Little Bits of History

September 24

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 24, 2017

1852: Henri Giffard flies. The French engineer was born in 1825, in Paris. He invented a steam injector engine to power his airship. This type of engine pushed cold water into a boiler against its own pressure and used its own exhaust as power. While this seems to be a perpetual motion machine, thermodynamics holds the explanation. His airship or dirigible weight over 400 pounds and was the world’s first passenger carrying airship. His engine was able to deliver 3 hp and made the craft steerable. On this day he traveled from Paris to Elancourt, but was unable to return because he did not have enough power to drive against the wind. The 18 miles journey was able to prove the craft could make turns and was under his control.

In 1670, Jesuit priest Francesco Lana de Terzi, proposed a theoretical airship for the first time. His ship had four copper spheres completely emptied of air which would raise the ship. This was never built and still cannot be built today because the spheres would collapse from air pressure unless they were so thick, the ship would be too heavy to lift. The theory, however, remains possible. Others kept trying to come up with a way for mankind to fly.  There are rigid, semi-rigid, and non-rigid airships today and all of them must have certain components to be classified as an airship. They must have an envelope in which lifting gas is contained. They must also have a gondola for the crew and passengers and there must be a propulsion system which can be controlled.

Rigid airships have a rigid framework and can be built to any size. Semi-rigid ships have some supporting structure but the main envelope is held in shape by internal pressure. Non-rigid airships are called blimps and rely entirely on internal pressure to keep the envelope expanded. It can have only one envelope, unlike the other two types which can have compartmentalized envelopes. Blimps usually have “ballonets” containing air which are filled at sea level, but that air is expelled at altitude via pressure valves. The process is reversed while landing.

After Giffard’s success, improvements in airships was swift. A decade later, Solomon Andrews offered his newer design to the US for use in the Civil War. More experimentation changed the way lift was used to help provide propulsion. Twenty years after Giffard’s steam engine worked, Paul Haenlein included an internal combustion engine in his ship.  Airships were used in both world wars but since then they are no longer used for major cargo or passenger transport. Giffard was appointed a Chevalier in the Legion d’honneur in 1863. His eyesight failed as he aged and as a response to this, he committed suicide in 1882 at the age of 58. He left his estate to France for humanitarian and scientific purposes.

The sky is an infinite movie to me. I never get tired of looking at what’s happening up there. – K. D. Lang

Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us and conspires only to give the best to those who dream and work. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky. – Bob Dylan

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet. – Rumi




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