Thursday, September 1, 2016

History of Flight: Unpowered Flight

If you had to guess where would you say the first lighter-than-air craft was invented?

If you said China, you're either-well versed in history or you know how to game a short-answer test. Because, let's be honest here, the Chinese have invented 90% of everything. If you're ever on Jeopardy and the hint starts with, "The first place to invent…" Don't even read the rest of the question. Just buzz in and say, "What is China?"

First in Flight

Kongming Sky Lanterns
CC Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons
First documented in the 3rd century CE, the sky lantern is a hot-air balloon with an envelope made of paper and a fire slung underneath. Its invention is usually credited to Zhuge Liang, a military strategist of the Three Kingdoms period, and to this day is also called by his courtesy name, Kongming. Originally used as a psychological weapon to spook the hell out of enemy troops,[1]  Kongming lanterns were later used for military signaling, and by civilians during Mid-Autumn and Spring Festivals,[2] to create a festive river of light rising thousands of feet into the air.

Europe would not replicate this technology until 1709, when Bartolomeu de Gusmão flew a paper balloon of the same basic design as the Kongming lantern to a height of 12 feet[3] . De Gusmão is thus regarded, by several sources I discovered while researching this article, as the man who proved that hot air can buoy up a lighter-than-air craft. Yeah, nice try. You've proven that hot air can buoy up more than just balloons.

And while we're on the subject, do you know where the first heavier-than-air craft was invented? Yeah, that was China, too. That aircraft is the kite, invented in China in the sixth century CE, if not earlier[4] . Like the sky lantern, the kite was not just a plaything, but an instrument of war. They could be used by city garrisons to send signals to friendly forces during sieges, or by military units who were cut off and unable to communicate their predicament by any other means[5] . They could be flown over enemy walls, and the length of the string used to calculate the distance that sappers should dig to, in order to undermine the defenses[6] . They were even used in psyops operations. Propaganda messages were written directly onto the paper of the kites, which were flown up and over enemy lines, then dropped by cutting the strings[7] . In civilian use, kites were employed in an aerial form of long-line fishing, in which a line and hook could be suspended from the kite, well away from the shadow of the boat[8] .

But surely the first human being to fly was Orville Wright? Or, if not him, then Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a tethered hot air balloon in 1783?

Go Fly a Kite - Yuan Huangtou EditionSo, do you remember what I said earlier about buzzing in quickly if you're ever on Jeopardy? Yeah. The first documented human being to achieve flight was Yuan Huangtou, the son of a deposed Chinese emperor, in the 6th century CE. It wasn't as auspicious an event as you might be imagining, however. Guinness wasn't there, for one thing, and Yuan Huangtou was a prisoner of Gao Yang, a man who combined the traits of a scientific tinkerer with those of a true psychopath. Yuan Huangtou and other prisoners were tied to kites and thrown off the Tower of the Golden Phoenix in Ye. Alone among these unwilling pioneers of aeronautics, his kite actually flew, traveling a distance of two and a half kilometers before landing safely[9] . Compare this to Orville Wright's famous flight, which covered a paltry 37 meters, though of course Orville's flight had the distinction of being both powered and voluntary.

There are even stories of Lu Ban inventing a kite capable of lifting a man into the air as early as the 5th century BCE, for surveillance or as a platform for archery[10] . Historians usually regard these stories as exaggerations of Lu Ban's achievements, if not outright apocrypha, but the idea isn't as absurd as it may seem. 19th century inventors, Samuel Franklin Cody most famous among them, revisited the concept by building war kites that could lift not just one but several observers up to altitudes of thousands of feet, for as long as the wind remained steady. Many of these kites were made from nothing more than hemp, silk, cotton, and bamboo—all materials that were available in China in the 5th century. Which is to say, it's unlikely but not inconceivable that Lu Ban beat Cody to the punch by two and a half millennia.

Europe Discovers Finally Figures Out Flight

But whoever may have first invented the manned kite, credit for the first manned balloon goes to the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, of France. The Montgolfiers were paper manufacturers, because it just keep coming back to paper, doesn't it? Say, who was it that invented paper, again? I don't know, probably some white dude, right?

ANYWAY. The Montgolfiers got their start in the business of flight by experimenting with paper balloons and various buoyant substances. They first tried steam, but found that steam and a paper balloon don't go together super well. Then, learning of Henry Cavendish's experiments with hydrogen—then called "inflammable air"—they tried to fill their paper balloons with that. It didn't work, the hydrogen leaking out too quickly to provide buoyancy, but at least they didn't blow themselves up[11], so let's file that under "blessing in disguise."

Their breakthrough came in 1782, when Joseph noticed flecks of ash rising up a chimney. Believing that the smoke from the fire was permeated with a heretofore unknown type of buoyant gas, he named it Montgolfier Gas[12] . Personally, I would have gone with "De Gusmão, No Wait I Meant Zhuge Liang or, Oh I Don't Know, Maybe About Three Hundred Million Chinese People With Sky Lanterns Gas," but I guess that wasn't catchy enough. By any other name, however, the brothers had a solid foundation on which to build ever-larger hot air balloons. In tests conducted in 1782 and 1783, they lofted unmanned paper balloons of up to 20,000 cubic feet, reaching estimated heights of over a mile.[13] 

In a classic case of snobbery being the mother of invention, the French Academy was pissed that a couple of paper mongers had beaten them to a lighter-than-air balloon, and so commissioned Jacques Charles to duplicate the Montgolfier brothers' creation. Charles was confident of success, though it turned out he didn't have a clue how the brothers' balloon operated. He planned to buoy his own balloon with Cavendish's inflammable air, and lucky for him, paper was not a politically acceptable envelope material. Instead, he outsourced the job to brothers Marie-Noel and Anne-Jean Robert, who had developed a means of coating silk with rubber to make a tough material that retained hydrogen gas for long enough to loft a balloon.

