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Charles Renard was one builder of LaFrance, the first airship that could return to its starting point in a light wind

Charles Renard was one builder of LaFrance, the first airship that could return to its starting point in a light wind.

LaFrance, the airship built by Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs

LaFrance, the airship built by Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs .

Arthur Krebs

Arthur Krebs.

Alberto Santos-Dumont's No

Alberto Santos-Dumont's No. 9 airship.

The first flight of an airshipHenri Giffard's steam airship, 1852

The first flight of an airship, Henri Giffard's steam airship, 1852.

Alberto Santos Dumont's No

Alberto Santos Dumont's No. 6 airship rounds the Eiffel Tower to win the Deutsch Prize, 1901.

First Flights of the Airship

Sir George Cayley, the British "Father of Aviation" is best known for his work related to heavier-than-air flight. However, for both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air flight, he recognized the importance of a suitable engine if the aircraft was going to achieve controlled flight. Cayley hoped that a lightweight steam engine might be developed, but he preferred an engine that did not need a boiler. In the 1830s, he experimented unsuccessfully with a hot-air engine and a piston engine using gunpowder, and he could see an internal combustion engine that used a flammable material coming in the future. But he did not solve the problem of power for airships.

Nevertheless, beginning even before Cayley attempted to find a suitable engine, inventors were trying to design different mechanisms for propelling and controlling a lighter-than-air aircraft, which took the name "airship."

The French designed and built the first successful nonrigid airships. In 1784, General Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier designed an elliptical balloon made of a two-layered bag about 260 feet (79 meters) long and with a capacity of 60,000 cubic feet (1,700 cubic meters). The reinforced fabric at the bottom held triangulated cables that went to a car suspended below the balloon. The car was shaped to float in case of a water landing. The balloon was to be powered by three hand-turned propellers that required the efforts of 80 men. Meusnier presented his design to the French academy, but lack of funds and Meusnier's death in 1793 prevented its construction.

In 1850, another Frenchmen, Pierre Jullien of Villejuif, built and demonstrated a streamlined model airship named Le Précurseur at the Paris Hippodrome. This airship had its rudder, elevator, and gondola mounted close under the front part of the balloon, and it looked more like a twentieth-century airship than the ones that were built later in the nineteenth century. A clockwork motor that drove two airscrews mounted on either side of a center line propelled the airship. A light wire frame stiffened by a truss maintained the bag's form.

Jullien's airship aroused the interest of Henri Giffard, a French engineer and inventor, who built and flew the first full-size airship. His cigar-shaped, nonrigid bag had a capacity of 113,000 cubic feet (3,200 cubic meters) and was 44 meters (143 feet) long. Its 3-horsepower (2.2-kilowatt)-steam engine drove its propeller, and it had a rudimentary vertical rudder. The gondola was suspended from a pole that hung from a net surrounding the balloon. The engine weighed 250 pounds (113 kilograms), and the airship also had to carry a 100-pound (45.4 kilograms) boiler and the coke required to fire it.

Giffard's first flight took place on September 24, 1852. He traveled almost 17 miles (27 kilometers) from the Paris racecourse to Trappes moving approximately 6 miles per hour (10 kilometers/hour). However, Giffard's airship could be steered only in calm or nearly calm weather. With any more wind, the airship could fly only in slow circles. A lightweight engine powerful enough to overcome more than light breezes had not yet been invented. Using current technology, an engine with enough power to operate an airship in windy conditions would have been prohibitively heavy. Not until the development of light, efficient internal combustion engines at the end of the nineteenth century would airships become practical.

Realizing that the engine was too heavy for his balloon, on his next flight Giffard suspended it beneath a second, large bag of 113,000 cubic feet (3,200 cubic meters) capacity. On a trial trip, gas escaped and the balloon became misshapen. The nose tilted up and some of the lines that held the car in place broke. The balloon escaped from the net and burst. Surprisingly, Giffard and his passenger were only slightly injured.

For Giffard's third and final attempt, he planned an even larger balloon—1,970 feet (600 meters) long, 98 feet (30 meters) in diameter at the middle, and with a capacity of 7,800,000 cubic feet (220,871 cubic meters). He designed a steam engine that weighed 30 tons (27,216 kilograms) which he thought would move the ship at 45 miles per hour (72.4 kilometers per hour) in still air. However, because of its cost, this huge airship was never built.

