Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday mystery

This week, the excellent online Gallica department of the national French library asks us to try to identify the designer of the aeronautical system seen here:

I would guess that the inventor might not have made the same mark upon aviation history as, say, Louis Blériot, Roland Garros or Jean Mermoz. Today, of course, certain professional cyclists could draw upon the powerful resources of newly-invented varieties of aviation fuel (more or less fit for human consumption) to get such a device into the air. Some riders, borne by such magic wings, would even be capable of getting their machines rapidly up to the summits of Alpine slopes.

My favorite image from the early history of aviation shows Icarus taking off cautiously, under the worried gaze of his dad Daedalus.

This work in oil by Charles Paul Landon [1760-1826], painted a decade after the French Revolution, hangs today in a provincial gallery in Alençon (Normandy). It might be a depiction of my father teaching me how to swim by throwing me into Deep Creek, out in the bush… except that we didn't have wings, and we weren't stark naked.

ANSWER: In 1921, this so-called aviette contraption—designed by a certain Gabriel Poulain—was able to cover a distance of 12 meters at an average altitude of just over a meter. Even if his experimental aircraft had crashed, the courageous pilot would not have been gravely injured. So, we can understand retrospectively why he saw no point in wearing any kind of safety helmet.

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