The whimsical image above might conjure a nursery rhyme: the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, sailing off in a tub. But this is no Mother Goose illustration—it represents a memorable event in aeronautics history. That floating basket actually served as the control room for the first electric-powered airship, which took flight in France in 1883. See the propeller on the right? Batteries and a Siemens motor provided the oomph to sail the airwaves. What’s not visible is the spindle-shaped gasbag that would have ballooned above the framework.
The brains behind the flying machine—Gaston Tissandier (right) and his brother, Albert—are the two standing gents (the guy perched on top of the basket’s frame seems to have gone unidentified). Members of a cadre of French balloonists, the siblings helped bolster their country’s reputation as the balloon capital of the world.
The first people-toting balloons—both hot air and hydrogen—launched from Paris in 1783. For about a century after that, “the French were almost always at the cutting edge of ballooning, airships, [and] lighter-than-air flight,” says Tom Crouch, curator in the Aeronautics Department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum
. (It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Germany, with its Zeppelin, powered ahead of France in lighter-than-air technology.)
Balloonists became celebrated national heroes in France. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), they contributed to the war effort, flying government officials out of the besieged capital, assisting in reconnaissance work, and delivering messages to the field. “They actually built balloons in the city railroad stations” to assist the military, according to Crouch. The Tissandiers did their part—Gaston as an aerial spy, and Albert likely as an airborne messenger. France, of course, lost the war, and “about the only thing [the country] could be proud of was what all the balloonists had done,” says Crouch.
The Tissandier brothers made other scientific and cultural contributions, too. Gaston, a chemist and probably the better known of the pair, founded the French scientific journal La Nature
and also authored many books about the history of flight, the most important being Histoire des ballons et des aéronautes célèbres
, according to Crouch.
Gaston is also remembered for a perhaps less uplifting story: In 1875 he and two fellow scientists flew a balloon named Zénith to an altitude between 22,000 and 27,000 feet—close to the height jetliners fly today, says Crouch. Gaston’s comrades died in the pursuit, victims of hypoxia. He barely survived.
Brother Albert, meanwhile, was an illustrator who documented various ballooning exploits and contributed to La Nature. He probably drew the image on which the engraving above is based. “They were extraordinary guys,” says Crouch.
*This article was updated on September 12, 2013 to reflect the following fact: The first Zepplin airships flew in the early 20th century, not the late 19th, as orginally stated.