Today, an interlude in the early days of flight.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
"Sport of the gods!" cries
the Contessa Grace di Campello Della Spina. Queen
Margherita of Italy founded the Roman Aero Club in
1904. Now it's 1907. The Contessa is an ardent
member of the club. Her sport of the gods is
First she flew on a tether rope. Now she readies
her second ascent. It's her honeymoon. She, her new
husband, and a pilot are about to fly over the
Apennines, to the other side of Italy.
They take off at 9:30 in the evening. The contessa
rhapsodizes: "A full-orbed moon was just appearing
in a mist of golden glory above the Alban Hills
..." She tells how to pack for the trip. "Bring the
simplest and most practical tailor-made suit of
light wool. Take an umbrella. The sun bites hard in
She chooses her food carefully. "It should be light
and easily eaten. French Prunes, raisins and
chocolate -- cold tea, mineral water, and
well-baked bread. Bring a light volume of your
favorite author, and no alcohol save a small flask
of brandy in the case of faintness."
On to details of the flight. The name of their
balloon is the Fides I. It has a rip
valve so they can let gas out and land. But it's
better to throw down a rope, so the peasants below
can tow you in.
At last they rise into the night sky. The view is
lovely. At one point they see their reflection in a
pillar of cloud, by moonlight. The Contessa
describes dawn: "On the wings of the stiffening
morning breeze we raced along in joyous flight like
happy swallows ..."
The trip ends in a cornfield. "The peasants, seeing
us descending from afar, ran from all sides to help
pack the balloon, and claim damages for the corn."
She sits on the passenger car and chats with the
peasant women. "They are most primitive and full of
rustic curiosity," she says.
The next day she catches a train back to Rome. The
trip takes 24 hours on the ground. The honeymoon
A few years later, those balloons would become a
weapon in the most terrible war we'd ever seen.
When the smoke cleared, the world had begun
dismantling her royal class.
So where did flight come from? It didn't come from
people who wanted to wage war or create
transportation systems. The Contessa, with all that
money to lavish on play, was the true ally of human
progress. Her aim, like that of the technologists
she supported, was the pursuit of pleasure. And
pleasure is what's always driven the best
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds