In 1869, the world's first dirigible airship capable of carrying passengers, Frederick Marriott's Avitor1, made its maiden flight from San Francisco to San Jose and back. The inventor and a single observer, the writer Ambrose G. Bierce 2 were aboard.
Flight of the AvitorMarriott's flight followed eighteen years of work and a number of trials involving first partial-scale and then full-scale unpiloted vessels guided by tethers. Others had also been working along similar lines, notably in France, where the research helped inspire the author Jules Verne to write his novels Master of the World and Robur the Conqueror, featuring one of his trademark obsessed scientist-villains3.
Marriott's work had originally centered on steam-driven vessels. However, the work of French civil engineer Alphonse Beau de Rochas, who in 1862 demonstrated a four-stroke gasoline-powered engine he had patented, inspired Marriott to shift to internal combustion, which promised grester power for the same weight of engine4. His adaptation of de Rochas's design worked, and the Avito's historic flight was powered by two gasoline engines driving outboard screw propellers. The aairship inventor had devised an ignition system which allowed both engines to be started or stopped simultaneously, which was important for stability.
Ironically, however, Marrott's very success would be his undoing. In 1873, German engineer Paul Haenlein would make the first successful heavier-than-air flight outside Vienna, exploiting the same type of gasoline engine Marriott had used in the Avitor, and within a few years ithe advantages of heavier-than-air craft would have begun to push their gas-lifted cousins into the shade5.