A few years before the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay, the world's first aeronauts, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, achieved flight. On 21 November 1783, they took to the skies over Paris, France in a Montgolfier hot air balloon and flew a distance of 9km.
The first news of aviation's progress from balloons to winged aircraft reached the colony in May 1843, when an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald describing William Henson's Aerial Steam Carriage. It was a propeller driven vehicle whose design was well ahead of its time but never built to full scale.
The following decade, Dr William Bland of Sydney published drawings of his Atmotic Ship, a semi-rigid airship powered by a steam engine. Although the ship was never built, the highly acclaimed model and drawings were exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London during 1854 and in Paris the following year.
Throughout the mid 19th century several balloon flights were made in Australia, the earliest experimenter being M. Pierre Maigre. In 1856, Maigre's attempted ascent from the Domain, Sydney, was a disaster. The paying spectators felt aggrieved at the aeronaut's failure to fly and rioted. Maigre was lucky to escape with his life.
Balloonist William Dean was more successful in 1858. His gas-filled balloon, The Australasian, travelled a total distance of 30 km with two people aboard.
Thomas Gale's first flight in the The Young Australian in 1869 ended when the balloon tore and Gale was dumped out of the basket and injured. Rufus Wells' balloon flights in 1878 often ended in misfortune. The same year, a balloon being launched from the Domain escaped when one would-be aeronaut jumped out, giving his companion an unwanted high altitude view of Sydney.
A memorable night in Sydney saw Henri L'Estrange's ascent from the Domain on 15 March 1881. Trying to fix a gas leak at an altitude of 750 metres, L'Estrange slipped and found himself clinging for dear life. As the balloon careened towards Woolloomooloo he struck a building in Palmer Street igniting the leaking gas. The explosion that followed 'cast a brief, but vivid illumination over the entire suburb'.
Bland's atmotic ship
Drawings of Dr William Bland's original design for his Atmotic Ship were sent to England to be registered for patent on 15 April 1851. They were lithographed by W.L. Hutton in November 1851.
Dr Bland's final design was a hydrogen-filled balloon, propelled by two steam driven screw propellers and another two using atmospheric pressure. Models were exhibited at the Crystal Palace, London in 1854 and in Paris the following year. Unfortunately, a full size atmotic ship (60 metres long and designed to lift 100 tonnes) was never built.