From the beginning, the usefulness of the balloon depended upon giving it "dirigibility" or directional control -- without it, balloons could only drift with the wind. Although the U.S. Army did not buy its first dirigible until 1908, the technology had existed for more than 50 years.
In 1852 Henri Giffard, a French engineer, mounted a 3-hp steam engine beneath a 143-foot long hydrogen balloon. Although the craft was underpowered, Giffard flew a semi-controlled 17-mile course in just under three hours, thus making the first powered human flight.
In 1884 two French army captains, Charles Renard and A.C. Krebs, built a 165-foot long dirigible, christened the La France, powered by a 9-hp electric motor. The La France became the first air vehicle to make a full circle and return to the place from which it was launched.
Baldwin Dirigible: U.S. Army's First Airship
The first powered aircraft ordered by the Aeronautical Division was not an airplane, but rather a dirigible designed by Thomas Scott Baldwin. The Signal Corps had long urged the U.S. Army to buy a dirigible, and many European armies had them by the turn of the century.
After seeing Baldwin demonstrate a dirigible at the St. Louis air meet in 1907, Brig. Gen. James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, discussed purchasing one for the Signal Corps. During the summer of 1908, the Army tested a Baldwin non-rigid dirigible -- and formally accepted it as Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1. On Aug. 28, Lts. Frank Lahm, Thomas Selfridge and Benjamin Foulois were taught to fly it.
Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 was sent to Omaha, Neb., and it remained there as the only Signal Corps dirigible. The Army scrapped Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 in 1912 and did not purchase another dirigible until after World War I.
Click here to return to the Early Years Gallery.