07 06 airshipOn this day in 1919, the R34 airship touched down in Mineola, Long Island and became the first airship to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first aircraft to cross it from west to east. The R34 was ninety-two feet high and the length of two football fields. Her crew nicknamed her ‘Tiny’.

The airship had left East Fortune, just east of Edinburgh, four days earlier and almost didn’t make it. They had carefully limited the amount of crew and equipment that they would need to carry in order to make the journey, as landing or refuelling would have been difficult. Twelve hours into the flight, they found they had two stowaways on board. The first was man named William Ballantyne, who had been ordered to stay behind, but two hours before the launch, he had hidden himself in the hull of the ship amongst the gas balloons. He had also brought with him a second stowaway, a kitten named Whoopsie. Ballantyne was forced to reveal himself when he began to feel ill due to the gas leaking from the balloons but, by then, it was really too late to do anything about it. As they were now flying over the ocean, it was decided that they would both just have to stay. Had they been over land, he would have been given a parachute and expected to jump.

They travelled via a northern route, so that they might be closer to land if anything went awry. During their voyage they slept in hammocks and prepared hot food over a metal plate welded to an engine exhaust pipe. They kept themselves entertained by playing jazz records on a gramophone and, of course, by a small cat. Strong winds and bad weather meant that they almost ran out of fuel before they arrived, they would land with only another forty minutes worth of petrol in their tanks. As they approached the landing site, their commander, Mayor E M Pritchard, put on his parachute and jumped from the craft in order to assist with the landing. He thus became the first person to arrive on American soil from the air. The crew received an enthusiastic welcome and were treated like royalty during their three day stay in the US. Ballantyne, the stowaway, was sent home by ship. Whoopsie, as far as I can tell, became the airship’s mascot.

Everyone was pretty excited by the possibilities of transatlantic airship travel. They thought that airships, perhaps five times the size of the R34, would soon be crossing the Atlantic with passengers and cargo. It seemed as though the airship would be, compared to an aeroplane, what an ocean liner was compared to a cross channel ferry.

The R34 was not the only airship to attempt to cross the Atlantic with a cat on board. In 1910 an airship called ‘America’ set off from Atlantic City. Just as they were taking off, someone, rather unhelpfully, threw a cat on board. The cat hated flying. Pretty much everyone else on the America hated flying with a cat who hated flying. The America was the first aircraft to be fitted with radio. The first historic in-flight radio message was “Roy, come and get this goddam cat!”. They did try quite hard to get rid of the cat, whose name was ‘Kiddo’. They put him in a canvas bag and tried to lower him onto a boat, but couldn’t quite manage it and had to pull him up again. Oddly, after being dangled over the sea in a bag, the cat calmed down a bit. One of the crew, Murray Simon, noticed Kiddo was particularly good at predicting bad weather. In fact, he thought no airship should ever cross the Atlantic without a cat. Unfortunately, even the cat couldn’t help them when, after flying a thousand miles, they ran into problems and had to abandon the flight. They were forced to ditch into the sea in their onboard lifeboat. All were saved, including Kiddo, but the airship flew on without her crew and was never seen again.

Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb

Up, Up And Away

06 04 montgolfiersToday, I am celebrating the first public demonstration of the hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. There were sixteen Montgolfier siblings. I don’t know much about the others but I can say they were, and still are, a family of paper makers. For today though, I shall focus on Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne.

A year earlier, Joseph had been sitting by his fire musing, for some reason, on the fortress of Gibraltar which was impossible to attack by either land or sea. There was laundry drying over the fire and as he watched it billow upward in the rising hot air, he began to wonder whether an air attack might be possible. Joseph was an inventive sort of a chap and he built himself a very thin wooden frame about 3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft which he covered in taffeta. He put crumpled paper underneath and lit it. The box rose into the air and hit the ceiling. He demonstrated it to his brother Étienne who was extremely impressed and they set about building another three times the size. Before they had even finished filling it with hot air, the contraption floated away. It landed in a field over a mile distant. We don’t know exactly what happened but Étienne tells us that it was destroyed due to the ‘indiscretion of  passers by’.

