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   Chapter 1 THE DAWN OF AERONAUTICS.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 20854

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"He that would learn to fly must be brought up to the constant practice of it from his youth, trying first only to use his wings as a tame goose will do, so by degrees learning to rise higher till he attain unto skill and confidence."

So wrote Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, who was reckoned a man of genius and learning in the days of the Commonwealth. But so soon as we come to inquire into the matter we find that this good Bishop was borrowing from the ideas of others who had gone before him; and, look back as far as we will, mankind is discovered to have entertained persistent and often plausible ideas of human flight. And those ideas had in some sort of way, for good or ill, taken practical shape. Thus, as long ago as the days when Xenophon was leading back his warriors to the shores of the Black Sea, and ere the Gauls had first burned Rome, there was a philosopher, Archytas, who invented a pigeon which could fly, partly by means of mechanism, and partly also, it is said, by aid of an aura or spirit. And here arises a question. Was this aura a gas, or did men use it as spiritualists do today, as merely a word to conjure with?

Four centuries later, in the days of Nero, there was a man in Rome who flew so well and high as to lose his life thereby. Here, at any rate, was an honest man, or the story would not have ended thus; but of the rest-and there are many who in early ages aspired to the attainment of flight-we have no more reason to credit their claims than those of charlatans who flourish in every age.

In medieval times we are seriously told by a saintly writer (St. Remigius) of folks who created clouds which rose to heaven by means of "an earthen pot in which a little imp had been enclosed." We need no more. That was an age of flying saints, as also of flying dragons. Flying in those days of yore may have been real enough to the multitude, but it was at best delusion. In the good old times it did not need the genius of a Maskelyne to do a "levitation" trick. We can picture the scene at a "flying seance." On the one side the decidedly professional showman possessed of sufficient low cunning; on the other the ignorant and highly superstitious audience, eager to hear or see some new thing-the same audience that, deceived by a simple trick of schoolboy science, would listen to supernatural voices in their groves, or oracular utterances in their temples, or watch the urns of Bacchus fill themselves with wine. Surely for their eyes it would need no more than the simplest phantasmagoria, or maybe only a little black thread, to make a pigeon rise and fly.

It is interesting to note, however, that in the case last cited there is unquestionably an allusion to some crude form of firework, and what more likely or better calculated to impress the ignorant! Our firework makers still manufacture a "little Devil." Pyrotechnic is as old as history itself; we have an excellent description of a rocket in a document at least as ancient as the ninth century. And that a species of pyrotechny was resorted to by those who sought to imitate flight we have proof in the following recipe for a flying body given by a Doctor, eke a Friar, in Paris in the days of our King John:-

"Take one pound of sulphur, two pounds of willowcarbon, six pounds of rock salt ground very fine in a marble mortar. Place, when you please, in a covering made of flying papyrus to produce thunder. The covering in order to ascend and float away should be long, graceful, well filled with this fine powder; but to produce thunder the covering should be short, thick, and half full."

Nor does this recipe stand alone. Take another sample, of which chapter and verse are to be found in the MSS. of a Jesuit, Gaspard Schott, of Palermo and Rome, born three hundred years ago:-

"The shells of hen-eggs, if properly filled and well secured against the penetration of the air, and exposed to solar rays, will ascend to the skies and sometimes suffer a natural change. And if the eggs of the larger description of swans, or leather balls stitched with fine thongs, be filled with nitre, the purest sulphur quicksilver, or kindred materials which rarify by their caloric energy, and if they externally resemble pigeons, they will easily be mistaken for flying animals."

Thus it would seem that, hunting back in history, there were three main ideas on which would-be aeronauts of old exercised their ingenuity. There was the last-mentioned method, which, by the way, Jules Verne partly relies on when he takes his heroes to the moon, and which in its highest practical development may be seen annually on the night of "Brock's Benefit" at the Crystal Palace. There is, again, the "tame goose" method, to which we must return presently; and, lastly, there is a third method, to which, as also to the brilliant genius who conceived it, we must without further delay be introduced. This may be called the method of "a hollow globe."

