There is something about the Belle Epoch that had the French making some great technological advances – albeit they somewhat ran out of…er… steam by around 1906. Much of that story is told the museum of industrial arts.
Around the time that Captain James Cook was bumping into Australia, an engineer by the name of Nicholas Cugnot was demonstrating a new vehicle at the Paris Arsenal. With its twin cylinder double acting engine, front wheel drive and rack and pinion steering, this 2.5 tonne vehicle was able to move under its own power and tow an artillery piece (up to 4 tonnes) – thereby overcoming the problem of horses taking fright on the battlefield. The vehicle had forward and reverse, and could travel at up to 4kph. Not bad in 1770.
Cugnot’s Fardier á vapeur (steam tractor)
Sadly, its lack of brakes became apparent when it ran a bit out of control and hit the arsenal wall which earned the vehicle the dubious distinction of being the first manned self propelled vehicle and also the first motor vehicle accident ever recorded. So the experiments were stopped and the vehicle pushed into a nearby barn where it stayed undisturbed for nearly 100 years. At that point it was donated to the Arts et Metiers museum where it resides today – showing almost no signs of its low speed collision. You can see a modern replica being demonstrated here on YouTube.
By 1875 Amadee Bolleé had built l’Obeissante (the obedient one) – a steam bus in 1875 which made the first road trip between Le Mans and Paris in 18 hours. L’Obeissante carried 12 passengers and had a cruising speed of 30 km/h (19 mph) and a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). It was driven by two V-twin steam engines, one for each rear wheel. This too is preserved in the Museé des Arts et Metiers in Paris.
l’obeissante – steam bus
It was a pretty impressive vehicle – the stoker worked at the rear and controlled the throttle, while the driver steered – a study in teamwork! The passengers sat on side seats next to the driver
l’obeissante – steam bus
But the dream of the era was to get airborne – and there were many imaginative ways to do so. The first balloon flights took place in Paris – the montgolfiers taking off from the Palace of Versailles, on 19 October 1783 while the first manned hydrogen balloon lifted off from the Champs de Mars near where the Eiffel Tower now stands.
But there were dreams of controlled flight
and various versions of heavier than air models, such as this quad-copter – now popular among radio control enthusiasts
But the prize for the the first manned, powered flight may well go to Clement Ader, who has a strong claim to have flown 250-300 feet in 1897 – six years before the Wright Brothers. Using a self-designed lightweight steam power plant with twin 20HP engines powered from a lightweight flash steam generator with a condenser to re-use the water he made one fairly well documented flight, but crashed on a subsequent demonstration for the army. The plane had no control surfaces so it could only be steered by weight shifting of the pilot. The Wright Brothers rightly claim the first controlled powered heavier-than-air flight. Ader’s Avion gave its name to the French word for aircraft.
While it was somewhat modelled on a bat, it had a number of important innovations – an enclosed cockpit, a tricycle undercarriage, it was a monoplane, and it used contra-rotating propellers. A surprisingly well-thought out aircraft for its time.
This next plane was the first to fly the English Channel – flown by Louis Bleriot in 1909. It, too, was a monoplane and was a successful commercial design.
Bleriot XI – first plane to fly the English Channel
And if you thought the Segway was an innovation – guess who had them back in the 1890s? Okay this was designed by a German, and they were manufactured under licence by BSA in the UK, but it sure looks like a fun ride 🙂
Otto bicycle c.1881
Anyhow, more on the Arts et Metiers museum later 🙂