Étienne, who was the more practical of the two, was concerned that someone else might steal their idea and wrote to a friend in Paris asking him to mention it at the Academy of Science. He could see how it could be used to carry messages, goods, even people, relatively cheaply. But he didn’t send any drawings so his friend didn’t know what on earth he was talking about and kept the letter to himself.

Even so, they set about building a much larger model which was spherical in shape and made from sackcloth. They had lined it with paper to help keep the air in and it was made in four pieces which were held together with 1,800 buttons.

On June 4th, a small crowd gathered in their home town of Annonay to witness a large but uninspiring sackcloth bag being strung between two poles. The weather was not good but there was a diocesan assembly in town which meant that there were a lot of important people around. They lit a brazier near the eight foot square opening of the bag. It soon began to fill with air and four men were needed to hold it down with ropes. As soon as they let go the balloon leapt five or six thousand feet into the air and was carried for about a mile and a half. Unfortunately a last minute decision to fasten the brazier beneath the balloon meant that it caught fire when it landed. People working nearby were too frightened of the strange object to put out the fire so it was quickly consumed by the flames. Still, everyone was pretty amazed and the king soon got to hear about it.

On 19th September they were able to demonstrate an even bigger balloon to King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette at Versailles. It was made of blue taffeta and decorated in gold with suns and signs of the zodiac. It must have been an incredible sight. Also this balloon was to carry passengers. The king had wanted to launch two criminals but instead the inventors decided on a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. The sheep was chosen because it was the approximate size and weight of a human, the duck because it could fly and wouldn’t come to much harm and the cockerel to see what would happen to a bird that didn’t usually fly much at all. The flight lasted eight minutes, achieved a height of around 1,500 ft, covered about two miles and landed safely.

06 04 manned flightIn October, the first tethered flight was made with a human passenger, and the following month, the first free flight. The balloon travelled around five and a half miles and landed with enough fuel to have flown four or five times the distance. In fact, it landed with so much fuel it almost caught fire. Nevertheless, it was a huge sensation. Engravings were made to commemorate the event. You could buy mantel clocks with balloons painted on the face, crockery decorated with balloons, even balloon-backed chairs. Everyone was very excited, and rightly so.

The following year saw the first ever female aeronaut, so it’s worth celebrating her as well today as we know little else about her, other than the fact that she was the abandoned spouse of a Lyon merchant. She is especially worth celebrating as she was dressed as the goddess Minerva and sang a couple of duets with her co-passenger as they flew. Her name was Élisbeth Thible and her friend was a Monsieur Fleurant. He credited her with the success of the flight as she had been the one who fed the fuel into the firebox all the way.

Balloons and Catacombs

04 06 nadar in a balloonToday is the birthday of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known by his nickname: ‘Nadar’. He was born in 1820 possibly in Paris, maybe Lyons. Initially, he was training to be a doctor and was particularly interested in the emerging field of psychiatry, but gave it up, probably due to lack of funds. His nickname seems to have come from a tendency among his friends to extend any word by adding ‘dar’ to the end of it. It was a sort of code, a little like pig Latin, but it was a sort of mock medieval French. Hence he became ‘Tournachondar’ then ‘Tournadar’ then just ‘Nadar’.

Nadar had a pretty lean time in his youth and soon fell in with similarly impoverished aspiring artists and writers. He wrote, edited and drew caricatures for a couple of satirical magazines called ‘Le Charivari’ and ‘Petit Journal Pour Rire’. One of his fellow artists was Gustave Doré, who I wrote about in January. In 1854, someone persuaded him to open up a photography studio, specialising in portraits. He left the running of it to his brother as he had a lot of drawing to do. But his brother wasn’t great at it and Nadar soon became interested in photography himself.

