The First Steam-Powered Airship!

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Airship technology took a huge leap forward in 1852 when Henri Giffard became the first person to make an engine-powered flight. With his steam-powered airship he was able fly 17 miles under the propulsion of his engine.


The craft featured an elongated hydrogen-filled envelope that tapered to a point at each end. From this was suspended a long beam with a triangular, sail-like rudder at its aft end, and beneath the beam a platform for the pilot and steam engine.

Henri Giffard 680

Henri Giffard (February 8th, 1825 – April 14th, 1882)

Due to the highly flammable nature of the lift gas, special precautions were taken to minimize the potential for the envelope to be ignited by the engine beneath it. The engine’s exhaust was diverted downwards to a long pipe projecting below the platform, and the area surrounding the boiler’s stoke hole was surrounded by wire gauze. On September 24th, 1852, Giffard flew the airship from the Hippodrome de l’Etoile to Élancourt, covering the 17 miles in around three hours, demonstrating maneuvering along the way. The engine, however, was not sufficiently powerful to allow Giffard to fly against the wind to make a return journey.

Giffard was granted a patent for the injector on May 8th, 1858. Unusually, he had thoroughly worked out the theory of this invention before making any experimental instrument, having explained the idea in 1850. Others had worked on using jets, particularly Bourdon who patented a very similar device in 1857. In 1863 he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

Giffard took his own life in 1882 in response to his declining eyesight, leaving his estate to the nation for humanitarian and scientific purposes. His name is one of the 100 names on the Eiffel tower.


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