“Homo Volaticus,” or Who Says That People Can’t Fly?

“Homo Volaticus,” or Who Says That People Can’t Fly?

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To rise into the sky was a long-held dream of a mankind that first came true in the late 18th century. A hot-air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers that they first demonstrated on June 5, 1783 helped live out that dream.

Instead of a Foreword

In 1895, 125 years ago, Fyodor Sologub, the Russian poet and writer, published his first novel “Heavy Dreams” in the Severny Vestnik literary magazine in St. Petersburg. The storyline takes place in a small provincial township in northwest Russia, the description of which is very similar to the town of Velikiye Luki in the Pskov Governorate. It was there where after graduating from the St. Petersburg Teachers' Institute, Fyodor Sologub taught mathematics at a local school for some time. And it was this town where he also worked on his first novel.

There is an incredible and almost mystical prediction in an episode of his book. A rumor starts spreading among the locals that unknown balloons and airships are to appear over the city. In this regard, the teacher by the surname of Ivakina asks her colleague: “You said that the balloons would arrive soon, but could you be more specific about the time, please?”

My friends among balloonists and I personally had an opportunity to answer the heroine’s question about the precise timing of arrival of the balloons in the city. But first things first.

Pioneers of Sky

The idea of taking to the air and flying “like a bird” is as old as the hills. People have dreamed of learning to rise to the skies since ancient times. There are numerous examples of this – religious testimonies, fairytales, myths, and legends. The omnipotence of the deities was emphasized by their ability to fly. Recall the entering heaven by the prophet Elijah or the legend of Icarus and Daedalus. Among the descriptions of entertainments during the festivals of the Slavs in about the 1200’s, there are the following words in the manuscript of Daniil Zatochnik found in the Chudov Monastery: “...Some fly from a church or a tall house on silk wings.” As we know now, numerous attempts to get off the ground with their own muscle power were initially doomed to failure.

It is believed that the first serious scientific approach to the issue of creating “flying machines” was made by Leonardo da Vinci. For example, he concluded that when flying, a bird found support in the air itself, “making this liquid (air) thicker where it flies rather than where it does not fly.” He made the drawings, sketches and designs of a glider and an ornithopter. However, his brilliant ideas remained only on paper.

Some researchers believe that 2,000 years ago the ancestors of the Peruvians could fly over the Nazca desert, for example. This is the place with the mysterious land lines and patterns which can be seen only from a bird’s eye view. By the way, the wall of one of the local tombs has drawings which remotely resemble an air ship. There is a theory that mysterious images on the ground are nothing else but the markings of an ancient airfield.

There is evidence of more real and, most importantly, more successful attempts to create flying machines.

The French missionary Bassou describes the balloon launched in Beijing on the feast day of Emperor Pho Kin's accession to the throne in 1306. Allegedly, a huge crowd of people saw the balloon go up into the sky and fly a considerable distance.

Picture by: epizodyspace.ru

The next, more credible aeronautical story happened 403 years later. In April 1709, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, the Jesuit monk, met John I, King of Portugal, and persuaded him to start working on building an air ship. The wind, caught by the sacks and directed through the funnels into the sails, was supposed to lift the structure off the ground. As planned, the car would be used for military purposes when bombing the enemy.

Soon John I demanded a report on completion of the work. They say things don't always work out the first time. So, during the demonstration on August 3, the construction burned when launching. After that, Gusmão improved his invention. As a result, on October 30, he carried out a normal takeoff and landing of the device.

There is also a version suggesting that one day Gusmão climbed the tower of St. George in Lisbon, got into a strange boatlike vehicle with a sail and flew over the Portuguese capital in front of a stunned audience. However, despite all his efforts, it was a story with the sad ending. John I realized that instead of an airship, he got only an air-castle. Soon Gusmão who was given the nickname Voador, or Flying-man, was deprived of all favors and was forced to flee from Portugal.

“Ad Astra”

Numerous attempts “to hit the skies” ended up with a failure until the French brothers Montgolfier launched their balloon. According to the legend, one day, putting on a shirt near the fireplace, Joseph, the elder brother, noticed that it was filled with hot air and began to inflate into a bubble.