04 06 nadar studioHe soon became a much sought after portrait artist and, in 1860, moved in to much larger premises. You can see his studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines on the left. A glass fronted building with his signature on the front of it in huge letters. I wonder what those people on the roof are doing… Nadar depicted his subjects simply and did not surround them with props. He enjoyed being able to put people at their ease and saw his work very much as a collaboration between himself and his sitter. He believed that by applying what he called ‘the psychology of photography’ he could produce an intimate portrait that more closely resembled his subject. He photographed so many famous people that it’s hard to know which to show you. Below are Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote ‘The Three Musketeers’ and his friend and fellow flying enthusiast Jules Verne. The other picture is a series of twelve self-portraits. Someone has thoughtfully made them into a gif, which I can’t post here, but if you want to see Nadar twirling round and round you’ll find him here. The originals were taken in about 1865, that’s several years before Muybridge’s galloping horses.

04 06 gustave dore04 06 alexandre dumas04 06 jules verne04 06 twelve nadars

04 06 catacombs parisHis work was not just confined to portraiture, in 1858, he became the first person to take aerial photographs. He did this by taking his camera up in a balloon. This was even less easy than it sounds because the glass plates he used had to be prepared, exposed and developed during the flight. As well as taking pictures from the air, he was also the first to take photographs underground. In 1861, he used an early kind of arc lamp to give enough light to photograph the catacombs underneath Paris.

In 1863, he commissioned the building of the biggest balloon in the world It was called ‘Le Géant’. The balloon was 196 ft (60 m) high with a capacity of 6,000 cubic metres. It carried a two storey wicker basket that had six cabins including a printing room and a toilet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success. It was mainly the landings that were the problem. It’s second flight took its passengers 400 miles, but it hit a strong air current as it descended and almost hit a moving train. Nevertheless, the huge balloon inspired Jules Verne to write his first adventure novel ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’  and Nadar himself was the inspiration for the character Michael Ardan in Verne’s ‘Rocket to the Moon.’

The failure of the balloon led Nadar to the conclusion that the future of flight was in heavier than air machines. He and Jules Verne established  ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. Nadar was president, Verne was secretary. I’ve been unable to find out if there were any other members. Maybe I didn’t look too hard because it’s quite fun to imagine it was just them. Nadar didn’t totally give up on balloons though. In 1870/71 during the siege of Paris he helped organise balloon flights carrying mail, connecting the besieged city with the rest of the world. It was the first air mail service.

04 06 balloon basket

Kiwis Might Fly

03 31 richard pearseOn this day in 1903 it is entirely possible that New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse made the first powered aircraft flight. This was some nine months before the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight. I can only say ‘entirely possible’ because his flight was not documented, but circumstantial evidence is strong. Unlike Wilbur and Orville, Richard did not have a team of engineers behind his project.

Richard designed and built the entire plane himself at his remote farm near Temuka on the South Island. Having no access to libraries, he learnt everything he knew from the engineering magazines that he subscribed to. He used bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas to construct a monoplane with a 25 foot wingspan with a three wheeled undercarriage. Like the Wright Brothers, he’d been unable to find an engine that would be light enough to do the job, so he invented one for himself. He used tobacco tins and cast iron drainage pipe to build a two-cylinder engine. He even made his own spark plugs. His engine weighed a mere 57kg against Wilbur and Orville’s 82kg one. His design made the craft difficult to steer, but the Wright’s experienced similar problems with their early experiments. His flying machine had more in common with their later aircraft. The Wrights early model was a biplane and his had a single wing. He located the propeller at the front and had wheels underneath, theirs had a rear mounted propeller and was mounted on skis. In many ways Pearse’s aircraft was very similar to a modern microlight.

There were several witnesses to his flight attempts and their accounts can be found here. Some suggest a date as early as 1902. Some saw his plane in the air. Some saw it sitting on top of a high gorse hedge, following a collision. Some just reported hearing unusual noises coming from his workshop. There are definitely reports that pinpoint the date of March 31st and his flights were witnessed by people who had left the area by 1904. My favourite was from a lady called Cissie Connell. She had been watching from the top of a haystack and witnessed the hedge incident. She thought that Richard didn’t fly, but when she was asked how the plane came to be on top of a tall hedge, she couldn’t explain it. She said : “It just hopped up there.”

