Jules Verne, author of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth External, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days, was born on February 8, 1828, in Nantes, France. His depictions of fantastic technological advances, including space travel and television, helped create the genre of science fiction. Inspired by Verne’s popular novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, American reporter Nellie Bly bested the record of fictional Phileas Fogg, when she completed her 1889-90 circumnavigation in just 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds.
In 1863, French readers were enjoying Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon. Simultaneously, the United States Army was using balloons lofted by hydrogen gas in Civil War reconnaissance missions. The May 31, 1862, photograph above shows Professor Thaddeus S. Lowe observing a Peninsular Campaign battle from a balloon anchored by soldiers on the ground. After the war, balloons were used to create detailed images, called “bird’s-eye views,” of parks, cities, and even the fairgrounds of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia.
Airships, or dirigibles, offered greater control over flight. Essentially motors mounted on helium or hydrogen filled balloons, airships contained propellers and rudders for steering the craft. By the early twentieth century, photographers used airships to create aerial photographs of U.S. cities. During World War I, rigid German airships, called “zeppelins,” were used to bomb London and Paris.
Unfortunately, airships were accident prone. The crash of the Hindenburg, the largest rigid airship ever made, on May 6, 1937, essentially ended the use of dirigibles in commercial transportation. Ultimately, the airship gave way to the success of the Wright Brothers’ heavier-than-air flying machine.
The sight of these imposing ships is lost to many of us today. As a result, the images of airships in the Library’s collections are of special value. To view them, search the pictorial collections on airship.
- Search on balloon in the collections of films and videos to find films such as Bird’s-eye view of San Francisco, Cal., from a Balloon and Panoramic View of Electric Tower from a Balloon. The bibliographic records tell how the balloons were used.
- The Tissandier Collection documents the early history of aeronautics with an emphasis on balloon flight in France and other European countries. Subjects include general and technical images of balloons, airships, flying machines among many other materials.
- The Library of Congress contains the largest Verne holdings outside of France. Some 400 rare Verne volumes, donated by Willis E. Hurd, make up the core of the collection. Through copyright deposit, the Library acquired many early English-language editions of Verne’s stories. The Library’s collections also include plays, films, and television productions adapted from Verne’s works. Using the Library’s Online Catalog, perform an Author search on Verne, Jules to see records of these items.
- Alexander Graham Bell and Harry Houdini were among those fascinated by human flight during the early twentieth century. Read Today in History features on these men as well as famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.
- Known as “Lady Lindy,” Amelia Earhart made her solo flight across the Atlantic on May 20-21, 1932. In 1935, she became the first person to complete the even longer flight from Hawaii to California. Palmist Nellie Simmons Meier prepared an Earhart palm print and character analysis in June 1933. This unusual document is found in the Nellie Simmons Meier Papers in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
- Visit the Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress to learn more about their pioneering work which led to the world’s first powered, controlled and sustained flight.