Charles F. Ritchel and His Amazing Hand-Powered Dirigible

The Wright brothers are credited with the first airplane, but technically they made the first heavier-then-air powered and controllable flight. In an airplane. People had been flying for more than a century before that, in hot air or gas balloons, which are lighter than air. The problem with balloons was that the air itself guided them, and you never knew where you were going to land. Then came Charles Ritchel, an eccentric tinkerer who had more than 150 patents for all kinds of things. In 1878, he unveiled a flying machine that could be controlled by the pilot.

It was a balloon of sorts, a scary-looking contraption with a 25-foot gas bag over a carriage that resembled a boat. The pilot propelled the ship with a hand crank that powered a propellor, and his feet guided fins that changed direction. Ritchel couldn't pilot it himself, because he was too heavy, but he found Mark Quinlan, a brave man who only weighed 96 pounds. At its first demonstration, the dirigible ascended, flew around, and came back to the launching spot! That was a breakthrough in ballooning. However, Ritchel's design is barely mentioned in the history of aircraft, since it could never repeat that feat. Besides, who wants to spend their time in the air cranking a propellor by hand? Read about Charles Ritchel and his forgotten dirigible at Smithsonian.

Newest 1
Newest 1 Comment

I think that, technically speaking, "airplane" requires a fixed wing and powered thrust, which excludes balloons (and dirigibles and ornithopters), as well as 19th century fixed-wing gliders.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Charles F. Ritchel and His Amazing Hand-Powered Dirigible"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More