His flight of March 31st is estimated to have been around 350 yards, which compares favourably with the Wright bothers first attempt in December 1903. No one, including Pearse himself, would claim that he made the first controlled flight, but he does seem to have built a machine that could lift itself from the ground to a height of at least ten feet.

Richard Pearse gave up his flying experiments after 1911, but took it up again during the 30s and 40s. He built something which seems to have resembled a helicopter, because it was designed to take off vertically. His vision was that it could also be driven like a car and that its wings, tail and propeller could be folded up so it would fit in a garage. I did find a photograph of it, and you could probably find it too. But really, I preferred the description. It was said to be like a cross between a windmill and a rubbish cart.

In his remote location, Richard’s achievements and innovations went unrecognised in his lifetime and his work had no influence on aircraft design. His reputation was restored after his death and a replica of his first plane was built in the 1970s which can now be seen at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland.

03 31 replica plane

Bury Me

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday is the birthday of King James IV of Scotland. I like James IV, he dabbled in surgery and employed a flying alchemist who he made Bishop of Tongland. He was also killed in battle and, like Richard III, his body was subsequently lost. Unlike Richard, it will probably never be found.

James was born, possibly at Stirling Castle, in 1473. His father, James III, wasn’t a great king and people didn’t like him very much. There were two rebellions during his reign. He was killed in battle during the last one in 1488. James, who was then just fifteen, had been set up as leader of the second rebellion. He was afterwards crowned King. When he realised the part he had unwittingly played in his father’s death, he chose to wear an iron chain around his waist, as an act of penance during Lent, for the rest of his life. Every year he had the chain made a few ounces heavier.

James, was a Renaissance Man. He was a keen patron of both science and the arts. His interest in medicine seems particularly unusual for a king. We know he tried his hand at blood letting and knew how to treat and dress ulcers. He was also interested in dentistry. There are least two occasions when he actually pulled teeth for his subjects. He took out two teeth for one of his own barber-surgeons. Records show that the King paid the man fourteen shillings for the privilege: “To Kynnard the barbour for twa teith drawn furth of his hed by the king, 14s”. His enthusiasm was such that he granted the Incorporation of the Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh which would later become the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world.

03 17 holyrood palaceJames had Great Halls built his castles in Stirling and Edinburgh and filled his palaces with tapestries. In 1503, he married Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VII of England and built for her, a new palace at Holyrood. He employed poets, one of whom was the first to translate Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ anywhere in northern Europe. James spoke many languages. As well as Latin, French, Flemish, German, Spanish and Italian he also spoke Scottish Gaelic and is the last Scottish King known to have done so. When he heard of a pair of conjoined twins who were born in the Scottish Borders, he had them brought to his court, where they were raised and educated. They also learned to speak many languages and were particularly good at music. They played instruments and sang songs in two parts, treble and tenor.

King James also had some, by modern standards, other peculiar interests which reflect his general curiosity. In 1493 he conducted a language experiment. He wanted to know what was the natural language of mankind. He sent two children to be raised by a mute woman on the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth. He imagined that if they heard no other language, the words they would use when they became old enough to speak would be the original language. The language of God. We don’t really know what happened, but common sense suggests they did not speak at all. Some insisted though, that the children spoke perfect Hebrew. Probably those people did not know what Hebrew sounded like.

03 17 an alchemists laboratoryFrom about 1501, James employed an alchemist called John Damian who had come from France but was possibly originally from Italy. He had alchemical laboratories at Stirling Castle and at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Damian was hoping to produce quinta essentia, the fifth element, from which he could make the Elixir of Life. James was pretty excited about it, but not everyone was. One of the poets at court, William Dunbar, didn’t like him at all. He referred to him as ‘the French Leech’. I’m not sure if this was because he was some kind of doctor or because his projects drained so much of the King’s money.

