Today in Technology History

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October 9

Many strange things happened in the skies on the date October 9, including a meteorite crashing into a car (1992), and reports of a UFO carrying three tall aliens to Russia (1989).

Some of the airborne events of October 9 more strictly fit our theme of technology history. For instance, on October 9, 1938, the scientists at Bell Labs first demonstrated the FM radio altimeter, a device that bounces radio waves off the ground so aviators can know their altitude.

Clément Ader (1841-1925), here pictured many years after his 1890 flight.Perhaps the most remarkable October 9 event related to the heavens was in 1890. On that date, a French engineer got his flying machine to leave the ground.

Clément Ader (1841-1925) had been interested in flight for years, and as a young man had expended considerable effort on kites and balloons. In the 1880s, Ader turned his attention to sound technology, especially the telephone, but he always returned to aviation.

Ader designed and built aircraft that looked like big bats. His first flying machine, the "Eole," A French stamp from 1938 portraying Ader. was tested outside Paris exactly 111 years ago. Neither aerodynamic nor controllable, the Eole nonetheless lifted off the ground a few inches and "flew" a distance of 160 feet (about 50 meters).

Ader kept working on aviation for a decade, but in the early 1900s he destroyed or sold all his equipment. Some people consider Ader's 1890 test to be the first airplane flight, and the French are rightly proud of his accomplishments -- but in fact, his designs would never have been capable of sustained flight. His flying machines should be remembered as failures that usefully showed us what not to do.

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