Henri Giffard and his steam-powered airship

24 September 1852, Henri Giffard steered his steam-powered airship 17 miles from Paris to Trappes in the first engine-driven flight in history.

“We'll go thro' air; for sure the air is free. / Then to new arts his cunning thought applies, / And to improve the work of Nature tries.” (Ovid “Metamorphoses”)

A German collectible card, a so-called “Liebigbild”, added to product packaging of a meat extract
around 1900, showing Giffard on his flight.

While first attempts in aviation have been made during European and Chinese antiquity, the idea really didn’t take off and leave the realm of myths of flying men like Daedalus and Jamshid. Until the 18th century when fearless pioneers, or at least free from fear of heights, such as Bartolomeu de Gusmão, the Montgolfier brothers and Jean-Pierre Blanchard went into the air in balloons, first driven by the wind and later in hand-power-propelled contraptions. Blanchard’s crossed the Channel already in 1785 and rather curious designs followed, such as Leppich’s concept of a large elliptical balloon-airship powered by two long oars ending in blade wheels. Unfortunately, the realisation of the project ended when Napoleon’s troops advanced on Moscow and the Tsar’s secret airship wharf was burned by the Russians before it could be captured. A reliable design might have been the Australian inventor William Bland’s “Atmotic Airship” – a steam-powered affair that should carry one and half tons of cargo from Sydney to London in under a week that wasn’t realised either. But just a year later, the 27 years old French Engineer Henri Giffard had finished his dirigible.

A contemporary imagination of the steam-powered airship “Giffard I”

After his initial concept of a clockwork-powered airship from 1850 was discarded, “Giffard I” was powered by a steam engine and would actually fly. The ship was a 120’ long and 35’ wide cigar-shaped dirigible balloon, carrying a 400 lbs engine in a gondola under the hull, propelling the vessel at 5 mph/h, while Giffard stood on a platform above, steering with a triangular sail. Finally arriving at Trappes, a mandatory anchor was used to moor “Giffard I” and she remained there for the time being, the wind was too strong for making a round trip. But “Giffard I” had absolved the first engine-driven flight – that would remain the last one under steam power as well. Giffard’s further attempt with a stronger engine three years later ended in an explosion and the engineer just got away with his live. The next successful airship flight in 1872 was already powered by an internal combustion engine.

Giffard's “Grand Ballon Captif” over the roofs of Paris in 1878

Giffard had another moment of fame when his “Grand Ballon Captif” transported 50 passengers per run up to 1,800’ during the Exposition Universelle in 1878, a main attraction of Paris’ 3rd World Fair, a total of 35,000 people took the ride in the giant captive balloon and Giffard’s name is one of the 72 perpetuated on the Eiffel Tower. Slowly losing his eyesight, he committed suicide in 1882, while the dirigible balloons of the mid-1800s slowly gave way to rigid airships and zeppelins of the 20th century, their first real precursor, “La France”, made the first fully controlled free-flight in the year Giffard died.

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