Printing ContextImage appeared in a book produced by the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris called Essai sur La Nautique Arienne.
Associated EventsThe fascination with ballooning had been triggered by the efforts of the Montgolfier brothers in France. In June 1783, they bhad launched the first ever flight, carrying a sheep, a cock, and a duck, in front of 60,000 spectators and the Royal Family. On October 15, 1783, they launched the first ever human flight, this time in front of 100, 000 spectators and the Royal family. Numerous flights soon followed, both in France, England, and elsewhere.
Associated PlacesThe Montgolfiers launched their first balloons at Varsailles; Vincento Lunardi ascended from London. By its nature, however, balloon flights soon proliferated across both countries, as well as much of Europe and America.
Associated TextsNumerous books and pamphlets suggested means of steeing balloons. A pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Farther Improvement of Aerostation, or the Art of Travelling in the Atmosphere (1785), suggested that they should adopt “an oblong form, constructed in such a mannerthat it may be sharpened at one end, in order to divide the resisting fluid . . . while the tail steers its course” (12, 15). Another publication entitled The Air Balloon urged that it be designed “in the form of a fish” with wings “to be made of the opurest elastic steel ever wrought in this country, and the whole . . . to be to be worked and directed by a person who is going up in a basket attached to the machine” (24).
SubjectThe image offered readers a glimpse of new ideas about balloon navigation using a rudder and paddle-wheels.
ThemeThis image highlights the efforts of early experimenters to find ways to develop balloons that could be steered through the air.
Early aeronauts tried to respond to this challenge in two ways. On the one hand, many early balloons included a rudder and oars (much wider than the oars used in boats today) intended to enable the aeronaut to steer the balloon through the skies. On the other hand, anticipating the aircraft design that would one day follow, some participants in these debates argued that the balloons (and the baskets underneath them) should be shaped in an oblong manner, like a fish or (as one publication suggested) a bird. The image shown here retains the standard shape of the balloon but includes both a rudder and the equivalent of paddlewheels, which could be operated from the carriage.
Some critics, anticipating similar debates today, rejected the idea that ballooning must be proven to be useful in any sort of practical way. “What is the use of a new-born child,” Benjamin Franklin famously responded when asked about ballooning’s utility. It was enough, they insisted, that it be embraced as an exciting example of the fruits of curiosity-driven research without demanding that it be translated into applied knowledge. But for those who felt the need to respond to this challenge to demonstrate ballooning’s usefulness, devices for steering them remained a crucial and intriguing element of the technological challenge.