Roger Bacon, Melchisedeck-fashion, came into existence at Ilchester in 1214 of parentage that is hard to trace. He was, however, a born philosopher, and possessed of intellect and penetration that placed him incalculably ahead of his generation. A man of marvellous insight and research, he grasped, and as far as possible carried out, ideas which dawned on other men only after centuries. Thus, many of his utterances have been prophetic. It is probable that among his chemical discoveries he re-invented gunpowder. It is certain that he divined the properties of a lens, and diving deep into experimental and mechanical sciences, actually foresaw the time when, in his own words, "men would construct engines to traverse land and water with great speed and carry with them persons and merchandise." Clearly in his dreams Bacon saw the Atlantic not merely explored, but on its bosom the White Star liners breaking records, contemptuous of its angriest seas. He saw, too, a future Dumont circling in the air, and not only in a dead calm, but holding his own with the feathered race. He tells his dream thus: "There may be made some flying instrument so that a man sitting in the middle of the instrument and turning some mechanism may put in motion some artificial wings which may beat the air like a bird flying."

But he lived too long before his time. His ruin lay not only in his superior genius, but also in his fearless outspokenness. He presently fell under the ban of the Church, through which he lost alike his liberty and the means of pursuing investigation. Had it been otherwise we may fairly believe that the "admirable Doctor," as he was called, would have been the first to show mankind how to navigate the air. His ideas are perfectly easy to grasp. He conceived that the air was a true fluid, and as such must have an upper limit, and it would be on this upper surface, he supposed, as on the bosom of the ocean, that man would sail his air-ship. A fine, bold guess truly. He would watch the cirrus clouds sailing grandly ten miles above him on some stream that never approached nearer. Up there, in his imagination, would be tossing the waves of our ocean of air. Wait for some little better cylinders of oxygen and an improved foot-warmer, and a future Coxwell will go aloft and see; but as to an upper sea, it is truly there, and we may visit and view its sun-lit tossing billows stretching out to a limitless horizon at such times as the nether world is shrouded in densest gloom. Bacon's method of reaching such an upper sea as he postulated was, as we have said, by a hollow globe.

"The machine must be a large hollow globe, of copper or other suitable metal, wrought extremely thin so as to have it as light as possible," and "it must be filled with ethereal air or liquid fire." This was written in the thirteenth century, and it is scarcely edifying to find four hundred years after this the Jesuit Father Lana, who contrived to make his name live in history as a theoriser in aeronautics, arrogating to himself the bold conception of the English Friar, with certain unfortunate differences, however, which in fairness we must here clearly point out. Lana proclaimed his speculations standing on a giant's shoulders. Torricelli, with his closed bent tube, had just shown the world how heavily the air lies above us. It then required little mathematical skill to calculate what would be the lifting power of any vessel void of air on the earth's surface. Thus Lana proposed the construction of an air ship which possibly because of its picturesquesness has won him notoriety. But it was a fraud. We have but to conceive a dainty boat in which the aeronaut would sit at ease handling a little rudder and a simple sail. These, though a schoolboy would have known better, he thought would guide his vessel when in the air.

So much has been claimed for Father Lana and his mathematical and other attainments that it seems only right to insist on the weakness of his reasoning. An air ship simply drifting with the wind is incapable of altering its course in the slightest degree by either sail or rudder. It is simply like a log borne along in a torrent; but to compare such a log properly with the air ship we must conceive it WHOLLY submerged in the water and having no sail or other appendage projecting into the air, which would, of course, introduce other conditions. If, however, a man were to sit astride of the log and begin to propel it so that it travels either faster or slower than the stream, then in that case, either by paddle or rudder, the log could be guided, and the same might be said of Lana's air boat if only he had thought of some adequate paddle, fan, or other propeller. But he did not. One further explanatory sentence may here be needed; for we hear of balloons which are capable of being guided to a small extent by sail and rudder. In these cases, however, the rudder is a guide rope trailing on earth or sea, so introducing a fresh element and fresh conditions which are easy to explain.

