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The First into the Air
From the moment humans first looked up at the skies, they envied the birds. Soon imaginative and daring humans had begun thinking about how they might be able to soar through the air themselves.
With no way to do this naturally, the only recourse of humans was their imaginations. Stories were told, and legends and myths grew of both humans and gods who had achieved the ability to soar above the Earth. Far from discouraging people, tales of such beings only made the goal of flight seem that much more desirable. Every human attempt to emulate a bird, however, ended in failure—sometimes disastrously so. This was in large part due to the fact that these would-be conquerors of the air badly underestimated the complexities of flight. The ability of birds to fly is an extraordinarily sophisticated achievement. It involves much more than simply beating against the air as one would make a boat move by beating against the water.
The first successful human flights, even those in gliders, resulted from the labor of many geniuses who realized that a bird's wing was more than a mere paddle and that many physical forces were involved—forces that had to be discovered, measured, experimented with, and respected.
If humans themselves seemed to be denied the ability to fly, they did not hesitate to assign wings to their gods and goddesses and to write innumerable stories about humans equipped with wings—both natural and artificial. As far back as c. 300 BCE, the sculptor of Victory of Samothrace gave this work a spectacular pair ofwings. Mercury wore winged sandals that allowed him the great speed demanded by his job as messenger of the gods.
In 1638, long after the Greeks dreamed of flying, Francis Godwin (15621633), the bishop of Hereford, wrote a novel called The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger. The hero, a Spanish sailor named Gonsales, is shipwrecked but devises an imaginative scheme to escape his predicament: He trains a bevy of wild swans to come at his call and to carry light burdens. Eventually, he is able to attach the birds to a harness. By clinging to a kind of trapeze beneath them, Gonsales hopes he will be able to be carried to safety. Unfortunately, he is unaware that his swans belong to a very special species that every year migrates to the Moon.
Godwin's novel was not the least among the scores of published stories and schemes involving flight. Along with other fanciful fictions, there were plans for real flying machines. Most of the latter remained confined to paper, which was fortunate. Those actually tested usually suffered the fate of the flying device invented around 1678 by Besnier, a French locksmith. After failing in his own attempts to get aloft, Besnier decided to sell his contraption while he still had all his bones intact. The traveling showman to whom he sold his wings, however, was not as lucky and was killed trying to use them.
When the great artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci (14521519) turned his attention to the challenge of human flight, it was perhaps the first time the question had been considered by someone knowledgeable in science and engineering. He had already filled many sketchbooks with his studies of bird flight, designed one of the first parachutes in history, and come up with an idea for a helicopter. He realized that human beings could not fly using muscle power alone. Da Vinci's solution was to multiply that power through a system of levers, resulting in a surprisingly modern-looking machine that lacked only an engine and propeller to resemble aircraft that flew at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, even Leonardo's ingenious device was incapable of flight, and 600 more years would pass before a human being could finally fly by muscle power alone.
In the thousands of years of history preceding the end of the eighteenth century, no human being had ever left the Earth farther than he or she could jump, or be thrown. That is, until a pair of brothers living in France watched a column of smoke rising above a fire and started to wonder about it.
The brothers were Joseph Michel Montgolfier (17401810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (174599), the sons of a wealthy paper manufacturer in the town of Annonay, France. The brothers, especially Joseph, devoted much time to the study of physical science, but their understanding of the science seemed rudimentary at best. Joseph had determined that air heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82° C) occupied twice as much space as an equal volume of air at room temperature. He reasoned that, just as a boat floats because the water it displaces weighs more than the boat itself, a bag that displaces a volume of air that weighed more than the bag might float in the air. There was only one way to find out.
The Montgolfiers' first balloon was a small bag made of thin taffeta fabric that contained less than 78 cubic inches (1,278 cubic meters) of heated air. In November 1782 this apparatus rose to the ceiling of Joseph's apartment in what was probably the first balloon flight in history. "Prepare a supply of taffeta and cordage," he wrote to his brother, "and you shall see the most astonishing thing in the world!"
Together, the brothers tried the same experiment outdoors, this time with a much larger balloon containing more than 65 cubic feet (1.8 cubic meters) of hot air. It rose so vigorously that it tore loose from the cords holding it down and soared to a height of 200 or 300 feet (6090 m).
Emboldened by this success, the brothers decided that it was time to make a public appearance with their new invention. For this event, they created what was essentially . . .Extreme Aircraft. Copyright � by Ron Miller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. <%END%>