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Balloons and Dirigibles that Remained in History

While writing my steampunk novel Laevium, I needed to know a lot about airships – how they worked and how they were designed – in order to be able to create the image of The Skycradle (Ivy Blackwell’s airship), and of the other airships in my book. During my research, I read a lot of cool stories about daring balloons and dirigibles that took the skies (or at least intended to) before the fancy Zeppelins we all love so much. There are so many of them that they would need an entire book, not just a blog post, so I only selected my favorite of them (in chronological order).

Henri Giffard’s Steam-Powered Airship – 1852

steampunk dirigibles

On September 24, 1852, Henri Giffard flew the first steam-powered, manned, motorized, and steerable airship in the history of aviation, from Place de l’Etoile in Paris to Élancourt, in a 3-hour trip covering 27 km.

Giffard’s dirigible (weighing 180 kg) featured an elongated envelope filled with hydrogen and was powered by a 3 HP steam engine. Though the performance was hindered by the dead weight of the steam engine (45 kg), and the engine was not able to cope with the strong wind (the aeronaut only managed to fly in circles instead of returning to the starting point), Giffard’s craft still marks a turning point in the development of airships.

steampunk dirigibles

James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell’s Balloon Trip – 1862

The true story behind the movie The Aeronauts was one of the boldest adventures in the early history of aviation. Only that, instead of fictional character Amelia Wren, it features real Henry Coxwell as James Glaisher’s aeronaut.

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A founding member of the Meteorological Society and the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, meteorologist James Glaisher also was a pioneer balloonist, reaching the highest altitude ever recorded for a manned flight up to his time. His scientific discoveries changed the way his contemporaries saw the atmosphere and the natural phenomena related to it.

The adventure that brought him such a recognition, which he described in his book Travels in the Air, took place on September 5, 1862, and was funded by the British Association for the Advancement of Science – which had agreed to sponsor a series of such trips. The giant balloon took off from Wolverhampton, with Glaisher, Coxwell, and a few pigeons as passengers. The purpose of the flight was to measure the humidity and temperature of the atmosphere at different elevations.

steampunk dirigibles


According to Glaisher’s later recount, the balloon rose too quickly. At a record altitude of 11,300 meters, in freezing temperatures and lacking oxygen, he started to have vision difficulties and lose consciousness. However, their immediate descent was prevented by a twisted valve line, which Coxwell had to climb outside the basket to untangle. The aeronaut realized he was starting to lose consciousness as well, along with the movement of his hands, so he had to seize the cord with his teeth.

He managed to open the valve, so they descended and landed safely. However, only one of the pigeons survived the flight. Regardless of the traumatic and almost deadly experience, Glaisher took 21 more trips to further record his observations on the weather.

Albert and Gaston Tissandier’s Electric Motor Airship – 1883

Brothers Albert and Gaston Tissandier remained in the history of aviation as the authors of the first electric flight. In 1881, they attached an electric motor to a dirigible, and that counted as the first experiment of that kind. Later, after a few other similar experiments, Albert drew the blueprints of a larger model (of 1,062 cubic meters), which the brothers built and flew on October 8, 1883, from the Paris suburb Auteuil to Saint-Germain. That first electricity-powered airship used a Siemens 1.5 HP engine at 180 revolutions per minute.

steampunk dirigibles

The Tissandier brothers had always been passionate about flying and observing nature (Gaston Tissandier reported his findings to the French Academy of Sciences and founded the magazine La Nature). They had done nature observation during hot air balloon trips, which Albert Tissandier recorded in his drawings. In April 1875, Gaston Tissandier, along with Joseph Croce-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel, flew in the hot air balloon Zénith, with the purpose of continuing his observations. However, unable to cope with the thin air at the extreme altitude they reached, Spinelli and Sivel died from asphyxiation, and Gaston became deaf.

Renard and Krebs’ Dirigible La France – 1884

The first dirigible to make a round trip back to the starting point was La France, designed by Charles Renard and Arthur C. Krebs, inventors and military officers in the French Army Corps of Engineers.

steampunk dirigibles

The airship featured an elongated envelope of 1869 cubic meters, a 7.5 HP electric motor powered by lightweight batteries, and a four bladed wooden propeller.

La France’s first flight took place on August 9, 1884, and covered 8 km. Though the distance was short, that experiment achieved an important result: it showed that a fully controlled flight was possible if the motor is powerful enough.

Augusto Severo’s Airship Le Pax – 1902

On May 12, 1902, 38 years old Brazilian aeronaut Augusto Severo, along with 25 years old French mechanic Georges Saché, took off from Vaugirard, Paris, in the semi-rigid airship Pax, at 5:30 in the morning. The weather seemed fine; nothing anticipated the disaster that followed. Severo had been so eager to send his airship to her first flight that he had slept in the hangar for a few days before deciding the big day had arrived.

steampunk dirigibles

The airship started off well, and an enthusiastic crowd on bicycles and motorcars cheered and chased her from down the ground. However, the joyful moment did not last for long. At a height of 600 m, one of her motors went ablaze, the flame engulfing the silk envelope filled with hydrogen. A terrible explosion followed, and, in just eight seconds, what remained of the Pax fell to the ground close to Montparnasse Cemetery.

The Pax was Severo’s second airship (the wind had destroyed this first one, which he built while still in Brazil). He had come to Paris at the end of 1901, with the purpose of building the semi-rigid airship that brought him to his death. While he had intended to use electric motors, he opted for combustion engines in the end, as he lacked resources and time.

The Pax’s tragic story inspired Georges Méliès’ silent film The Catastrophe of the Balloon “Le Pax”, released in the same year. And, as a side note, the unfortunate fate of the Pax was also one of the biggest inspiration sources for one important event in my novel Laevium.

I'm an indie author, translation industry professional, and former magazine editor, with a passion for steampunk, cyberpunk, and historical fiction. My debut novel Laevium, a steampunk story set in Neo-Victorian London, is available from most major online bookstores.

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