03 17 stirling castleIn 1507, John Damian came up with a new project. He would build himself some wings and fly. On September 27th he strapped on his wings and launched himself from the top of Stirling Castle, hoping to fly to France. He didn’t of course. He plummeted straight to the ground and landed in a dung heap. Surprisingly, he lived. Although he did break his thigh bone. Damian blamed his lack of success on the feathers he had been sent. He had asked for eagle feathers, but some of them had been the feathers of a hen. Whilst he would have been able to soar with eagle feathers, the hen feathers were naturally attracted to the ground and had propelled him straight to the dung heap.

The poet, William Dunbar must have been delighted by the incident because he wrote a rude poem about it called ‘The Fenyeit Freir of Tungland’ (The False Friar of Tongland). It has the flying alchemist attacked by birds and buried up to his eyes in filth. I don’t know how true this story is, because the people who wrote about it didn’t like him very much, but there is a seventeenth century carpenter’s bill from Stirling Castle which refers to the place where ‘the Devil flew out.’ If John Damian really did put on wings and jump from the top of the castle, it may be the first recorded attempt at human powered flight. James was not put off by his alchemist’s lack of success, he was still employed at the court when the King died in 1513.

James was killed in a battle against the English at Flodden. England was, at the time, at war with France and James was in a difficult position as he was an ally of both sides. He was excommunicated for his decision. His body was taken to England and given to King Henry VIII. As he had been excommunicated by the Pope, there was no question of burying him in consecrated ground. So he was left embalmed but uninterred in a shed at Sheen Priory at Richmond upon Thames. Even when the King did receive permission from the Pope to bury his enemy, somehow he didn’t bother. The body was lost when the Priory was dissolved in 1539. It seems, in the intervening time, his head may have become detatched and then used as a football. It may then have been stolen by Queen Elizabeth I’s master glazier and eventually thrown away in a charnel pit at a church in Cripplegate in the City of London.

Alternatively, it may not have been James’ body that was taken from the battlefield in the first place. There are many legendary resting places of James IV. Some claimed that the king had taken off his distinctive surcoat before the battle, so that he could fight with his army as an equal. They also said that the body that was taken to London had no iron chain about the waist. In the eighteenth century a well was being cleared at Hume Castle in Berwickshire. They found a body in it that did have a chain around the waist. Unfortunately they lost that too. The same story is told of Roxburgh Castle in the Borders, about a body found in the seventeenth century. In 1570, a convicted criminal offered to show the Duke of Albany where the King was really buried, but he declined.

One Day I’ll Fly Away

03 08 burattini dragonToday is the birthday of Tito Livio Burattini, who was born at Agordo in northern Italy in 1617. Burattini explored and measured the inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the late 1630s with an English mathematician called John Greaves. But I don’t want to write about that today. He was also the first person to come up with the word metre for a standard unit of length. If your interested, it was first described as the length a pendulum needs to be to measure one second with each swing. But I don’t want to go into any more detail about that either. I don’t even want to tell you about the time he was running a mint in Poland and got into trouble for adding glass to the coins. Today, I want to tell you about Burattini’s flying machine.

As I’ve spent the last two days banging on about seventeenth century authors who wrote about imaginary flying machines, I thought it would be nice to tell you about someone who properly had a go at building one. In the 1640s Burattini went to live in Poland, where he worked as architect for King Wladislaw IV. In 1647, he built a working model of a flying machine. It is generally described as a glider, but it appears to have had moving parts, so perhaps it was an Ornithopter, a machine with wings that flap like a bird. It was four or five feet long and could rise into the air carrying a cat as a passenger. History does not record how the cat felt about this. Pierre des Noyers, who was secretary to the Queen of Poland, said it remained airborne as long as a man kept the feathers and wheels in motion by way of a string. It was demonstrated before the Polish court at the request of the King. He must have been impressed because Burattini was granted money from the Royal Treasury to build a full sized model.

By May 1648, he had built his ‘Dragon Volant’ (Flying Dragon). Again, according to des Noyers, it had four pairs of wings. The two middle pairs seem to have been fixed and were for lift. The rear pair also provided lift but, along with the pair at the front, were designed to flap, by means of pulleys, and propel it forwards. It also had a large tail which moved in all directions for steering. The tail was also meant to act as a float, in case of emergency landing on water. The machine was designed to carry a crew of three. Two operating the wings at either end and a ‘master of the ship’ in the middle. It also carried a large folding parachute in case the wings failed or they needed to slow its descent. Apparently, Burattini claimed that landing the craft would only cause the most minor of injuries, so that’s a comfort.

