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Kings of the Air: Clément Ader

This is the first of a series of biographical sketches based on the research I am doing for my new book Kings of the Air: French aces and airmen of the Great War, to be published by Pen & Sword.

Clément Ader (1841-1925) was a French inventor, whose attempt at heavier-than-air flight some years before the Wright brothers was so nearly successful.

Ader had a restless mind, and his inventions covered a wide range of fields. In 1868, he began as a velocipede manufacturer. Instead of conventional iron tyres, his machines used a rubber tubular tyre of his own invention, resulting in a much lighter frame, and a much more comfortable ride.

The war against German in 1870 brought an end to his work. He then began working for a railway company in the south-west of the country, the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi. In 1875, he designed an engine that laid rails, that saw service for several years.

He then turned to the new telephone, commercialising the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell and Cyrille Duquet, helping install a network in Paris. Ader then went further, and invented the Theatrephone, which allowed to subscribers to listen to live performances at the Paris Opera in the comfort of their own home. These projects earned him a considerable amount of money as well as influential contacts within the Government.

He devoted much of the rest of his life to heavier-than-air flight. Like many other pioneers, he started with a glider (in 1874). But then the problem was how to power it. Ader chose steam power. He constructed a small light-weight engine for his first aeroplane, which he christened Eole. The engine itself is a small masterpiece of construction, that would prove to be lighter than the one the Wrights would use ten years later (51kg as against 75kg), and developed more horsepower (20hp as against 12hp). It seems obvious now that steam-power was the not the way forward. The internal combustion engine had already been invented; perhaps Ader did not think he could engineer one small enough or light enough, or perhaps he just wanted to get into the air first, hoping that an answer to the engine question would reveal itself later.

Like many a pioneer, for the configuration of his flying machine Ader looked to nature for inspiration, and Eole (also known as Avion I) had bat-like wings, with a single, centre-mounted engine. Its first 'flight' took place in the park of the chateau at Gretz-Armainvilliers (Seine-et-Marne) on October 9 1890. There were gaps in the marks left by the machine's wheels of between twenty to fifty metres, suggested that the machine had got off the ground, at least.

Ader then used his Government contacts for support. Charles Freycinet, the Minister of War, was an engineer by background, and was always enthusiastic about new technologies - both the 75mm field gun and the Lebel rifle would enter service during his ministries. He encouraged Ader to produce a more powerful prototype that would actually fly with a 75kg payload, and offered him a total of 30,000 francs (about £3 million at today's prices) if he succeeded. 'This was the day,' commented Ader of Freycinet's offer, 'when Military aviation was born.'

Ader abandoned his second prototype for a third, twin-engined machine, named Aquilon or Avion III. Ader demonstrated it to an audience of the military at the camp of Satory, near Versailles, on 12 October 1897. One witness was an NCO of Engineers, named Neute: 'I didn't lose sight of it for a moment, I heard the engine start up and [the machine] began to roll in a straight line. I was watching from a little to one side … It covered perhaps 100 metres and then it rose very slowly, gained height and I saw it clearly above the heads of the crowd. How high was it? 20 metres, perhaps 25. It was pitching quite heavily as it progressed and after 100 or 150 metres it changed direction slightly. I had the impression the pilot was having trouble with the steering. Then suddenly I saw it fall.' Ader subsequently claimed he had achieved flight; certainly, it skipped across the ground. But there were obvious problems with stability and steering, as well as the matter of the steam engine. And it was not sustained flight.

The Army withdrew its support and its funding. As another pioneer, Ferdinand Ferber would later explain, 'To design a flying machine is nothing; to build a flying machine is something; but getting a flying machine to fly is everything.' Ader, disheartened, withdrew from the active development of flying machines. He was still interested in the subject, however, and continued to address letters and memoranda to the Minister for the rest of his life. He was the author of a number of books on aviation, which called for the creation of massive air fleets to defend France against her enemies (ie Britain and Germany).'Whoever becomes Master of the Air,' he thundered, 'will become Master of the World.'

His most lasting contribution was the introduction of the word 'avion' into the French language, to mean 'aircraft'. It replaced 'aéroplane' in official usage in 1910 as a tribute to the inventor, and subsequently became the standard word.
Pictures: Ader in old age; Ader's engine; a painting showing the trial of Eole; Charles Freycinet, Minister of War; Aquilon, currently hanging in the Museum of Arts et Métiers in Paris; a contemporary reconstruction of his 'flight'; the pilot's compartment of Aquilon, showing the pilot had no forward view; the monument to Ader, appropriately enough situated in the Rue Clement Ader, Versailles.

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