Joseph's father was a wealthy man according to the standards of the small French town of Annonay. He owned a paper mill and managed to give a decent education to his children. Joseph and his younger brother Jacques craved for knowledge from childhood. They were particularly interested in the exact sciences – physics, chemistry, and mathematics. In addition, both were avid dreamers with rich imagination.

While managing the paper mill inherited from their father, they continued their scientific experiments. They were completely captured by the idea of flying. At first, the brothers built a large canvas structure and began to fill it with steam from boiling water. The unusual construction inflated, but after getting wet, it couldn’t lift off to the air.

The brothers’ passion for chemistry helped them set up another experiment. They tried to pump hydrogen into another vehicle they invented. Metal filings were filled with sulfuric acid while staying on the ground. The gas released was sent through pipes under the shell. The brothers’ calculations were absolutely correct. Theoretically, volatile gas (as hydrogen was called then), which is much lighter than air, made it possible to get off the ground, but the air-tightness of the ball was not enough to lift it into the air. Therefore, the experiment failed.

However, it only made the brothers more enthusiastic. According to some witnesses, the inflated shirt near the fireplace or, according to other ones, the smoke rising from the fire, gave Joseph the idea of filling the balloon with hot air. During their experiments, the brothers started to pump smoke into paper bags. They easily soared into the sky and hovered among the clouds for a long time.

In 1782, the brothers began to implement their plans. A year later, a balloon of unusual design was constructed for flight. A thick canvas was used as the material for its shell. From the inside it was pasted with the best paper from their factory and reinforced with a cloth belt in diameter. In order to hold the construction when launching, ropes were attached to it. The lower neck of the balloon was reinforced with a wooden frame. The constriction was bulky with the weight of over 200 kg.

Finally, the long-awaited day came. The brothers and their helpers started a fire over the neck of the balloon. Hot air began to fill the shell. The shapeless canvas moved like a living being. Its folds spread out, and few moments later, the balloon rose above the crowd of spectators. It was 11 meters in diameter with the height of a three-story building. Eight people were barely able to hold the unusual device rushing into the sky. After a command was given, the balloon with an inscription AD ASTRA (Latin for “To the Stars”) on its side immediately rushed to the sky.

The crowd on the market square gasped with delight. The construction rose about 500 meters above the city and stayed about 10 minutes in the air. As soon as the warm air got cooler inside the balloon, it lost its buoyancy slowly coming back to the ground.

So, on June 5, 1783, Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier took the first step to rising to the stars. Their names are forever written into the history of aeronautics.

The news that the Montgolfier brothers had invented a hot air balloon and carried out a successful test of it, traveled fast, reaching Paris. Louis XVI himself became interested in the experiment of the inventors. The Paris Academy of Sciences sent an invitation to the Montgolfier brothers to come to Versailles and to show the King the unusual innovation.

While the brothers were going from provincial town of Annonay to Paris, the impatient Louis XVI commissioned Professor Jacques Alexandre César Charles to study and recreate the invention of the brothers. Virtually overnight, Charles made a drawing of the construction with a number of improvements. The already sealed shell was made from the Chinese silk infiltrated with a rubber solution.

On August 27, 1783, in the pouring rain, a crowd watched with delight the launch of Le Globe balloon on the Champ de Mars in Paris. A balloon that measured 3.5 meters in diameter and was filled with hydrogen reached the altitude at 1,500 meters. However, it burst soon, and its fragments were scattered about 25 kilometers from the launch site. Nevertheless, this experiment was considered a success. Since then, a balloon filled with hot air is called a “montgolfière” (a hot air balloon) in French and some other languages, and that one with hydrogen is called a “charlière” (a gas balloon.)

In September 1783, the Montgolfier brothers came to Paris. Their new upgraded machine was equipped with a basket made of willow twigs. They told the Paris newspapers that they were going to take people up in the air. This news became a real sensation. One newspaper after another predicted that people would break their hearts or become terribly dizzy as they went up in the air. The priests warned that those who dared to fly would get the divine retribution. At the last moment, the Montgolfier brothers decided not to put people’s lives at risk sending up a large balloon with a sheep, a rooster and a duck. They became the first successful aeronauts.

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