We are told that it was tested and did rise into the air, but was never completely successful. Burattini was convinced that it would work and that he would be able to use it to fly from Warsaw to Constantinople inside twelve hours, a distance of about a thousand miles. No one knows what happened to his machine. It may have been destroyed by the Swedes when they invaded Warsaw in 1655.

03 08 george cayleyIn my brief research today, I’ve actually found several attempts at human flight previous to Tito Livio Burattini. Mostly they end with someone simply falling off a tower or crashing through a roof. In 1540, there was João Torto, from Portugal. He made himself two large pairs of calico wings and also a helmet shaped like the head of an eagle. He crashed because the helmet slipped over his eyes. Some time in the sixteenth century, a French labourer built himself wings from two winnowing baskets and a coal shovel for a tail. He fell out of a pear tree into a drain. In 1600, there was Paolo Guidotti who built wings of whalebone, feathers and springs. He is reported to have flown a quarter of a mile before his arms grew tired. None of these people can really be described as having flown. They really only devised a means of falling more slowly. The first truly successful heavier than air flying machine would not be flown for over 150 years. It was built by someone who is, for me, a bit of a local boy as he was from Scarborough in North Yorkshire. George Cayley built a glider which he flew in 1804. He properly understood the principles of weight, lift, drag and thrust that you need to know about if you want to build an aircraft. He also knew the importance of cambered wings. His significance in the history of flight was acknowledged by the Wright brothers.

Milking It

02 18 guernsey cowOn this day in 1930, a Guernsey cow called Elm Farm Ollie became first cow to fly in an aeroplane. It was at the International Air Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. Ostensibly, it was a scientific experiment to observe the effects of flight on animals and to illustrate the stability of modern aircraft. But really it was a publicity stunt. Ollie’s flight was some seventy-two miles, from her home in Bismark.

The two-year-old cow, who was also known as Nellie Jay, was a particularly placid animal and also a good milker. So good that she needed to be milked three times a day, producing two gallons at each milking. Hence, she also became the first cow to be milked in mid-air. She was also fed whilst she was being milked. And that’s not all. The milk was then sealed into paper cartons which had little parachutes attached to them. They were thrown out of the plane as it circled the arena and they drifted down to the spectators below. We are told that Nellie produced twenty-four quarts of milk during her ground-breaking flight. A quick calculation tells me that twenty-four quarts of milk equals six gallons. That’s three times as much milk as she would normally produce. So I rather suspect subterfuge.

Nellie lived a long and happy life back on her home farm and was given yet another name: ‘Sky Queen’. Oddly, her historic journey is celebrated every year at the National Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. The curator of the museum, Barry Levenson, loves Elm Farm Ollie. He has written a ballad for her and produces a special commemorative mustard. You might wonder what the connection is between cows and mustard, and my answer is, it doesn’t really matter. Why not celebrate a Missouri cow at a mustard museum in Wisconsin? I am celebrating her here from the depths of rural North Yorkshire. Happy Elm Farm Ollie Day Barry, I hope you’re having a great day.

In Missouri, she is not so well remembered. Any records connected with her have been lost, though the one time Mayor of Bismark does claim to own the fan that was used to keep her cool during the flight. You might think that it would be quite cold in a plane, but cows are actually pretty hot animals. Back in 2014, a plane carrying 390 cows across the Irish Sea was forced to make an emergency landing after they produced so much heat that they set off the fire alarm.

Details of Nellie’s flight are scant, but in my research I turned up another aeroplane/dairy related fact, so I thought I’d share that too. During World War II, American airmen found out that they could make ice cream for themselves by filling a five gallon drum with ice-cream mixture and fitting a spinner that was attached to a paddle inside. They fixed them either to the tail of the plane or under the wings. Then they just flew around for a bit. The mixture was frozen because they were flying at high altitude. When they got back they had perfect ice cream.

