Heads, tails, arms, wings, feathers and other appurtenances

Aeronautical Exhibition, Crystal Palace, 1868

What was probably the world's first aviation exhibition was held at the Crystal Palace, London, between 25 June and 4 July 1868. The 'Aeronautical Exhibition' was organised by the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, which itself had only been set up two years earlier (and was renamed the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1918). Here's what was on show, according to an advertisement on the first page of the Morning Post, 25 June 1868:

The objects for Exhibition comprise Light Engines and Machinery, complete working Aërial Apparatus, Kites for use in Shipwreck, &c., for which large money prizes have been offered by the Shipwrecked Fishermen's Society, the Duke of Sutherland, the Crystal Palace Company, and the Society.

Monsieur de la Marne's great Ballon Captif (from the Paris Exposition) will ascend at intervals daily for the purposes of meteorological observations by Mr. Glaisher, and for affording opportunity to visitors desirous of making ascents. When it is stated that the diameter of the balloon is nearly one hundred and fifty feet, and that the car will carry 14 passengers, some idea of its vastness may be obtained.

Trials of the various aërial machines will be made throughout each day. By these and other arrangements great interest will be excited beyond scientific circles.

There was no charge, beyond the price of admission to the grounds of the Palace itself, where the exhibition had to compete with other entertainments such as an archery meet, a royal gala concert and a farewell acrobatic performance by the Imperial Japanese Troupe, featuring Hamiraiki Sadikichi and Little All Right.

The exhibition is probably best known for the demonstration of John Stringfellow's last flying machine, a steam-powered model triplane which travelled suspended from a wire (although according to some accounts it also briefly exhibited free flight). I think that's it suspended from the ceiling of the Palace in the image above, though it differs in some details from the restored version shown here. The Observer described it as follows (5 July 1868, 6):

Mr. Stringfellow started his aerial steam carriage, which travelled across the transept and a considerable distance down the nave. This machine, including engine, boiler, water, and fuel is not more than 12lb in weight. The engine has a cylinder of 1 3-16 inch diameter, a 2-inch stroke, works two propellers of 21 inches diameter, gets steam up to 100lb. pressure in 5 minutes, and when at work makes 600 revolutions of its propellers per minute. On account of steam being used the model is not allowed unlimited flight in the building, and it is therefore attached to a line by a travelling pulley. In the course of its flight the carriage had an evident tendency to rise in the air, as was seen by the fact that the line on which it was suspended and along which the pulley travelled was raised as much as several feet. The inventor is confident that he has succeeded in an important step towards the solution of the problem which the Aeronautical Society has set itself to solve.

Suspending an 'aerial steam carriage' from a wire and claiming that this is a step towards flight might seem like cheating, but since the Crystal Palace did eventually burn to the ground it was probably wise to be concerned about letting experimental steam-powered flying machines loose in the building.

It seems that some visitors were less than impressed with the exhibition, however. While admitting that it was merely 'preparatory' to another planned for 1869, the Daily News (26 June 1868, 5) complained that 'the models and objects were not arranged sufficiently to enable the visitor to form a very clear idea of their value or import', and hoped that they would 'this morning appear in a more intelligible form'. The big French balloon failed to fly as had been advertised, and 'many were disappointed at the non-fulfilment of the promise'.

A much more acerbic, indeed sarcastic, view of the exhibition was expressed by Henry Coxwell, a famous balloonist, in a letter to The Times (9 July 1868, 12). He attended on the first three days, which gave him 'a feeling of astonishment and disappointment' at the amateurish nature of the displays:

there were all the old familiar toys and plans which years and years back I had seen and shaken my head at; there were fans and modifications of screws, of clockwork springs, and planes, both inclined and at a low pitch and very high pitch; there were heads, tails, arms, wings, feathers, and other appurtenances, but nothing that would even flutter, and as to flying, unless some wire or rope held them up, why this, the great expectation, was never realized.

