Lighter-Than-Air Travel

Homo volans

Homo volans, or the flying man, from Veranzio's Machinae Novae, 1595

To your average turn-of-the-16th-century Venetian, human flight must have seemed as far-fetched as the idea of a smoke-spewing metal machine on rails that could convey a Venetian to Rome in under four hours. But perhaps Faustio Veranzio (1557-1617) was not your average Venetian. This intrepid inventor reportedly jumped from the campanile in St. Mark’s Square, tethered to a homemade parachute, and floated safely to the ground. This story is often dismissed as apocryphal, but the image in his Machinae Novae nonetheless represents a belief in the possibility.

Kurze Geschichte einiger der merkwürdigsten Luftarten, 1784

More than a century and a half later, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were busy building the world’s first hot air balloons. On 4 June 1783, in their hometown of Annonay, France, the two brothers made the first public demonstration of a manned balloon ascension. The flight lasted ten minutes, they reached an estimated altitude of around six thousand feet, and they dazzled their audience. Word of this wondrous spectacle spread quickly.

Numerous accounts of this flight and the brothers’ work can be found in the Vail Collection, including Faujas-de-St.-Fond’s Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique. Reports were limited not only to the informative and the technical, but even extended to the poetic, as evidenced by tributes in verse like Antonio Galfo’s Stanze sul globo aereostatico del signor Mongolfier.

J.P. Blanchard. An Exact and Authentic Narrative of M. Blanchard’s Third Aerial Voyage, 1784

With the basic principle of lighter-than-air travel established by the Montgolfier brothers, airship design entered a phase of wild experimentation. Some ships were designed to look like floating sea vessels; others featured elaborate steering apparatus. A significant component of the Vail Collection is a trove of balloon images that capture this early period of aeronautical experimentation. The simple balloon eventually gave way to the Zeppelin, and soon after to experiments with fixed-wing aircraft and heavier-than-air travel. The Vail Collection even contains a brief report by the Wright brothers.

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