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t

01 26 bessie colemanToday is the birthday of Bessie Coleman, who was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her mother was African American and her father was part African American, part Cherokee. Bessie would grow up to be the first African American woman and also the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license. She was also the first person of African American or Native American descent to hold an international pilot license. Before you read on, you probably need to know that, as was sadly often the case with people of her chosen profession, Bessie’s life did not end peacefully in old age.

Bessie was the tenth in a family of thirteen children. When she was two, the family moved to the cotton town of Waxahachie. She lived at a time and in a place where black and white people were segregated. The school she attended was for black children only. She was an excellent student, particularly in mathematics, despite having to walk four miles to get there. It wasn’t a great school. It was in a one room shack, often lacked paper and pencils and was closed during the cotton picking season. In 1901, her father left the family and moved to an Indian Reservation. During her education, Bessie also found work as a laundress and saved enough money to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but after only one term, her money ran out and she had to go home.

In 1915, she followed her elder brothers to Chicago. By 1918, she was working as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. Her brother John, who had been a soldier in France during World War I, used to tease her by saying that she could never be as good as the French women, because they could fly planes. He told her she would never be able to fly a plane. It was the proverbial ‘red rag to a bull’, Bessie decided that she absolutely would learn how to fly a plane. But she found no American flight schools would admit black women and she couldn’t find anyone else willing to train her either. On the advice of Robert Abbot, founder of the African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, she decided to go to France to learn to fly. She received some sponsorship, but also took a higher paid job as manager of a chili parlor to raise the funds to go. She also took French lessons.

Bessie went to France in 1920 where she attended the best flying school in the country and was awarded her FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license the following year. As I said, the first person of her ethnic background to do this anywhere in the world. When Bessie returned to the United States, she quickly realised that there were very few opportunities for a civilian pilot to make a living. There was no such thing as a commercial flight. You could deliver mail (boring), you could be a smuggler (no), or you could be a barnstormer. Barnstormers were people who had bought up planes cheaply from the army following the war, as they were now surplus to requirements. They flew from town to town and could make a good living offering ten-minute rides to locals. They also performed stunts. Bessie wanted to be a barnstormer and she would need to improve her skills. She returned to Europe where she received advanced training in France, Holland and Germany.

01 26 bessie coleman and her planeWhen she returned to the United States, she was a media sensation. Her first air show, near New York City, was sponsored by the Chicago Defender, it was an event honouring the all-black 359th Infantry regiment of World War I and she was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”. Bessie could perform barrel rolls, near-ground dips and loop the loops with the best of them. She also had big plans. She didn’t just want to fly, she wanted to give lectures that would inspire other African Americans to take up aviation. She wanted to open a flying school that would be open to all people of all races. Bessie was very keen to use her position in the public eye to promote racial equality. She was offered a role in a film which could have advanced her career, but declined when she found out that, in the opening scene, she would be appearing in tattered clothes, with a walking-stick and a pack on her back. It was just the sort of image of black people that she didn’t want to see perpetuated. When she performed in her home town of Waxahachie, she knew that it was common at public events, that black and white people would be segregated and had to arrive by separate entrances. She refused to perform unless everyone was allowed in together through the same gate.

Barnstorming is a dangerous occupation and there were many accidents. In 1920s America there were no flight regulations whatsoever. Bessie crashed her first plane less that three months after getting it, breaking her leg and three ribs. She spent three months in hospital and another eighteen months recuperating and, undeterred, trying to find a new sponsor and a new plane. During 1925, performing in borrowed planes and making lecture tours, she managed to raise enough money for a new plane. She was sure her dreams of a flying school were within reach.

On April 30th 1926, her mechanic, William D Wills, flew her new plane from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida, where she was to take part in an air show for the benefit of Jacksonville Negro Welfare League. He had to stop three times on the way because of mechanical problems. The plane was clearly not safe and everyone begged her not to fly. But Bessie and William went ahead and made a test flight. Bessie was not wearing her seatbelt, as she needed to lean over the side to scout out possible sites for a planned parachute jump. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane went into an unexpected dive and started to spin out of control. Bessie was thrown out at 2,000 feet, fell to the ground and was killed instantly. Wills could not control the plane and it crashed and burst into flames, also killing him. Afterwards it was found that a loose spanner, that had been used to fix the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.