It worked, and the test balloon ascended three thousand feet above Paris before drifting away and coming to a landing in the village of Gonesse. There, believing it had come from the devil, the villagers attacked the balloon with pitchforks, flails, and at least one firearm, before tying it to a horse and dragging it across the countryside[14] .
Montgolfier Balloon Being Assaulted by Peasants in Gonesse
From Astra Castra: Experiments and Adventures in the Atmosphere

So, do I even need to point out that there are no recorded cases of Chinese villagers committing aggravated assault against a Kongming lantern? No? Okay then, let's move on.

The aerial competition between the Montgolfiers and Jacques Charles was now on. The Montgolfiers came back strong, lofting living passengers aboard a flying machine for the first time in European history in September of 1783. Those passengers were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. In the presence of King Louis, they were sent up in a wicker basket slung under a balloon decorated with the royal arms. The animals came down intact from an estimated height about 1,700 feet, confirming that life could survive at the lofty altitude of… well, a smallish hill. Seriously though, some scientists doubted that[15] .

First Manned Flight (Subcategory: Voluntary)

With those naysayers out of the way, the race was on to take a person into the air. Again, the Montgolfiers were first in Europe. That is, they were the first to build a balloon that could do it. They weren't the first to go up in it—are you crazy? They sent some snot-nosed kid up ahead of them, and so Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier made the first tethered flight, less than a month after the concept was proven on a sheep[16] .
Montgolfier Hot Air Balloon Tethered Flight

Another month saw another breakthrough from the Montgolfiers: sending not just one but two poor bastards up in a balloon, and cutting the cord. It was Rozier again, joined this time by Marquis François-Laurent d'Arlandes. The Marquis was a last minute substitution, by order of the king. Louis had actually wanted condemned criminals to be the first to make an untethered flight, but Rozier wasn't hearing it. He talked to the Marquis, who talked Louis out of robbing Rozier of his glory. Louis agreed, with one condition: that the Marquis accompany him. Because even kings have a sense of humor.

The aeronauts rode on a wicker balcony surrounding a brazier on the underside of the balloon. They carried a supply of straw, which they were supposed to steadily feed onto the fire, though the Marquis was distracted by the sights passing below and had to be continually reminded of his task. He was also somewhat distracted when the balloon caught fire. No bigs, though. He spotted it in time and put it out with a wet sponge. If he hadn't been quite so on the ball, they would have come down in a flaming wreck onto the rooftops of Paris.[17]  As it was, they crossed the Seine and came down safely on the opposite side of the city.

Late but not to be outdone, the Robert brothers replicated the feat ten days later, sending Nicolas-Louis Robert—the elder brother—and Jacques Charles up in a hydrogen balloon. With no need for a brazier, their balloon featured a boat-shaped gondola, beating the Montgolfiers on style by a wide margin. They also beat them on duration, staying up two hours where the first untethered flight of the Montgolfier balloon—depending as it did on a continuous supply of fuel to stay aloft—only lasted half an hour.

Ebullient at the achievement, Charles stayed aboard after they'd landed. Once the elder Robert disemballooned, he signaled the ground crew to let go and went back into the air. Which was rather poor judgement on his part, since he hadn't considered the reduction in ballast from his departing co-pilot. He shot up to 10,000 feet so quickly that he saw the sunset twice in one day: once from the ground and again from aloft, having risen to an altitude where it hadn't yet gone down. As cool as this may sound, I wouldn't try it at home. Charles certainly didn't recommend it. He described an excruciating pain in one ear, and vented hydrogen to bring himself back down[18] . After that little misadventure, he never flew again[19] .

The Sky Conquered

At the beginning of 1782, the lighter-than-air balloon was a festive tradition and niche tool of military signalling, so unknown in Europe that Joseph Montgolfier thought he'd discovered hot air and tried to name it after himself. By the end of 1782, a human being had gone to 10,000 feet and returned safely to Earth.

The years to come would see even greater feats. In 1784, the balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard flew a distance of 70 miles. In 1785, he crossed the English Channel[20] . The age of the aeronaut had arrived, opening up a literal new dimension in human endeavors. The question, "Will Man ever fly?" had been resoundingly answered.

The only question that remained was, "So, uh, how do we use this to kill each other?"

We'll see how it was answered in the next article.

For further reading, check out the references listed below. I also recommend Ken Liu's phenomenal The Grace of Kings, which incorporates many of the above inventions into an epic fantasy setting.

 [1]Yinke Deng, Ancient Chinese Inventions, 131-132


 [3]Anderson, Flight and Motion, 120

 [4]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577.

 [5]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577.

 [6]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577

 [7]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 577.

 [8]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 576.

 [9]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 588-589

 [10]Needhan, Volume 4, Part 2, 573.

 [11]Payne, Lighter than Air, 1-2


 [13]Collier, The Airship, 16

 [14]Payne, Lighter than Air, 3

 [15]Payne, Lighter than Air, 4.

 [16]Payne, Lighter than Air, 4.

 [17]Payne, Lighter than Air, 6-7.

 [18]Collier, The Airship, 20

 [19]Payne, Lighter Than Air, 10

 [20]Collier, The Airship, 20

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