Henri Giffard and the Giffard Dirigible

Giffard's dirigible

The Giffard dirigible over Paris, created by Giffard in 1852

On February 8, 1825, French engineer and aviation pioneer Baptiste Henri Jacques Giffard was born. He is best known for being the first who succeeded to build a steam powered and steerable aircraft, the Giffard dirigible.

Henri Giffard was born in Paris. He is credited with the invention of the injector and the Giffard dirigible, an airship powered with a steam engine, and weighing over 180 kg. It is thought to be the world’s first passenger carrying airship.

When Giffard was about 27 years old, he ascended from Paris in a balloon filled with ordinary coal gas, driven by an aerial screw propeller actuated by a steam-engine of his own designing. Along with two college friends and modest financial possibilities, Giffard was determined to build and equip the navigable balloon. The balloon was in the shape of a symmetrical spindle, 144 ft. long and 39 ft. in diameter. The engine itself was believed to be alot lighter than any previously built. Coke was employed as fuel while no flame came into contact with the outer air. The products of combustion, cooled in the return flue, were projected downward through an inverted smoke pipe, into which the steam from the cylinder was exhausted. [1,2]

Mike Young at the London Science Museum

Model of the Giffard Dirigible, Mike Young at the London Science Museum

His first experiments in 1852 were quite successful, but Giffard was convinced, he needed more time and energy to improve the steering abilities. Due to financial difficulties, Giffard was enabled to make a second trial only in 1855. His new balloon was 230 ft long and some changed were made to reduce the resistance. However, these changes caused instability. The balloon was heavily blown by the wind and Giffard was unable to handle it. At some point, the balloon tipped up and as they reached the ground, the gas bag slipped out of the netting and went into pieces. This accident nearly cost Giffard his life, but still, he was convinced to make further improvements.

In 1863, he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Due to his invention of the injector, Giffard finally had a decent financial backing and built in 1867 the great captive balloon for the Paris Exposition of that year. He built one in London one year later and in the 1870s, Giffard was known to have performed several experiments to improve his airships. Henri Giffard was the first known person to drive a balloon with a motor and a steam engine. [1]

In 1874, he designed a suspension system for railway wagons. Contrary to the current trend of using city gas (easier to obtain), he prefers to rely on hydrogen (better carrier), concentrating on production methods. He perfected the hydrogen manufacturing process on the eve of the construction of his new giant balloon. He built a 25,000 m3 captive balloon for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, capable of carrying 40 passengers. This balloon, located in Les Tuileries, will be one of the exhibition’s main attractions. It has been said that he has flown as many people in two months as he has flown since the beginning of aerostation, about a century ago. A dozen climbs a day took the passengers up to more than 500 meters. In addition to the captive balloon, the machine used to produce the gas has made it possible to inflate numerous free balloons, allowing various ascents, sometimes in groups (up to three balloons simultaneously).

In response to his declining eyesight, Giffard committed suicide in 1882, leaving his estate to the nation for humanitarian and scientific purposes.

At yovisto academic video search you may be interested in a video on ‘Early Balloons – The History of Flight’.

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