So Bessie never achieved her dream. But after her death, a Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in her honour, to promote aviation in the black community. In 1931, they sponsored the first all-black air show in US history, which was attended by upwards of 15,000 people. She has been commemorated on coins, with stamps and had a road named after her. You can even buy a Bessie Coleman doll. Bessie’s determination took her from an unpromising beginning to her dream job, but then also to an unfortunate and premature demise. So I suppose what we can learn from her is, don’t listen to people when they tell you that you can’t do something; but then, sometimes do…

Flying Duchess

09 26 mary russellToday is the birthday of Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford. She was born Mary Du Caurroy Tribe in Stockbridge, Hampshire in 1865. She grew up in England but at sixteen moved to Lahore in India where her father was an Archdeacon. There she found life a lot more free than it had been in Victorian England. She could ride for miles across the Indian countryside and even sit astride the horse when no one was looking. Ladies were expected to sit side-saddle in England. She met and married Lord Herbrand Russell in 1888 in Barrackpore. Afterwards they moved to Scotland where their only child, a son named Hastings, was born.

There has been some speculation that Mary suffered from post-natal depression. No one knows for sure because she never wrote or talked about it, but her relationship with her son was very distant. Instead she threw herself into other activities. She climbed mountains, sailed to remote areas of Scotland, enjoyed skating, photography and painting. She also learned about mechanics and how to build radios.

In 1891 her husband inherited the title of Duke of Bedford after his brother died childless. They moved to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. Her husband ran the estate on military lines and once again she found herself with nothing much to do. Mary was very interested in medicine and nursing, but had been unable to pursue either as a career as they weren’t suitable occupations for a lady. With her husband’s support she opened a cottage hospital in 1903. At the beginning of the First World War she had another hospital built in the Abbey grounds where wounded soldiers were treated. She employed a surgeon called Bridon Glendenning who encouraged her to study radiography and radiology. At the hospital, Mary didn’t expect any of her staff to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. She would be up at 5.45 every morning scrubbing floors and preparing the operating theatre. She became an excellent theatre nurse and even performed some minor operations.

Mary was also a member of the Women’s Freedom League, a militant suffrage movement who refused to pay their taxes or cooperate in the 1911 census. When she refused to pay her taxes in 1913 she had some of her property seized. She later pointed out in a newspaper article that the seizure had been illegal because, as a married woman, she wasn’t even liable for tax. She had allowed it to happen because she wanted to use the incompetence of the authorities to highlight the cause of women’s suffrage. As she said: “Obviously it is not my business to point out the law to those whose duty it should be to understand it.”

At the age of 61 she discovered the joys of aviation. It was a hobby she took up after finding that it helped with her tinnitus. Even though she was twice the age of most of the people flying at the time, she threw herself into her new hobby with enthusiasm. She employed a pilot, Lt Barnard, who appears to have shared her sense of adventure. In 1929 they flew 10,000 miles from Lympne airport in Kent to Karachi and back to Croydon airport in the record time of only eight days. The following year, they broke another record, flying the 9,000 miles to Cape Town and back. On these journeys they would have had to make frequent stops to refuel, often on runways made from sand. If anything went wrong with the plane, they would have to wait days for a new part to arrive. It could also be dangerous. On one occasion, they landed in the desert to find a couple of bullet holes in their plane. Unknown to them, someone had shot at them from the ground.

At the age of 71, she had 199 hours and 4 minutes of flying time under her belt. She wanted to renew her pilots licence and needed another 56 minutes to bring her up to 200 hours. In March 1937 she set out on a solo flight over Cambridgeshire. It was a clear day when she set off but the weather quickly changed for the worse. When, after an hour and a half, she hadn’t returned, her husband became concerned and called the police. A search was made, but neither she or her plane were ever seen again.