At the will of the wind

Last week saw two attempts to fly across the English Channel using heroically impractical modes of transport: Swissman Yves Rossy successfully sped from Calais to Dover with a jet-propelled wing strapped to his back, whereas Frenchman Stephane Rousson's pedal-powered airship had to ditch into the briney when travelling in the opposite direction.

Popular Scientific Recreations, Profusely Illustrated has this to say on the feasibility of powered flight:

Blanchard's Balloon
Fig. 295.— Blanchard's balloon.

Although many attempts have been made to guide balloons through the air, no successful apparatus has ever been completed for use. Paddles, sails, fans, and screws have all been tried, but have failed to achieve the desired end. Whether man will ever be able to fly we cannot of course say. In the present advancing state of science it may not be impossible ere long to supply human beings with an apparatus worked by electricity, perhaps, which will enable them to mount into the air and sustain themselves. But even the bird cannot always fly without previous momentum. A rook will run before it rises, and many other birds have to "get up steam," as it were, before they can soar in the atmosphere. Eagles and such heavy birds find it very difficult to rise from the ground. We know that vultures when gorged cannot move at all, or certainly cannot fly away; and eagles take up their positions on high rocks, so that they may launch down on their prey, and avoid the difficulty of rising from the ground. They swoop down with tremendous momentum and carry off their booty, but often lose their lives from the initial difficulty of soaring immediately. We fear man's weight will militate against his ever becoming a flying animal. When we obtain a knowledge of the atmospheric currents we shall no doubt be able to navigate our balloons; but until then—and the information is as yet very limited, and the currents themselves very variable—we must be content to rise and fall in the air, and travel at the will of the wind in the upper regions of the atmosphere.

Postscript: Gilbert White on Mr Blanchard's balloon

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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