The First Dirigible Takes Flight!

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While Francesco Lana de Terzi may be considered the designer of the first airship, Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier is mostly accepted as the inventor of the dirigible in 1784.


The project conceived by Meusnier was inspired by the first balloon flights of the Montgolfiers, and presented to the French Academy of Sciences on December 3rd, 1783.


The Montgolfier Brother’s balloon.

Unlike the Montgolfier balloon, his design was an elliptical balloon (ballonet) 84 meters long, with a capacity of 1,700 cubic meters, powered by three propellors driven by 80 men. The basket, in the form of a boat, was suspended from the canopy on a system of three ropes.

In 1784, Meusnier continued his proposal with a series of water-color drawings that depict a 260-foot-long streamlined envelope with internal ballonnets that could be used for regulating lift: this was attached to a long carriage that could be used as a boat if the vehicle was forced to land in water. The airship was designed to be driven by three propellers and steered with a sail-like aft rudder.

Jacques Charles

Meusnier’s design becomes a reality!

After their successful hydrogen balloon flights in 1783, professor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers built an elongated, steerable craft that followed Jean Baptiste Meusnier’s proposals. Their design incorporated Meusnier’s internal ballonnet (air cell), a rudder, and a method of propulsion. On July 15th, 1784 the brothers flew for 45 minutes from Saint-Cloud to Meudon with M. Collin-Hullin and Louis Philippe II, the Duke of Chartres in their elongated balloon. Rather than 80 men it was fitted with oars for propulsion and direction, but these proved useless. The absence of a gas release valve also meant that the duke had to slash the envelope to prevent it rupturing when they reached an altitude of about 4,500 meters (15,000 ft).


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