As well as having a go at Stringfellow (or 'Wirefellow') himself, Coxwell criticised the extravagant promises of flight made by the organisers,

profound-looking members telling anxious inquirers to be sure and come the next day, as Mr. Wirefellow and others were positively coming, and that strong ropes were required to keep them down, as their power of flight was so strong that when once in action it was difficult to retain them. This action, however, is just what never occurred, at least in the way promised, and the flying associates of this society will simply include, I expect, those who banish themselves amid ridicule and despair.

He then went on to describe the unfortunate end of Delamarne's balloon, which caught fire on the third day of the exhibition and was destroyed. Coxwell called this a 'wise interposition of Providence, [which] frustrated a vain and silly bid for popularity'. He mocked the giant fire balloon for its scientific uselessness, asking 'of what use these so-called scientific observations would have been if obtained at an altitude of 1,000 feet under a bag of fire and smoke?' Clearly no fan of the Aeronautical Society, Coxwell concluded that

I am strongly of opinion [sic] that these recent performances would hardly have passed muster at the end of the last century, they are certainly not in keeping with the intelligence of the present generation.

Given all this vitriol, it comes as a surprise to read elsewhere of Coxwell's generosity towards the unfortunate French balloonist, Delamarne. According to the Daily News (29 June 1868, 5), after the balloon had been overturned by a gust of wind and set on fire,

The bystanders -- perhaps five hundred persons -- seemed uncertain at first whether to regard the incident as food for ridicule or anger. In their midst there happened to be Mr. Coxwell, our own eminent aeronaut, who has had ballooning experience of over 25 years, has himself made 570 ascents, and who therefore viewed the matter in a more unselfish light. With a generous promptness that was keenly appreciated he jumped upon a fragment of the wreck, and in a few sympathetic words made an appeal for M. Delamarne, the owner of the "Captif." The crowd, no longer undecided, gave their good impulses free play, and, entering into an immediate subscription, handed what they could spare to Mr. Coxwell, and a friend, who kindly acted as treasurer. The Duke of Sutherland enrolled his name, and Mr. Brearey, the secretary to the Aeronautical Society, in less than an hour circulated placards inviting subscriptions to be left at his office in the Palace.

I wonder if something happened between the day of the accident and the day Coxwell wrote his letter to change his opinion of Delamarne and his balloon, or whether his sympathy for a fellow balloonist (however misguided) just didn't override his sense of professional propriety.

Image source: Centennial of Flight

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3 thoughts on “Heads, tails, arms, wings, feathers and other appurtenances

  1. Very interesting, as ever. Having grown up within sight of the site of the Crystal Palace, and a strong familiarity with 'Paw' the dinosaur, it was also close to home.

    I will now always use the dieresis in Aërial as iz proper like.

    "Suspending an 'aerial steam carriage' from a wire and claiming that this is a step towards flight might seem like cheating..."
    - Caused me to think of the long and illustrious history of tethered prototypes and tethered experimentation in aviation, including many early helicopters and VTO (with a hoped-for L component) jets as well as a significant number of early flyers. Cheating? As a step towards free, controlled flight, sounds sensible to me (and was often used). A lot more sensible than the other extreme, which was trying to keep a massive steam powered juggernaut on an inadequate set of rails.

    So, how many tethered aircraft can you think of?

  2. Post author


    Watch it or you'll get more phantom airships.


    Yes, tethering can be viewed as a sensible step. But not everyone seems to have thought so. I guess there was a tension between manned and unmanned proto-flight. You could leave the pilot out and save on weight (important with the underpowered engines of the era) but then you have the problem of controlling it (hence wire or rails). There was also something of a British tradition of model and kite flying, where it seemed natural to start with the unmanned versions and try to inch towards something bigger and better (with deviations like Baden-Powell's man-lifting kites). Then there were the balloonists -- Coxwell above is scornful of the 'scientific' model aeroplane makers because, according to his lights, he's actually flown and flown often. And he's more scientific because he's actually doing science from his balloons. A short-sighted view perhaps ... except there wasn't going to be any actual reason for him to change his mind for another generation.

    I will now always use the dieresis in Aërial as iz proper like.

    I call this the steampunk dieresis, but I seem to be the only one so far!

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