Skip to main content

Special Collections & Archives

Flying Machines

These digital reproductions of vintage French aviation postcards are from the Charles Lewis Collection in Dunbar Library's Special Collections and Archives. The images remind us of the precarious state of controlled, powered flight in the autumn of 1909.  Printed in Lille, France, the images concentrate on French aeronauts such as Henry Farman, Louis Blériot and Louis Paulhan. The unknown publisher also chose to include international pioneers like Germany's Count Zeppelin, Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, and Americans Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss.  Women in aviation are represented by the daring Baroness Elise de Laroche, a student of the pilot, Gabriel Voisin. These pioneers of the air were among the most famous celebrities of their day.

In 1908, Wilbur Wright amazed the people of France by demonstrating flying with prowess and control. In doing so, he challenged their notions of leadership in the air which had grown from the moderate successes of Clément Ader in the 1890's.  In France, the Wright brothers' patented solution to the problem of flight was first copied and then superseded by new French contributions to aeronautics such as the first monoplanes designed by Blériot and Robert Esnault-Pelterie.  Early aviation, or aeronautics as it was then known, was a dangerous science of trial and error.  Top speeds hovered under 50 mph. At the end of 1909, Hubert Latham (fifth in this series of postcards) held the world altitude record of only 1,486 feet.

In 1909, there was little distinction between aerostatic (lighter-than-air) dirigibles and airplanes. All amazed an enraptured public. 1909 was the year the world awoke to the new potential of sustained, powered flight.

To find out more about the development of aeronautics visit Special Collections and Archives, an outstanding repository for the study of the romantic early years of aviation.

To purchase a set of notecards depicting the French aviation postcards, visit the University Libraries' online store.