Smithsonian Institution he labored and experimented until he evolved a light and powerful gasoline motor. In October, 1903, the test was made, with Manly aboard of the machine. The failure which resulted was due solely to the clumsy launching apparatus. The airplane was damaged as it rushed forward before beginning to soar; and, as it rose, it turned over and plunged into the river. The loyal and enthusiastic Manly, who was fortunately a good diver and swimmer, hastily dried himself and gave out a reassuring statement to the representatives of the press and to the officers of the Board of Ordnance gathered to witness the flight.

A second failure in December convinced spectators that man was never intended to fly. The newspapers let loose such a storm of ridicule upon Langley and his machine, with charges as to the waste of public funds, that the Government refused to assist him further. Langley, at that time sixty-nine years of age, took this defeat so keenly to heart that it hastened his death, which occurred three years later. "Failure in the aerodrome itself," he wrote, "or its engines there has been none; and it is believed that it is at the moment of success, and when the engineering problems have been solved, that a lack of means has prevented a continuance of the work."

It was truly "at the moment of success" that Langley's work was stopped. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first successful experiment in which a machine carrying a man rose by its own power, flew naturally and at even speed, and descended without damage. These brothers, Wilbur and Orville, who at last opened the long besieged lanes of the air, were born in Dayton, Ohio. Their father, a clergyman and later a bishop, spent his leisure in scientific reading and in the invention of a typewriter which, however, he never perfected. He inspired an interest in scientific principles in his boys' minds by giving them toys which would stimulate their curiosity. One of these toys was a helicopter, or Cayley's Top, which would rise and flutter awhile in the air.

After several helicopters of their own, the brothers made original models of kites, and Orville, the younger, attained an exceptional skill in flying them. Presently Orville and Wilbur were making their own bicycles and astonishing their neighbors by public appearances on a specially designed tandem. The first accounts which they read of experiments with flying machines turned their inventive genius into the new field. In particular the newspaper accounts at that time of Otto Lilienthal's exhibitions with his glider stirred their interest and set them on to search the libraries for literature on the subject of flying. As they read of the work of Langley and others they concluded that the secret of flying could not be mastered theoretically in a laboratory; it must be learned in the air. It struck these young men, trained by necessity to count pennies at their full value, as "wasteful extravagance" to mount delicate and costly machinery on wings which no one knew how to manage. They turned from the records of other inventors' models to study the one perfect model, the bird. Said Wilbur Wright, speaking before the Society of Western Engineers, at Chicago:

"The bird's wings are undoubtedly very well designed indeed, but it is not any extraordinary efficiency that strikes with astonishment, but rather the marvelous skill with which they are used. It is true that I have seen birds perform soaring feats of almost incredible nature in positions where it was not possible to measure the speed and trend of the wind, but whenever it was possible to determine by actual measurements the conditions under which the soaring was performed it was easy to account for it on the basis of the results obtained with artificial wings. The soaring problem is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators."1

When the Wrights determined to fly, two problems which had beset earlier experimenters had been partially solved. Experience had brought out certain facts regarding the wings; and invention had supplied an engine. But the laws governing the balancing and steering of the machine were unknown. The way of a man in the air had yet to be discovered.

The starting point of their theory of flight seems to have been that man was endowed with an intelligence at least equal to that of the bird; and, that with practice he could learn to balance himself in the air as naturally and instinctively as on the ground. He must and could be, like the bird, the controlling intelligence of his machine. To quote Wilbur Wright again:

"It seemed to us that the main reason why the problem had remained so long unsolved was that no one had been able to obtain any adequate practice. Lilienthal in five years of time had spent only five hours in actual gliding through the air. The wonder was not that he had done so little but that he had accomplished so much. It would not be considered at all safe for a bicycle rider to attempt to ride through a crowded city street after only five hours' practice spread out in bits of ten seconds each over a period of five years, yet Lilienthal with his brief practice was remarkably successful in meeting the fluctuations and eddies of wind gusts. We thought that if some method could be found by which it would be possible to practice by the hour instead of by the second, there would be a hope of advancing the solution of a very difficult problem."

The brothers found that winds of the velocity they desired for their experiments were common on the coast of North Carolina. They pitched their camp at Kitty Hawk in October, 1900, and made a brief and successful trial of their gliding machine. Next year, they returned with a much larger machine; and in 1902 they continued their experiments with a model still further improved from their first design. Having tested their theories and become convinced that they were definitely on the right track, they were no longer satisfied merely to glide. They set about constructing a power machine. Here a new problem met them. They had decided on two screw propellers rotating in opposite directions on the principle of wings in flight; but the proper diameter, pitch, and area of blade were not easily arrived at.

On December 17, 1903, the first Wright biplane was ready to navigate the air and made four brief successful flights. Subsequent flights in 1904 demonstrated that the problem of equilibrium had not been fully solved; but the experiments of 1905 banished this difficulty.

The responsibility which the Wrights placed upon the aviator for maintaining his equilibrium, and the tailless design of their machine, caused much headshaking among foreign flying men when Wilbur Wright appeared at the great aviation meet in France in 1908. But he won the Michelin Prize of eight hundred pounds by beating previous records for speed and for the time which any machine had remained in the air. He gave exhibitions also in Germany and Italy and instructed Italian army officers in the flying of Wright machines. At this time Orville was giving similar demonstrations in America. Transverse control, the warping device invented by the Wright brothers for the preservation of lateral balance and for artificial inclination in making turns, has been employed in a similar or modified form in most airplanes since constructed.

There was no "mine" or "thine" in the diction of the Wright brothers; only "we" and "ours." They were joint inventors; they shared their fame equally and all their honors and prizes also until the death of Wilbur in 1912. They were the first inventors to make the ancient dream of flying man a reality and to demonstrate that reality to the practical world.

