A History of Aeronautics – W. Lockwood Marsh and Evelyn Charles Vivian

ALTHOUGH successful heavier-than-air flight is less than two decades old, and successful dirigible propulsion antedates it by a very short period, the mass of experiment and accomplishment renders any one-volume history of the subject a matter of selection. In addition to the restrictions imposed by space limits, the material for compilation is fragmentary, and, in many cases, scattered through periodical and other publications. Hitherto, there has been no attempt at furnishing a detailed account of how the aeroplane and the dirigible of to-day came to being, but each author who has treated the subject has devoted his attention to some special phase or section. The principal exception to this rule —Hildebrandt—wrote in 1906, and a good many of his statements are inaccurate, especially with regard to heavier-than-air experiment. Such statements as are made in this work are, where possible, given with acknowledgment to the authorities on which they rest. Further acknowledgment is due to Lieut.-Col. Lockwood Marsh, not only for the section on aeroplane development which he has contributed to the work, but also for his kindly assistance and advice in connection with the section on aerostation. The author’s thanks are also due to the Royal Aeronautical Society for free access to its valuable library of aeronautical literature, and to Mr A. Vincent Clarke for permission to make use of his notes on the development of the aero engine. In this work is no claim to originality—it has been a matter mainly of compilation, and some stories, notably those of the Wright Brothers and of Santos Dumont, are better told in the words of the men themselves than any third party could tell them. The author claims, however, that this is the first attempt at recording the facts of development and stating, as fully as is possible in the compass of a single volume, how flight and aerostation have evolved. The time for a critical history of the subject is not yet. In the matter of illustrations, it has been found very difficult to secure suitable material. Even the official series of photographs of aeroplanes in the war period is curiously incomplete, and the methods of censorship during that period prevented any complete series being privately collected.

Omissions in this respect will probably be remedied in future editions of the work, as fresh material is constantly being located. E. C. V.



THE blending of fact and fancy which men call legend reached its fullest and richest expression in the golden age of Greece, and thus it is to Greek mythology that one must turn for the best form of any legend which foreshadows history. Yet the prevalence of legends regarding flight, existing in the records of practically every race, shows that this form of transit was a dream of many peoples—man always wanted to fly, and imagined means of flight. In this age of steel, a very great part of the inventive genius of man has gone into devices intended to facilitate transport, both of men and goods, and the growth of civilisation is in reality the facilitation of transit, improvement of the means of communication. He was a genius who first hoisted a sail on a boat and saved the labour of rowing; equally, he who first harnessed ox or dog or horse to a wheeled vehicle was a genius—and these looked up, as men have looked up from the earliest days of all, seeing that the birds had solved the problem of transit far more completely than themselves. So it must have appeared, and there is no age in history in which some dreamers have not dreamed of the conquest of the air; if the caveman had left records, these would without doubt have showed that he, too, dreamed this dream. His main aim, probably, was self-preservation; when the dinosaur looked round the corner, the prehistoric bird got out of the way in his usual manner, and prehistoric man— such of him as succeeded in getting out of the way after his fashion—naturally envied the bird, and concluded that as lord of creation in a doubtful sort of way he ought to have equal facilities.

He may have tried, like Simon the Magician, and other early experimenters, to improvise those facilities; assuming that he did, there is the groundwork of much of the older legend with regard to men who flew, since, when history began, legends would be fashioned out of attempts and even the desire to fly, these being compounded of some small ingredient of truth and much exaggeration and addition. In a study of the first beginnings of the art, it is worth while to mention even the earliest of the legends and traditions, for they show the trend of men’s minds and the constancy of this dream that has become reality in the twentieth century. In one of the oldest records of the world, the Indian classic Mahabarata, it is stated that ‘Krishna’s enemies sought the aid of the demons, who built an aerial chariot with sides of iron and clad with wings. The chariot was driven through the sky till it stood over Dwarakha, where Krishna’s followers dwelt, and from there it hurled down upon the city missiles that destroyed everything on which they fell.’ Here is pure fable, not legend, but still a curious forecast of twentieth century bombs from a rigid dirigible. It is to be noted in this case, as in many, that the power to fly was an attribute of evil, not of good—it was the demons who built the chariot, even as at Friedrichshavn. Mediæval legend, in nearly every case, attributes flight to the aid of evil powers, and incites well-disposed people to stick to the solid earth—though, curiously enough, the pioneers of mediæval times were very largely of priestly type, as witness the monk of Malmesbury. The legends of the dawn of history, however, distribute the power of flight with less of prejudice. Egyptian sculpture gives the figure of winged men; the British Museum has made the winged Assyrian bulls familiar to many, and both the cuneiform records of Assyria and the hieroglyphs of Egypt record flights that in reality were never made. The desire fathered the story then, and until Clement Ader either hopped with his Avion, as is persisted by his critics, or flew, as is claimed by his friends.

