The “Father of Aeronautics”

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The invention of the airship dates back almost three and a half centuries to Lombardy, Italy. In 1670 Francesco Lana de Terzi, a Jesuit Father and professor of physics and mathematics at Brescia first published a description of an “Aerial Ship.” Terzi is commonly referred to as the “Father of Aeronautics” for turning the field of aeronautics into a science by establishing “a theory of aerial navigation verified by mathematical accuracy.”

Francesco Lana de Terzi's flying boat 680

During his professorship in Brescia, Terzi sketched the concept for a vacuum airship, an “Aerial Ship” supported by four copper spheres from which the air was evacuated. Although the basic principle is sound, such a craft was unrealizable then and remains so to the present day, since external air pressure would cause the spheres to collapse unless their thickness was such as to make them too heavy to be buoyant.


Francesco Lana de Terzi (1631 – February 22nd, 1687)

His design had a central mast to which a sail was attached, and four masts which had thin copper foil spheres attached to them: the air would be pumped out of the spheres, leaving a vacuum inside, and so being lighter than the surrounding air, would provide lift. The airship would be steered like a sailing boat. Each sphere would have had a diameter of 7.5  m (24 ft 7 in). Terzi calculated that the weight of a sphere would be 180 kg (396 lb). He also calculated that the air in the sphere would weigh 290 kg (638 lb), and would provide enough lift to carry six passengers.

At the time no one could manufacture such thin copper foil and the pressure of the surrounding air would have collapsed the spheres. In addition, Francesco Lana de Terzi was aware that one could use such a vehicle as a weapon of war, and attack cities from air. He wrote: “God will never allow that such a machine be built…because everybody realises that no city would be safe from raids…iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurled from a great height“.

terziThe fact that these vacuum spheres were physically impossible was proven in 1710 by Gottfried William Leibniz, and such a vessel has never been built. Although Leibniz’s conclusion was made based on the materials known at the time, the discovery of graphene and recent advances in its production may render this conclusion obsolete. A model of Lana de Terzi’s invention is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C..


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