Jules Henri Giffard's Steam Airship
The Wright brothers may be the most famous people in the history of aviation for the first aeroplane flight in 1903, but the first ever powered and controlled flights were carried out in lighter-than-air craft before either of the Wright brothers was even born. Jules Henri Giffard was a Frenchman who made his fortune by inventing the steam injector (a device to prevent steam engine boilers running out of water whilst they were stationary, patented in 1858), but before that in 1852, he built the world's first passenger airship.
Other people had previously built and flown balloons filled with hydrogen, but in order to make the jump from ballon to being a true airship there needed to be both a source of propulsion and a means of changing direction so that there was the control to choose to fly where one wished. The first airships were know as "dirigible balloons" from the French "dirigeable", meaning "steerable". Later they were simply refered to as "dirigibles".
In 1850 Giffard helped fellow French engineer Jullien to build an airship with a propeller driven by clockwork, but it was to be Giffard's knowlege of steam power that would place his own airship in the history books and in 1851 he patented the "application of steam in the airship travel". He managed to build a small and light steam engine weighing just 250 pounds and despite the added weight of the boiler and coke brining it to over 400 pounds, it was still light enough for his hydrogen filled balloon to lift. The engine drove a large (3.3 metre) rear-facing three-bladed propeller, and although only producing a power of 2,200 watts(1) (three horsepower), it would prove to be enough to demonstrate that controled flight was possible. The funnel pointed downwards and the exhaust stream was mixed with the combustion gasses to try and prevent sparks which might ignite the highly flammable hydrogen gas in the balloon. The balloon itself was 43 metres (144 foot) long and pointed at both ends. Below it at the rear was mounted a sail-like triangular vertical rudder.
The airship successfully flew on the 24th September 1852, launching from the Paris Hippodrome and flying 27km (17 miles) to Elancourt, near Trappes. Because the small engine was not very powerful it could not overcome the prevailing winds to allow Giffard to make the return flight (the top speed of Giffard's airship was just six miles per hour). However, he did manage to turn the airship in slow circles, proving that in calm conditions controled flight was possible.
(1) To put that in context, that is about the same as a modern steam iron, and less than a fast-boil kettle (3,000 watts).