Saturday, January 17, 2009
The Original Led Zep
I'm in New Scientist this week with a piece on... metal airships.
In 1844, Parisians with an extra franc in their pocket could wander to the outskirts of the city and buy entry to a mysterious building on Impasse du Maine, a narrow dead-end street just behind the new railway station at Montparnasse. Inside a cavernous hangar, proprietor Edmond Marey-Monge and his team of workmen laboured away, soldering together long sheets of metal to make a giant sphere. Just what this contraption was for only became clear after examining the blueprints: valves for introducing hydrogen and attachments for a passenger gondola hinted at a new mode of transport. The gleaming sphere, Marey-Monge announced, was a "ballon de cuivre [de rouge]" - a brass balloon....
While Parisians bought their tickets to watch the giant orb take shape, the project also captured imaginations abroad. The merits of metal balloons were debated at length by armchair aeronauts in Britain, including one wag who wrote to Mechanics Magazine to suggest an "iron balloon" 400 foot (120 metres) wide as "not contrary to the spirit of the times" - though, he allowed, it might "gambol about the Earth's surface with great danger to life and limb of the human race, as well as terror to animal creation generally".
Modern variants on the metalclad idea include this 1964 patent for "Jet-Propelled Dirigible Airships."