When the NC flying boats of the United States navy lined up at Trepassey in May, 1919, for their Atlantic venture, and the press was full of pictures of them, how many hasty readers, eager only for news of the start, stopped to think what the initials NC stood for?

The seaplane is the chief contribution of Glenn Hammond Curtiss to aviation, and the Navy Curtiss Number Four, which made the first transatlantic flight in history, was designed by him. The spirit of cooperation, expressed in pooling ideas and fame, which the Wright brothers exemplified, is seen again in the association of Curtiss with the navy during the war. NC is a fraternity badge signifying equal honors.

Curtiss, in 1900, was--like the Wrights--the owner of a small bicycle shop. It was at Hammondsport, New York. He was an enthusiastic cyclist, and speed was a mania with him. He evolved a motor cycle with which he broke all records for speed over the ground. He started a factory and achieved a reputation for excellent motors. He designed and made the engine for the dirigible of Captain Thomas S. Baldwin; and for the first United States army dirigible in 1905.

Curtiss carried on some of his experiments in association with Alexander Graham Bell, who was trying to evolve a stable flying machine on the principle of the cellular kite. Bell and Curtiss, with three others, formed in 1907, the Aerial Experimental Association at Bell's country house in Canada, which was fruitful of results, and Curtiss scored several notable triumphs with the craft they designed. But the idea of a machine which could descend and propel itself on water possessed his mind, and in 1911 he exhibited at the aviation meet in Chicago the hydroaeroplane. An incident there set him dreaming of the life-saving systems on great waters. His hydroaeroplane had just returned to its hangar, after a series of maneuvers, when a monoplane in flight broke out of control and plunged into Lake Michigan. The Curtiss machine left its hangar on the minute, covered the intervening mile, and alighted on the water to offer aid. The presence of boats made the good offices of the hydroaeroplane unnecessary on that occasion; but the incident opened up to the mind of Curtiss new possibilities.

In the first years of the World War Curtiss built airplanes and flying boats for the Allies. The United States entered the arena and called for his services. The Navy Department called for the big flying boat; and the NC type was evolved, which, equipped with four Liberty Motors, crossed the Atlantic after the close of the war.

The World War, of course, brought about the magical development of all kinds of air craft. Necessity not only mothered invention but forced it to cover a normal half century of progress in four years. While Curtiss worked with the navy, the Dayton-Wright factory turned out the famous DH fighting planes under the supervision of Orville Wright. The second initial here stands for Havilland, as the DH was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland, a British inventor.

The year 1919 saw the first transatlantic flights. The NC4, with Lieutenant Commander Albert Cushing Read and crew, left Trepassey, Newfoundland, on the 16th of May and in twelve hours arrived at Horta, the Azores, more than a thousand miles away. All along the course the navy had strung a chain of destroyers, with signaling apparatus and searchlights to guide the aviators. On the twenty-seventh, NC4 took off from San Miguel, Azores, and in nine hours made Lisbon--Lisbon, capital of Portugal, which sent out the first bold mariners to explore the Sea of Darkness, prior to Columbus. On the thirtieth, NC4 took off for Plymouth, England, and arrived in ten hours and twenty minutes. Perhaps a phantom ship, with sails set and flags blowing, the name Mayflower on her hull, rode in Plymouth Harbor that day to greet a New England pilot.

On the 14th of June the Vickers-Vimy Rolls-Royce biplane, piloted by John Alcock and with Arthur Whitten Brown as observer-navigator, left St. John's, Newfoundland, and arrived at Clifden, Ireland, in sixteen hours twelve minutes, having made the first non-stop transatlantic flight. Hawker and Grieve meanwhile had made the same gallant attempt in a single-engined Sopwith machine; and had come down in mid-ocean, after flying fourteen and a half hours, owing to the failure of their water circulation. Their rescue by slow Danish Mary completed a fascinating tale of heroic adventure. The British dirigible R34, with Major G. H. Scott in command, left East Fortune, Scotland, on the 2d of July, and arrived at Mineola, New York, on the sixth. The R34 made the return voyage in seventy-five hours. In November, 1919, Captain Sir Ross Smith set off from England in a biplane to win a prize of ten thousand pounds offered by the Australian Commonwealth to the first Australian aviator to fly from England to Australia in thirty days. Over France, Italy, Greece, over the Holy Land, perhaps over the Garden of Eden, whence the winged cherubim drove Adam and Eve, over Persia, India, Siam, the Dutch East Indies to Port Darwin in northern Australia; and then southeastward across Australia itself to Sydney, the biplane flew without mishap. The time from Hounslow, England, to Port Darwin was twenty-seven days, twenty hours, and twenty minutes. Early in 1920 the Boer airman Captain Van Ryneveld made the flight from Cairo to the Cape.

Commercial development of the airplane and the airship commenced after the war. The first air service for United States mails was, in fact, inaugurated during the war, between New York and Washington. The transcontinental service was established soon afterwards, and a regular line between Key West and Havana. French and British companies began to operate daily between London and Paris carrying passengers and mail. Airship companies were formed in Australia, South Africa, and India. In Canada airplanes were soon being used in prospecting the Labrador timber regions, in making photographs and maps of the northern wilderness, and by the Northwest Mounted Police.

It is not for history to prophesy. "Emblem of much, and of our Age of Hope itself," Carlyle called the balloon of his time, born to mount majestically but "unguidably" only to tumble "whither Fate will." But the aircraft of our day is guidable, and our Age of Hope is not rudderless nor at the mercy of Fate.


  1. Cited in Turner, "The Romance of Aeronautics".