The Tissandier brothers made the next attempt to fly an airship. In 1883, Albert and Gaston constructed a 37,500-cubic foot (1,062-cubic meter) airship propelled by a battery-powered electric motor. The motor produced 1.5 horsepower (1.1 kilowatts) at 180 revolutions per minute and drove a large two-bladed pusher propeller through reduction gearing. The speed achieved in calm air was still only 3 miles per hour (4.8 kilometers per hour) since the ratio of power to weight was no better than Giffard's had been.

In 1884, Charles Renard and Arthur C. Krebs, inventors and military officers in the French Army Corps of Engineers, built an elongated balloon, La France, which was a vast improvement over earlier models. La France was the first airship that could return to its starting point in a light wind. It was 165 feet (50.3 meters) long, its maximum diameter was 27 feet (8.2 meters), and it had a capacity of 66,000 cubic feet (1,869 cubic meters). Like the Tissandiers' airship, an electric, battery-powered motor propelled La France, but this one produced 7.5 horsepower (5.6 kilowatts). This motor was later replaced with one that produced 8.5 horsepower (6.3 kilowatts).

A long and slender car consisting of a silk-covered bamboo framework lined with canvas hung below the balloon. The car, which was 108 feet long (33 meters), 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) wide, and 6 feet (1.8 meters) deep, housed the lightweight batteries and the motor. The motor drove a four-bladed wooden tractor propeller that was 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter but which could be inclined upwards when landing to avoid damage to the blades. Renard also provided a rudder and elevator, ballonnets, a sliding weight to compensate for any shift in the center of gravity, and a heavy guide rope to assist in landing.

The first flight of La France took place on August 9, 1884. Renard and Krebs landed successfully at the parade ground where they had begun—a flight of only 5 miles (8 kilometers) and 23 minutes but one where they had been in control throughout. During 1884 and 1885, La France made seven flights. Although her batteries limited her flying range, she demonstrated that controlled flight was possible if the airship had a sufficiently powerful lightweight motor.

After Renard and Krebs' successful flights, little happened in France in airship flight until the wealthy Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont combined the internal combustion engine and the balloon. Arriving in Paris in 1897, he first made a number of flights with free balloons and also purchased a motorized tricycle. He thought of combining the De Dion engine that powered his tricycle with a balloon, which resulted in the first of 14 small airships—all gasoline-powered—that he built and flew. His No. 1 airship flew on September 18, 1898.

Although Santos-Dumont did not advance airship technology to any great extent, he perfected the technique of flying airships. He also had the wealth that allowed him to develop and fly many aircraft. In 1901, he won the Deutsch prize, a purse of 100,000 francs, and a prize from the Brazilian government for circling the Eiffel Tower in his No. 6 airship. He used his No. 9 airship on a regular commuter route between Neuilly St. James and St. Cloud.

The United States wasn't totally out of the picture. An American inventor Thomas S. Baldwin built a 53-foot (16-meter) airship, the California Arrow. It won a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) race in October 1904, at the St. Louis World Fair with Roy Knabenshue at the controls. In 1908, Baldwin sold the U.S. Army Signal Corps an improved dirigible that was powered by a 20-horsepower (15-kilowatt) Curtiss engine. This machine, designated the SC-1, was the Army's first powered aircraft.

The American journalist Walter Wellman attempted but failed to reach the North Pole by airship in 1907. And, as with earlier aeronauts, the Atlantic Ocean beckoned. Wellman also tried and failed in an effort to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airship in 1910.



Ambers, Henry. J. The Dirigible and the Future, rev. ed. Massapequa Park, N.Y.: 1981.

Botting, Douglas. The Giant Airships. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft, Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Dwiggins, Don. The Complete Book of Airships: Dirigibles, Blimps and Hot Air Balloons. Blue Ridge Summit, Penn.: Tab Books, 1980.

Rolt, L.T.C. The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning, 1783-1903. N.Y.: Walker and Co., 1966.

Toland, John. The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1972.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.

American Association for the Advancement of Science


Funding influences the direction of science by virtue of the decisions that are made on which research to support.