Today, a tale of two balloons. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Here are two papers on
long-range balloons. One's a monograph written in
1804. The other's a 1992 article in
Mechanical Engineering -- 188 years
In 1804 a French physics professor, E.G. Robertson,
proposed building an 80-ton balloon. The gondola
doubles as an ocean-going ship for 60 scientists.
They will make great voyages of exploration. They
will "boldly go where no man has gone before."
Robertson had taken part in ballooning that'd been
going on in Europe for two decades. He did early
parachuting. Now he trashes the other early
aeronauts. He is arrogant and combative.
Fantasy and good sense are all mixed up in his
design. The gondola has seminar rooms and labs.
Lady observers ride in a small separate gondola
where they won't distract the scientists.
Everyone carries a parachute. There's even a little
getaway balloon -- a kind of ship's longboat.
Still, Robertson realizes that his balloon cannot
be steered. It can only follow the wind. Steering
will have to wait for engine-powered dirigibles.
Robertson never got to build his balloon. Now, two
centuries later, we still haven't managed to
balloon around the world. But read the 2nd paper:
Larry Newman and two friends are ready to try it.
By the time you hear this program, you may already
know if they made it. They plan to buoy seven miles
into the sky above Reno, then ride the Westerlies
at 75 miles an hour.
This balloon is Spartan alongside Robertson's. It's
1/8 the weight and 2/3 the diameter. But some
features have been added in 188 years. For ballast
it has a second balloon, just as large, below the
gondola. It carries cool air. Since the ballast is
only air, they can renew it in mid-flight.
They'll ride in a pressurized cabin. They'll carry
a cryogenic tank to resupply the helium gas. They
have cameras and communications systems -- complex
valves and pumps.
This balloon benefits from one more thing that
Robertson lacked. It reflects respect -- for the
danger, for the complexity, and for the past. Maybe
they'll do what Robertson couldn't.
The musical, Man of La Mancha, has a
curious interlude. Don Quixote's priest muses about
Quixote's mad dream -- of honor -- of the Lady
Dulcinea. The dream, says the Padre, is only flame
and air, but we're really lost only if we stop
Robertson's balloon -- his dream, his Dulcinea --
was named Minerve. The new balloon is called
Earthwinds Hilton. They are very different
machines. But they hold one element in common --
and that is Quixote's flame and air.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robertson, E.G., La Minerve. Paris: S.V.
Ashley, S., Around the World in a Dozen Days?
Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 114,
No.12, Dec. 1992, pp. 46-49.
I'm grateful to Jeff Fadell, UH Library, for
translating the Robertson monograph; and to Nancy
Boothe, Head of The Woodson Research Library at
Rice University, for leading me to this rare book
in the Benjamin Monroe Anderson Collection on the
History of Aeronautics.
An image of the fictional Minerve balloon from an
antique French plate
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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