Aeronautical Images

The Theodore Newton Vail Collection of Aeronautical Prints, Broadsides and Clippings is an extraordinary sub-collection within the MIT Libraries’ Vail Collection.

The collection provides visual documentation of the dream of human flight. Images range from the fanciful, as shown above, to depictions of real events, such as the balloon launched by the pioneering Montgolfier brothers in 1783, and balloon flights by many others (both successful and unsuccessful).

Articles and clippings recount the history of man’s attempts to fly during the course of three centuries. Some of these textual items simply report on specific efforts, while others offer commentary, and though some are celebratory, others detail failures that resulted in fatalities.

Comprising more than 1,200 items, the collection includes broadsides, watercolors, poems, plates from books, broadsides, articles, and clippings. A handful of the prints are original drawings. Several are hand-colored. Though many items are undated, those with dates were created between 1783 and 1932; all appear to be European.

The first slideshow on this page presents an overview of the collection. The second highlights some of the most beautiful and fanciful images, and the third provides a glimpse at the collection’s more humorous (and bizarre) side. Thanks to the generosity of Thomas F. Peterson, Jr. ’57, the MIT Libraries were able to conserve and digitize these materials in 2008. Since that time the collection has been cataloged, incorporating a wealth of information about the history of ballooning and lighter-than-air travel into the record for each image.