Today in Technology History

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September 24

The first controlled, engine-powered flight took place exactly 150 years ago, when a Frenchman took off in a new aircraft he had invented: the dirigible.

True flight began in 1783, when the French Montgolfier brothers made their first balloon flights. But while a balloonist can alter his altitude (by dropping ballast, for instance) he has almost no steering ability; he is at the mercy of the winds.

Giffard's dirigible. The dark triangle on the right of the picture is the rudder.Then along came Henri Giffard (born 1825), a French engineer. He built a cigar-shaped balloon, about 144 feet long and 39 feet in diameter. The balloon was filled with tens of thousands of cubic feet of hydrogen. Beneath the balloon there was a gondola, and attached to the gondola was a lightweight 3-horsepower steam engine which Giffard had designed himself.

The engine powered a three-blade propeller, which pushed the balloon forward. A large rudder -- actually more like a big sail than a rudder -- was mounted on the back of the aircraft for steering. Thanks to its engine and rudder, Giffard's invention was no mere passive balloon. It was a balloon that could be directed -- which is why it eventually became known as a "dirigible balloon." (The adjective "dirigible" means "capable of being guided or directed.") Eventually, the word "balloon" was dropped, and such aircraft became known simply as "dirigibles."

On September 24, 1852, Giffard took his dirigible on its first flight, from Paris to Trappes. The 17-mile flight took about three hours. This was the first manned flight of a truly navigable aircraft, and the first flight of an engine-powered aircraft -- milestones worth remembering as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of the Wright brothers' 1903 achievement.

Giffard continued to work with lighter-than-air vehicles for the rest of his life. After going blind, he committed suicide in 1882.

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