Suppose a free balloon drifting down the wind to have a sail suddenly hoisted on one side, what happens? The balloon will simply swing till this sail is in front, and thus continue its straightforward course. Suppose, however, that as soon as the side sail is hoisted a trail rope is also dropped aft from a spar in the rigging. The tendency of the sail to fly round in front is now checked by the dragging rope, and it

is constrained to remain slanting at an angle on one side; at the same time the rate of the balloon is reduced by the dragging rope, so that it travels slower than the wind, which, now acting on its slant sail, imparts a certain sidelong motion much as it does in the case of a sailing boat.

Lana having in imagination built his ship, proceeds to make it float up into space, for which purpose he proposes four thin copper globes exhausted of air. Had this last been his own idea we might have pardoned him. We have, however, pointed out that it was not, and we must further point out that in copying his great predecessor he fails to see that he would lose enormous advantage by using four globes instead of one. But, beyond all, he failed to see what the master genius of Bacon saw clearly-that his thin globes when exhausted must infallibly collapse by virtue of that very pressure of the air which he sought to make use of.

It cannot be too strongly insisted on that if the too much belauded speculations of Lana have any value at all it is that they throw into stronger contrast the wonderful insight of the philosopher who so long preceded him. By sheer genius Bacon had foreseen that the emptied globe must be filled with SOMETHING, and for this something he suggests "ethereal air" or "liquid fire," neither of which, we contend, were empty terms. With Bacon's knowledge of experimental chemistry it is a question, and a most interesting one, whether he had not in his mind those two actual principles respectively of gas and air rarefied by heat on which we launch our balloons into space to-day.

Early progress in any art or science is commonly intermittent. It was so in the story of aeronautics. Advance was like that of the incoming tide, throwing an occasional wave far in front of its rising flood. It was a phenomenal wave that bore Roger Bacon and left his mark on the sand where none other approached for centuries. In those centuries men were either too priest-ridden to lend an ear to Science, or, like children, followed only the Will-o'-the-Wisp floating above the quagmire which held them fast. They ran after the stone that was to turn all to gold, or the elixir that should conquer death, or the signs in the heavens that should foretell their destinies; and the taint of this may be traced even when the dark period that followed was clearing away. Four hundred years after Roger's death, his illustrious namesake, Francis Bacon, was formulating his Inductive Philosophy, and with complete cock-sureness was teaching mankind all about everything. Let us look at some of his utterances which may help to throw light on the way he regarded the problem we are dealing with.

"It is reported," Francis Bacon writes, "that the Leucacians in ancient time did use to precipitate a man from a high cliffe into the sea; tying about him, with strings, at some distance, many great fowles; and fixing unto his body divers feathers, spread, to breake the fall. Certainly many birds of good wing (as Kites and the like) would beare up a good weight as they flie. And spreading of feathers, thin and close, and in great breadth, will likewise beare up a great weight, being even laid without tilting upon the sides. The further extension of this experiment of flying may be thought upon."

To say the least, this is hardly mechanical. But let us next follow the philosopher into the domain of Physics. Referring to a strange assertion, that "salt water will dissolve salt put into it in less time than fresh water will dissolve it," he is at once ready with an explanation to fit the case. "The salt," he says, "in the precedent water doth by similitude of substance draw the salt new put in unto it." Again, in his finding, well water is warmer in winter than summer, and "the cause is the subterranean heat which shut close in (as in winter) is the more, but if it perspire (as it doth in summer) it is the less." This was Bacon the Lord. What a falling off-from the experimentalist's point of view-from Bacon the Friar! We can fancy him watching a falcon poised motionless in the sky, and reflecting on that problem which to this day fairly puzzles our ablest scientists, settling the matter in a sentence: "The cause is that feathers doe possess upward attractions." During four hundred years preceding Lord Verulam philosophers would have flown by aid of a broomstick. Bacon himself would have merely parried the problem with a platitude!

At any rate, physicists, even in the brilliant seventeenth century, made no material progress towards the navigation of the air, and thus presently let the simple mechanic step in before them. Ere that century had closed something in the nature of flight had been accomplished. It is exceedingly hard to arrive at actual fact, but it seems pretty clear that more than one individual, by starting from some eminence, could let himself fall into space and waft himself away for some distance with fair success and safety, It is stated that an English Monk, Elmerus, flew the space of a furlong from a tower in Spain, a feat of the same kind having been accomplished by another adventurer from the top of St. Mark's at Venice.

