Crouch: Lighter than Air

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Tom D. Crouch, Lighter than Air : An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, in association with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2009. 191 pages, copiously illustrated with etchings and photographs; includes notes, bibliographic references, and index.

The earliest history of human flight came about through the development of balloons, "lighter than air" craft that float up into the sky through buoyancy (thus, "buoyant flight") rather than the aerodynamic lift of heavier-than-air craft. Oddly, although toy balloons were occasionally know in some ancient cultures, it was only in the 18th century that concerted efforts began to master the secrets of lighter-than-aircraft for the purpose of flying humans into the air.

Instrumental were the well-known Montgolfier brothers whose hot-air balloons were a sensation in France. I hadn't known until I read it here that the history of gas-filled balloons (usually filled with the combustible hydrogen) began at essentially the same time and developed in parallel. Joseph-Michel Montgolfier built his first (unmanned) balloon in mid-November 1782. The world's first gas balloon, also unmanned, ascended on 23 August 1783. It, too, caused an unexpected sensation.

In order to keep the hydrogen from being forced out of the open appendix, or neck, as the balloon rose, [Jacques Alexandre-César] Charles completely sealed his little aerostat. As a result, the expanding gas burst the envelope forty-five minutes after take-off. The balloon fell onto the village of Gonesse, where the local farm folk, astounded by this rippling, burbling demon from the sky, attacked it with scythes, flails and pitchforks, then tied it to a horse for a triumphal procession through the village. [A charming illustration of the procession in Gonesse accompanies the story.] A week later, court [i.e., the King's court] officials issued a proclamation to be read in parish churches across France, assuring the citizens that, should a similar event occur in their community, there was no cause for alarm. The balloons, "far from being an alarming phenomenon...cannot cause any harm, and will someday prove serviceable to the wants of society." [p. 22]

Balloons were the technological phenomenon of their day and the public's interest was keen.

What was it about the balloons that sparked this tidal wave of interest and enthusiasm in all levels of society? Throughout the spring, summer and fall of 1783, the crowds gathering to witness the ascents had grown ever larger. As many as 400,000 people—literally half of the population of Paris—gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch [Jacques] Charles and [Marie-Noël] Robert[, one of the Robert brothers who built Charles' balloons] disappear into the heavens. The wealthy and fashionable purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Luis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points. Like the balloon, the enormous, seething crowd was something new under the sun. [p. 33]

As ballooning developed, people had difficulty finding practical uses for it. For instance, there was great excitement when balloons were used to carry information and people out of Paris during its siege in the Franco-Prussian war (1870). Folks with a military bent were always on the lookout for military applications, but those took time to appear. In the mean time, ballooning as a dare-devil spectacle really took off, with men and women thinking of ever more thrilling, ever more dangerous stunts to wow the crowds.

Madame Blanchard's trademark was to drop parachute loads of fireworks, which trailed sparks on the way down before exploding into bursts of vivid color. It was a dangerous stunt. On the evening of July 7, 1819, she ascended from the Tivoli pleasure garden, Paris, trailing fireworks as she rose. The balloon caught fire and descended so rapidly that the flames were extinguished. She dropped ballast to slow the descent, but struck a steeply pitched roof, fell from the basket, and died when she hit the ground. [p. 45]

I also learned from this book that balloons were used on civil war battlefields to provide real-time reconnaissance and assess what was actually happening in the usually chaotic melees. They proved less than a great success, but they were there.

Ballooning reached its zenith in the early twentieth century with the development, by Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin (i.e., Ferdinand, Count Zeppelin) of the airship designs that bear his name. His enterprise was phenomenally successful, its scope matched by few industries even today.

By mid-1917, the Zeppelin empire employed 17,075 workers. Corporate headquarters and the main construction facility were at Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance. The Staaken Company was a subsidiary producing the large multi-engine bombers that would replace the Zeppelins in attacks on England in 1918. Ballon-Hüllen Gesellschaft, located at Berlin Tempelhof, manufactured the large gas cells that nestled in the airship's frame. Butchers all over Germany were required to ship tons of cleaned animal intestine to the firm, for use in the manufacture of the gas-tight gold-beater's skin that lined the huge linen hydrogen cells. The material held hydrogen well without generating as much static electricity as rubberized materials. Karl Maybach, son of automotive pioneer Wilhelm Maybach, ran Luftfahrzeug Motorenbau Gesellschaft, the associated firm that built airship engines. Ultimately, there was even a subsidiary corporation to build the sheds that housed these huge machines. [p. 92]

I like picture books and illustrated history. I particularly like them when the accompanying text is solid, well-written, and filled with scienticity as this one is. Author Crouch has done a splendid job with keeping the facts and the characters lively and informative, and his scienticity is commendable. The illustrations are entertaining; and, if they are not always the best illustration for some point, it is because they all come exclusively from the collection of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum collection, which lends some interest of its own to the collection of images.

In fact, in addition to the hard-to-avoid science moments that pop up throughout Crouch's recounting of ballooning's development, he gives special attention—and a chapter of its own—to "scientific ballooning". Before there were orbiting satellites, before there were aircraft that could reach the heights, balloons took scientific equipment into the stratosphere, literally. It was humankind's first venture into space, with big payoffs in knowledge gained and technological development.

Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa's department of physics achieved yet another technical breakthrough with the Rockoon, developed under a grant from the Office of Naval Research in 1952. By launching a sounding rocket from a balloon at an altitude of 70,000 feet, Van Allen and his colleagues were able to attain altitudes of up to 300,000 feet [nearly 57 miles]. These early experiments suggested the possible existence of trapped radiation in near-earth space—one of the great scientific discoveries of the space age. The first U.S. satellites confirmed the existence of the Van Allen belts. [pp. 143—144]

I learned a lot from Lighter than Air. It was entertaining and informative, filling and very digestible as well.

-- Notes by JNS

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