Name: Étienne-Gaspard Robert (aka Professor Robertson)
Like many of us, people have always looked up to the sky and dreamed of flying.
Some of us simply dream of being a bird and soaring majestically in the wind, others dream of strapping on a pair of tights and a cape, while other sought more mechanical contrivances.
The above diagram shows the ambitious desire of Belgian engineer, magician, teacher and balloonist professor Étienne-Gaspard Robert, who took the relatively new concept of the lighter-than-air balloon and wondered if it were possible to create a lift so great it could essentially carry a warship to defend, or more than likely, attack one’s enemies.
Before we get to the aviation drawing above, we should note that Robert was actually better known by his stage name of Robertson – as he was a decent magician and reputedly one of the inventors of phantasmagoria.
I’m sure we have all heard of phantasmagoria, and assume we know what it means, but I betcha if you are like me, you are waaaay off.
According to a Wikipedia article, Robert attended a new form of illusion performance in 1793 in the form of a magic lantern (early type of slide projector) show. Because Robert had some knowledge of optics, he realized the potential of what would become “phantasmagoria” (just look it up). His further technological developments were combined with his skills in painting and showmanship, developing a pre-cinema horror show he named Fantoscope.
In and around 1799, he created his own magic lantern (Fantoscope) but tweaked it by adding adjustable lenses and a moveable carriage system to allow the operator to change the size of the projected image. As well, he made it capable to project several different images at once using more than one painted glass slider. The resultant display had a very ghostly effect especially when in a smoky atmosphere.
He created (wrote) his own phantasmagoria show based around his projection system and other effects and techniques. Needless to say, he creeped out his audiences.
So… a flying ship? Sure. Why not?
This was 1804, after all, and all things were possible!
Although balloon aeronautics were essentially in its infancy, there was nothing wrong with thinking ahead—physics or technology be damned—as neither has stopped people from creating concepts that could one day be possible in the future.
[Editor’s Note: My own personal thoughts are the comic book futurism spawned in Marvel Comics via Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., who headed a global spy network that utilized what was/is essentially a flying aircraft carrier – the Hellicarrier. If I wasn’t good at baseball, soccer and hockey, I would be a complete Star Trek-lovin’, AD&D playing nerd. Oh yeah – I dated and got married, too.]
As a keen balloonist who designed and flew balloons in different countries around the world, on July 18, 1803 in Hamburg, Germany, he set an altitude record in a Montgolfiere hydrogen-filled balloon.
Robert as performed many scientific observations while air-borne: observations of barometer and thermometer, on shapes and altitudes of cloud formations, the behavior of parachutes at different altitudes, the evaporation of Ether, the electrical properties of different materials and the air, behavior of a magnetic needle, the boiling point of water at great altitudes, sound propagation, influence of the high altitudes on animals (pigeons and butterflies), strength of solar radiation, the solar spectrum, gravity properties, chemical composition of the air and pressure of the air.
However… despite his best intentions, the old showman reared its ugly head, as many of his scientific observations contradict the laws of physics that were known to be true at the time of his ‘findings’.
And example of his dubious claims is that: a spring scale with attached weights showed a lower weight at altitude as compared to the ground. Having failed Grade 11 Physics, I shall assume that this is an incorrect statement because, though such an effect does exist, it only occurs at altitudes higher than 70,000 feet and he didn’t get anywhere close to that altitude. He (and one of his students, Mr. Lhoest) got up to 23,884.5 feet.
So… perhaps with fantasy still on his mind, he made the above drawing of a proposed scientific craft.
Meet Le Minerva.
Robert’s vision of how scientists could tour the world and see the undiscovered country.
Presented to all Academies of Europe and dedicating the project to Volta ( I assume Alessandro Volta, the Italian inventor of the battery – 1745 -1827), Robertson writes: “In our age, my friendship seeks only one gratification, that we should both live a sufficiently long time together to enable you to calculate and utilise the results of this great machine, while I take the practical direction of it.”
Here’s what Robertson, himself, had to say about his proposed aerial contrivance:
“There is no limit to the sciences and the arts, which cultivation does not overstep. We have everything to hope and to expect from time, from chance, and from the genius of man. The difference which there is between the canoe of the savage and the man-of-war of 124 guns is perhaps as great as that of balloons as they now are and as they will be in the course of a century. If you ask of an aeronaut why he cannot command the motions of his balloon, he will ask of you in his turn why the inventor of the canoe did not immediately afterwards construct a man-of-war. It must be recollected that there have not yet elapsed forty years since the discovery of the balloon, and that to perfect it would be a work of difficulty, as much from the increased knowledge which such a work would demand, as from the pecuniary sacrifices and the personal devotion which it would involve.
“Thus this invention, after having at first electrified all savants from the one end of the world to the other, has suffered the fate of all discoveries—it was all at once arrested. Did not astronomy wait long for Newton, and chemistry for Lavoisier, to raise them to something like the splendour they now enjoy? Was not the magnet a long time a toy in the hands of the Chinese, without giving birth to the idea of the compass? The electric fluid was known in the time of Thales, but how many ages did we wait for the discovery of galvanism? Yet these sciences, which may be studied in silent retreats, were more likely to yield fruit to the discoverer than aerostatics, which demand courage and skill, and of which the experiments, which are always public, are attended with great cost.”
The purpose of Le Minerva:
- To rise to all possible elevations;
- Pass through all climates in all seasons;
- Make scientific observations;
Robinson suggests that when scientific curiosity or pleasure demanded, they (the aeronauts) could descent “to within a short distance of the earth, say ninety feet, and fix themselves in their position by means of an anchor. It might, perhaps, be possible, by taking the advantage of favourable winds, to make the tour of the world.
“Experience will perhaps demonstrate that aerial navigation presents less inconvenience and less dangers than the navigation of the seas.”
Le Minerva’s Details:
- 150 feet in diameter;
- 80 tonnes in weight
- Capable of carrying 150,000 lbs;
- Can carry a compliment of 60 people – to be chosen by the academics of Europe;
- Can live within the craft for several months owing to its stores.
If you look at the image at the very top, you can see that there are numbers and letters beside various items. A description of what each means, as described by Robertson follows:
1 & 2) The wings at the side (1 and 2) are to be regarded as ornamental. The balloon will be 150 feet in diameter, made expressly at Lyons of unbleached silk, coated within and without with india-rubber. This globe sustains a ship, which contains or has attached to it all the things necessary for the convenience, the observations, and even the pleasures of the voyagers.
3) “The cock (3) is the symbol of watchfulness; it is also the highest point of the balloon. An observer, getting up through the interior to the point at which the watchful fowl is placed, will be able to command the best view to be had in the ‘Minerva.’
“(a) A small boat, in which the passengers might take refuge in case of necessity, in the event of the larger vessel falling on the sea in a disabled state.
“(b) A large store for keeping the water, wine, and all the provisions of the expedition.
“(cc) Ladders of silk, to enable the passengers to go to all parts of the balloon.
“(h) Pilot’s room.
“(l) An observatory, containing the compasses and other scientific instruments for taking the latitude.
“(g) A room fitted up for recreations, walking, and gymnastics.
“(m) The kitchen, far removed from the balloon. It is the only place where a fire shall be permitted.
“(p) Medicine room.
“(v) A theatre, music room, &c.
“(w) The study.
“(x) The tents of the air-marines, &c. &c.”
Quite obviously, this balloon was never manufactured as described. Too bad, I might have enjoyed seeing a rooster fly.
And, again… three paragraphs becomes this… yeesh. Can someone teach me to write less?