Sunday, August 8, 2010

August 8, 1709 – Gusmão's Balloon Falls

In his third attempt to prove the ability of flight for a lighter-than-air craft, a young Brazilian Jesuit displayed his invention before King John V of Portugal, his queen Maria, a papal messenger, and a host of nobles from the court at Lisbon. He had come up with the idea months before watching a bubble of soap float in the air and successfully petitioned the king for an audience. His first attempt had been a failure as the paper balloon had burst into flame before rising, and his second attempt allowed the balloon to rise, but it, too, caught fire and was beaten down by servants before it reached the ceiling.

The young priest, named Bartolomeu de Gusmão, was a Brazilian born 1685 in Sao Paulo and moved to Bahia to pursue the priesthood, though he soon left it in pursuit of knowledge. He had showed vast intelligence as an inquisitive youngster. When only twenty years old, Gusmão petitioned the Bahia to recognize an invention to raise water one hundred feet out of a running stream, thus saving countless man-hours in hauling buckets. With an already impressive résumé, he left for Portugal in 1708 to follow further intellectual pursuits.

Armed with this new idea of a flying ship, he approached the king, who was very curious to see the device. In this last attempt, Gusmão's balloon began to rise, did not catch fire, but then collapsed suddenly. The nobility made mumbles of disappointment, and Gusmão was dismissed, disheartened, but not defeated. His sharp mind ran over the questions of the balloon's failure continuously, to the point some said it consumed him.

Finally he decided that the problem was simply a structural fluke, paper perhaps wet from moisture or weakened from smoke, and he began to build more and more complex models. Gusmão did not dare trust the devices to work alone outside of his grasp, so he decided that he would have to be inside the craft at all times. Using whatever money he could scrape together from curious patrons and exhibiting tricks of floating paper balloons, he earned enough to build his “Passarola”, a bird-shaped craft made of lightweight wicker and a copper tinderbox that would fill a sheet of skins above him with hot air for lift. In 1720, still very suspicious of his device even to the point of meticulously training the rope-handlers to keep the Passarola in line with the open square in which he would give his demonstration, he would light the tender and become the first person to successfully fly in a hot air balloon.

Lisbon became entranced. The Inquisition was suspicious of Gusmão's human hubris, but the king protected him, encouraging construction of more devices. Over the rest of his life, Gusmão would build seven Passarolas, the largest capable of carrying five passengers, and ballooning would spread throughout Europe. In the Seven Years' War, for example, balloon-held platforms and baskets were used to survey battlefields much to the pleasure of their commanders. After Gusmão's death in 1756, ballooning would plateau for a time until the 1780s experiments of the Montgolfier brothers in Paris. Familiar with the concept of ballooning and puzzling over the assault of the fortress at Gibraltar (accepted to be impenetrable from land and sea), Joseph Montgolfier proposed balloons that did not need ground ropes but could navigate the wind effectively. For this, they needed propulsion.

After many attempts with feathered oars and mockups of wings, the Montgolfier brothers determined a method of spinning blades, carefully weighted and balanced, to form wide propellers. Meanwhile, other balloonists would develop hydrogen for lift rather than the hot air that required so much extra weight for fireboxes. In 1785, the English Channel would be crossed by balloonists Jean-Pierre Blanchard and the American John Jeffries. Combining the more technologically advanced lift, the propeller, and the safety of the parachute (invented by Louis-Sébastien Lenormand, in 1783), balloons became popular transport for the wealthy rather than the bumpiness of carriages.

In the Napoleonic Wars, balloons became effective as troop transports. Always adept of new technology, Napoleon would use balloons in attacks against fortresses, first to lay down bombs where artillery could not reach and then as ships to drop in parachute-bearing crack troops. The air-borne invasion of England across the Channel in 1812 would send panic throughout Britain, but the logistics of the troops would prove ineffective as reinforcements could rarely duplicate the crossing under English fire.

Through the course of the next century, the airship would become an effective mode of transport for freight and passengers. While never totally effective in battle (the balloons were too easy to pop, even with more rigid designs), most cities had aerodromes by the 1870s. The American Wright Brothers would produce another aircraft design, one heavier than air, in 1903, which would change the course of air travel forever. While small, fast, heavier-than-air craft are common, the combined form of a winged, rigid balloon invented by the German Zeppelin would come to dominate the sky for more leisurely passengers and, especially, long-distance freight. It is said today that one can never look at a sunset without seeing at least two of these craft as shadows against the crimson air.

In reality, Gusmão's balloon did work. He was awarded a professorship and canonized by the king, as well as being a court chaplain two years later. These responsibilities distracted him from his designs, though he did put together a workable passenger craft for display in 1720. During the experiment, the rope-handlers became negligent, and the ship crashed against a building. Publicly embarrassed and mocked, as well as supposedly hounded by the Inquisition, Gusmão would leave Portugal for Spain, where he would die of fever in 1724. Europe would not see manned balloons for another sixty years.

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