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No. 283:
Aeronautics: 1869

Today, a century-old article helps lead us to flight. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Here's a richly-illustrated Harper's article that speaks to young people about flight. It was written in 1869. That was after 85 years of ballooning and parachuting, as well as many failed experiments with heavier-than-air-flight. The article begins like this:

The obstacle for man in the way of his acquiring the art of flying in not the difficulty of constructing wings, but that of obtaining the necessary force to work them.

That business about working the wings means the author still expected the first heavier than air flying machines to be ornithopters with flapping wings. And he talks about early flapping-wing experiments. Most of them weren't really meant to get a man off the ground -- only to lower him to earth with minimal damage.

Power really was the stumbling block. Fifteen years before, the first primitive dirigible had used a propeller driven by a steam engine -- a heavy engine with a small power output. No engine was yet light enough to lift a heavier-than-air ship into the sky.

When the Wright Brothers managed to take off from the ground 34 years later, it was under the power of their own homemade internal combustion engine. The new gasoline engines finally provided high enough power-to-weight ratios for serious flight.

But, past history aside, the article provides two powerful ingredients for the minds of its young readers. Over half the text deals in great loving detail with the romance of past ballooning and parachuting exploits: we read the sad story of an English balloonist named Harris who took his fiancee on an exhibition balloon flight in 1824. The hydrogen release valve jammed in the open position; and, with its gas leaking away, the balloon began to fall. They threw out everything that was loose, but their own weight was too much. They could not both reach the earth safely. So in a grand heroic gesture, Harris flung himself overboard to save his lady. She swooned, and awakened -- unharmed -- in the crashed gondola. And this is only one of several affecting vignettes of aerial heroism, illuminated with wonderfully dramatic etchings.

The second feature is a brief but clear set of instructions for a young lad to make his own hot-air balloon. And it was in that coupling of Victorian sentiment with accessible technical detail that the minds of a new generation were being forged.

Nine years later Bishop Milton Wright brought a toy helicopter home to his boys, Orville and Wilbur, and set in motion, at last, the fulfillment of the age-old dream of flight. It is, after all, in the way we speak to our children that we change the future.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Anon., Early Aeronautics,: Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. XXXIX, No. CCXXX, July, 1869, pp. 21-33. Reprinted in Early Flight, (F. Oppel, ed.). Secaucus: Castle, 1987.