While the origin of many legends is questionable, that of others is easy enough to trace, though not to prove. Among the credulous the significance of the name of a people of Asia Minor, the Capnobates, ‘those who travel by smoke,’ gave rise to the assertion that Mongolfier was not first in the field—or rather in the air—since surely this people must have been responsible for the first hotair balloons. Far less questionable is the legend of Icarus, for here it is possible to trace a foundation of fact in the story. Such a tribe as Dædalus governed could have had hardly any knowledge of the rudiments of science, and even their ruler, seeing how easy it is for birds to sustain themselves in the air, might be excused for believing that he, if he fashioned wings for himself, could use them. In that belief, let it be assumed, Dædalus made his wings; the boy, Icarus, learning that his father had determined on an attempt at flight, secured the wings and fastened them to his own shoulders. A cliff seemed the likeliest place for a ‘take-off,’ and Icarus leaped from the cliff edge only to find that the possession of wings was not enough to assure flight to a human being. The sea that to this day bears his name witnesses that he made the attempt and perished by it. In this is assumed the bald story, from which might grow the legend of a wise king who ruled a peaceful people—‘judged, sitting in the sun,’ as Browning has it, and fashioned for himself wings with which he flew over the sea and where he would, until the prince, Icarus, desired to emulate him. Icarus, fastening the wings to his shoulders with wax, was so imprudent as to fly too near the sun, when the wax melted and he fell, to lie mourned of water-nymphs on the shores of waters thenceforth Icarian. Between what we have assumed to be the base of fact, and the legend which has been invested with such poetic grace in Greek story, there is no more than a century or so of re-telling might give to any event among a people so simple and yet so given to imagery.

We may set aside as pure fable the stories of the winged horse of Perseus, and the flights of Hermes as messenger of the gods. With them may be placed the story of Empedocles, who failed to take Etna seriously enough, and found himself caught by an eruption while within the crater, so that, flying to safety in some hurry, he left behind but one sandal to attest that he had sought refuge in space —in all probability, if he escaped at all, he flew, but not in the sense that the aeronaut understands it. But, bearing in mind the many men who tried to fly in historic times, the legend of Icarus and Dædalus, in spite of the impossible form in which it is presented, may rank with the story of the Saracen of Constantinople, or with that of Simon the Magician. A simple folk would naturally idealise the man and magnify his exploit, as they magnified the deeds of some strong man to make the legends of Hercules, and there, full-grown from a mere legend, is the first record of a pioneer of flying. Such a theory is not nearly so fantastic as that which makes the Capnobates, on the strength of their name, the inventors of hot-air balloons. However it may be, both in story and in picture, Icarus and his less conspicuous father have inspired the Caucasian mind, and the world is the richer for them. Of the unsupported myths—unsupported, that is, by even a shadow of probability—there is no end. Although Latin legend approaches nearer to fact than the Greek in some cases, in others it shows a disregard for possibilities which renders it of far less account. Thus Diodorus of Sicily relates that one Abaris travelled round the world on an arrow of gold, and Cassiodorus and Glycas and their like told of mechanical birds that flew and sang and even laid eggs. More credible is the story of Aulus Gellius, who in his Attic Nights tells how Archytas, four centuries prior to the opening of the Christian era, made a wooden pigeon that actually flew by means of a mechanism of balancing weights and the breath of a mysterious spirit hidden within it.

There may yet arise one credulous enough to state that the mysterious spirit was precursor of the internal combustion engine, but, however that may be, the pigeon of Archytas almost certainly existed, and perhaps it actually glided or flew for short distances—or else Aulus Gellius was an utter liar, like Cassiodorus and his fellows. In far later times a certain John Muller, better known as Regiomontanus, is stated to have made an artificial eagle which accompanied Charles V. on his entry to and exit from Nuremberg, flying above the royal procession. But, since Muller died in 1436 and Charles was born in 1500, Muller may be ruled out from among the pioneers of mechanical flight, and it may be concluded that the historian of this event got slightly mixed in his dates.


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