In these attempts it would seem that the principle of the parachute was to some extent at least brought into play. If also circumstantial accounts can be credited, it would appear that a working model of a flying machine was publicly exhibited by one John Muller before the Emperor Charles V. at Nuremberg. Whatever exaggeration or embellishment history may be guilty of it is pretty clear that some genuine attempts of a practical and not unsuccessful nature had been made here and there, and these prompted the flowery and visionary Bishop Wilkins already quoted to predict confidently that the day was approaching when it "would be as common for a man to call for his wings as for boots and spurs."

We have now to return to the "tame goose" method, which found its best and boldest exponent in a humble craftsman, by name Besnier, living at Sable, about the year 1678. This mechanical genius was by trade a locksmith, and must have been possessed of sufficient skill to construct an efficient apparatus out of such materials as came to his hand, of the simplest possible design. It may be compared to the earliest type of bicycle, the ancient "bone shaker," now almost forgotten save by those who, like the writer, had experience of it on its first appearance. Besnier's wings, as it would appear, were essentially a pair of double-bladed paddles and nothing more, roughly resembling the double-paddle of an old-fashioned canoe, only the blades were large, roughly rectangular, and curved or hollowed. The operator would commence by standing erect and balancing these paddles, one on each shoulder, so that the hollows of the blades should be towards the ground. The forward part of each paddle was then grasped by the hands, while the hinder part of each was connected to the corresponding leg. This, presumably, would be effected after the arms had been raised vertically, the leg attachment being contrived in some way which experience would dictate.

The flyer was now fully equipped, and nothing remained for him save to mount some eminence and, throwing himself forward into space and assuming the position of a flying bird, to commence flapping and beating the air with a reciprocal motion. First, he would buffet the air downwards with the left arm and right leg simultaneously, and while these recovered their position would strike with the right hand and left leg, and so on alternately. With this crude method the enterprising inventor succeeded in raising himself by short stages from one height to another, reaching thus the top of a house, whence he could pass over others, or cross a river or the like.

The perfecting of his system became then simply a question of practice and experience, and had young athletes only been trained from early years to the new art it seems reasonable to suppose that some crude approach to human flight would have been effected. Modifications and improvements in construction would soon have suggested themselves, as was the case with the bicycle, which in its latest developments can scarcely be recognised as springing from the primitive "bone-shaker" of thirty-three years ago. We would suggest the idea to the modern inventor. He will in these days, of course, find lighter materials to hand. Then he will adopt some link motion for the legs in place of leather thongs, and will hinge the paddle blades so that they open out with the forward stroke, but collapse with the return. Then look on another thirty-three years-a fresh generation-and our youth of both sexes may find a popular recreation in graceful aerial exercise. The pace is not likely to be excessive, and molestations from disguised policemen-not physically adapted, by the way, to rapid flight-need not be apprehended.

One of the best tests of Besnier's measure of success is supplied by the fact that he had pupils as well as imitators. First on this list must be mentioned a Mr. Baldwin, a name which, curiously enough, twice over in modern times comes into the records of bold aerial exploits. This individual, it appears, purchased a flying outfit of Besnier himself, and surpassed his master in achievement. A little later one Dante contrived some modification of the same apparatus, with which he pursued the new mode of progress till he met with a fractured thigh.

But whatever the imitators of Besnier may have accomplished, to the honest smith must be accorded the full credit of their success, and with his simple, but brilliant, record left at flood mark, the tide of progress ebbed back again, while mankind ruminated over the great problem in apparent inactivity. But not for long. The air-pump about this period was given to the world, and chemists were already busy investigating the nature of gases. Cavallo was experimenting on kindred lines, while in our own land the rival geniuses of Priestley and Cavendish were clearing the way to make with respect to the atmosphere the most important discovery yet dreamed of. In recording this dawn of a new era, however, we should certainly not forget how, across the Atlantic, had arisen a Rumford and a Franklin, whose labours were destined to throw an all-important sidelight on the pages of progress which we have now to chronicle.

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