Up, up, and... still there

Here’s something that went nowhere. On September 24, 1852, Henri Giffard became the first man to… No, you have no idea. Neither did I. And yet I once again have to tip my hat to pioneers of a technology that won’t die but never really lived. Because he was the first man to drive a blimp using a steam engine.

I suppose I should say a “dirigible” since he was French. And what he did was pretty cool. It was the first passenger dirigible. Others had planned steam engines in Zeppelin/blimp/dirigibles, including Australian Dr. William Bland, who exhibited a model and designs at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London of one he thought could go 50 miles per hour in theory. But Giffard’s went in fact, with a mighty 3 horsepower engine and a steering apparatus that actually worked.

Which is cool. But what I really like, in the spirit of all those early airplanes flapping mightily then crashing onto their hapless pilot in ungainly fragments, is the idea of getting into a bag of hydrogen with a 19th-century coal-fired steam engine. I mean, what could go wrong? (I should mention that when I first took my wife to my parents’ cottage, which did not have electricity, she expressed concern about the safety of the propane lights, stove and yes fridge. I replied in the true 19th-century pioneer spirit that all I was doing was putting an open flame to explosive compressed gas and could see no reason for unease. In fact the fridge did later explode but luckily we weren’t there and it was over half a century old so I suppose it had a good excuse.)

Not much did go wrong. In 1852, I mean. Especially considering what might have. Giffard, who had the good sense to point the exhaust pipe down rather than up toward all that flammable hydrogen, drove his dirigible 27 km from Paris to Trappes (I told you it went nowhere) and could not get back because of high winds that overpowered his mighty engine. But he did turn back and forth and in a circle, proving a powered airship was, indeed, dirigible.

Enthusiasts are still waiting for blimps to be the transportation of the future. And the recent headline “World’s biggest aircraft ‘the Flying Bum’ crashes on test flight” tells you they may have a long wait ahead of them. But I’m still impressed by anyone who’d get into a steam-powered dirigible, crank it up and say “Let’s hit the sky” or however you say it in French. And then not hit it in an uncontrolled fashion, as the first man to fly from Paris to Trappes thanks to the explosion of his fuel and levitation sources simultaneously of the sort that, I gather, claimed that old fridge one otherwise peaceful afternoon.

It happened todayJohn Robson