The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Thursday, 17 July 2008

23 (ii) A physical problem to be solved by mechanical skill and ingenuity

"FLIGHT, FLYING MACHINES. Of the many scientific problems of modern times, there are few possessing a wider or more enduring interest than that of aerial navigation. To fly has always been an object of ambition with man ; nor will this occasion surprise when we remember the marvellous freedom enjoyed by volant as compared with non-volant animals. The traditions of Daedalus and Icarus illustrate the attempts in the past ; and at the present day societies exist in Britain, France, Austria, and other countries, for the purpose of solving, if possible, the knotty problem. These societies embrace men of the highest scientific attainments, and as they evince great activity, and publish their proceedings at regular intervals, it is not too much to expect that the problem of artificial flight will be actually solved, or at least much simplified. For the first time in the history of the world, the subject of aerial navigation has been taken up in earnest by practical men with the necessary degree of preliminary knowledge and training. Investigators no longer dream about flight : they experiment upon and work towards it. It is, they maintain, a physical problem to be solved by mechanical skill and ingenuity. But while writing thus hopefully, it is necessary to state that as yet no one has succeeded in constructing a fully equipped flying machine. The number of successful flying models, however, is so considerable as to inspire the cultivators of aeronautical science with a very confident hope of success."

So begins Professor J. B. Pettigrew's delightful and compelling essay, a companion to AERONAUTICS in EB9's first volume, available for your perusal at our old friend . [As is FLIGHT, FLYING MACHINES in full now, complete with the illustrations in their original, undistorted context]. The thrill and excitement of man's incipient conquest of the air hums from the very pages. There are many charmingly potty allusions and speculations, but the writing is clear and informative, and conveys to the reader a great and insight and appreciation of the particular problem.

"The subject of aerostation is admitted on all hands to be one of extreme difficulty. To tread upon the air (and this is what is really meant) is, at first sight, in the highest degree utopian ; and yet there are thousands of living creatures which actually accomplish this feat. These creatures, however varied in form and structure, all fly according to one and the same principle ; and this is a significant fact, as it tends to show that the air must be attacked in a particular way to ensure flight. The flying machine of the future, there can be no doubt, will be constructed on the type of flying animals, - the insect, bird and bat. It behoves us then at the outset to scrutinise very carefully the general configuration of flying animals, and in particular the size, shape and movements of thei flying organs.

Flying animals, it may be premised, differ entirely from sailing ships and from balloons, with which they are not unfrequently though erroneously compared ; and a flying machine constructed upon proper principles can have nothing in common with either of those creations."

It would no doubt be of satisfaction to the professor to learn that in the 21st century, comparisons between flying creatures and boats and balloons are now happily unfrequent.

There follows a discussion of the similarities and differences between those creatures and objects which move through water and through the air. Professor Pettigrew is contemptuous in his dismissal of the balloon, inferior to both the ship and the true flying machine in its inability to steer : it is a "mere lifting machine." His assertion that the "force required to propel a balloon against even a moderate breeze would result in its destruction" would of course later be disproved by the invention of the airship ; it is difficult to dismiss the notion that the spectacular demise of that particular form of aerial navigation would have caused the professor no small degree of schadenfreude.

Balloons operate by being being lighter than the air and so rising, passively - but weight and power are discovered to be the secret of the true flying machine, which

"need not necessarily be a light, airy structure exposing an immoderate amount of surface. [...] It should attack and subdue the air, and never give the air an opportunity of attacking and subduing it. It should smite the air intelligently and as a master, and its vigorous well-directed thrusts should in every instance elicit an upward and forward recoil. The flying machine of the future, there is reason to believe, will be a veritable example of "multum in parvo." It will launch itself in the ocean of air, and will extract from that air, by means of its travelling surfaces - however fashioned and however applied - the recoil or resistance necessary to elevate and carry it forward."

Rousing stuff, professor!

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