MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Balloon Prints from the Vail Collection

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Aeronautics is the topic of more than a thousand of the 30,000 items in the Vail Rare Book Collection, which was presented to MIT in 1912 by Theodore N. Vail, former president of AT&T and member of the MIT Corporation.

Thanks to the generosity of Thomas F. Peterson, Jr. ’57, the MIT Libraries have undertaken the conservation and digitization of a related collection: the Theodore Newton Vail Collection of Aeronautical Prints, Broadsides and Clippings. Consisting of over 1,200 items, the collection's contents range from the fanciful to depictions of historic events, including the first successful balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783.

In combination, the two collections comprise a fascinating cross-section of publications on the subject of flight that appeared over the course of three hundred years.

The Montgolfier balloon

The Montgolfier balloon

In 1670, the Jesuit Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687) published Prodromo all'arte maestra, in which he provided the first detailed description of a flying vessel based on the lighter-than-air principle (shown at the lower right in an 18th century engraving entitled "An Air Balloon"). It was to be kept aloft by large, thin spheres made of copper from which the air had been evacuated. Its height was to be regulated with a system of weights and vents, and its horizontal movements were to be controlled by sails and oars. Lana never tested his ideas because his "religious poverty" prevented him from spending the hundred Ducats he deemed necessary for "the tryal of so pleasant a curiosity."

An Air Balloon

An Air Balloon

While Lana's project never came to fruition, there is some evidence that a Brazilian priest, Bartholomeu Lourenço de Gusmão (1685-1724), flew small paper balloons in 1709 at the court of John V of Portugal, in Lisbon. A print illustrating "Passarola" ("The Flying Ship," shown below left), Gusmão's larger project for an airship, began circulating in Europe and appeared with slight variations in many publications. Less than ten years before the first balloons were successfully flown by the Montgolfier brothers in France in June 1783, a pamphlet was published in Lisbon reproducing Gusmão's alleged petition to John V for funds and exclusive rights to the airship. However, both the date and text of the pamphlet are questionable.

The Flying Ship

Passerola (The Flying Ship)

At a December 1783 meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, scientists identified four principal problems to be solved for successful balloon flight, as summarized by chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794):

First, to find an envelope which combines lightness and solidity, and which is impermeable to the air...; second to find a light gas, which is easy to obtain at all times, and is inexpensive; third, to find a method of ascending and descending at will...; fourth, to find a simple method of directing the machine.

Thus, over one hundred years after Lana's publication, flight had been achieved but many issues remained unresolved.

All Vail Collection materials, including Lana's Prodromo all'arte maestra and Gusmão's Petição, are available for research in the Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.  Additionally, the Theodore Newton Vail Collection of Aeronautical Prints, Broadsides and Clippings will soon be available in the MIT Libraries' DOME collection of online resources. Some images from the collection were included in the "Fascination of Flight" exhibit in 2009 in the Maihaugen Gallery, next to the Institute Archives.

[Click the images for a closer look.]


Object of the Month: January 2001; March 2009. Updated February 2012

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