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Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J.
(1631 - 1687
The Father of Aeronautics




Lana's famous flying boat


The Father of Aeronautics



Three hundred years ago in 1686 died the Father of Aeronautics, Fr. Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J., professor of physics and mathematics at Brescia. Histories of flight refer to his work Prodromo dell'Arte Maestra (1670) as the "the first publication to establish a theory of aerial navigation verified by mathematical accuracy and clearness of perception".

Previous descriptions of flight were nothing more than myths and vague fantasies whereas Lana's bold project was based on mathematical calculations and principles of physics. His work was translated by the physicist Robert Hooke in 1690 and was discussed by scientists throughout Europe for a century. It is no exaggeration to say that Lana's ideas lay behind the devlopment of the balloon and led to the successful flight of the Montgolfier brothers in 1783.

The histories of flight usually start with the first of the daring but foolhardy "tower jumpers", Daedalus and Icarus, after which there may be mention of Joseph of Cupertino's involuntary flights and then efforts of a few restless monks like Oliver of Malmesbury who felt he would have succeeded if he had put on more tail feathers. After this they give the details of the first serious attempt to bring science into the program, the work of Francesco Lana usually highlighted by a picture of his air ship. At the beginning of Lana's ambitious project, a compilaton of all science, is a collection of the recent inventions.

Many of these are his own, such as a sewing machine,a reading device for the blind,a language for deaf and dumb, long distance communication by cannon, heavier than air "flying chariot" and finally his lighter than air"aerial ship". For the latter he drew on the recently invented vacuum pump of Boyle, the experiments of Hooke, Torricelli and Otto von Guerick who demonstrated at Magdaburg that atmospheric pressure is so strong that it would take two teams of eight horses to pull apart an evacuated sphere. Lana proposed using the principle of the vacuum (up to then, abhorred by nature) which would make his aparatus lighter than air and would float in the atmosphere. Unlike later balloonists who put something into the balloon, Lana would take all air out. Although his device proved impractical his principles were sound.

Belize Stamp commemorating Lana's flying boat

Lana depended on five such principles. First, it had recently been demonstrated with the help of Robert Boyle's pump that air has weight. Secondly, the weight of the air can be calculated just as can the weight of water. Third, nearly all air can be exhausted from any vessel, as in the case of animal respiration. Fourth, from Euclid he knew that the area of a sphere varies with the square of the diameter while the volume (and therefore the mass) depends on the its cube. So if a sphere has a large enough area it can have a predetermined mass of air inside. Finally, from Archimedes he knew that ligher bodies float in heavier fluids.

From this Lana concludes that one could construst a vessel which would weigh less than the air within and so when the air had been pumped out the whole would float in the atmosphere. In fact if the vessel were made large enough it could support the weight of a ship with passengers. After caculating the weights and volumes involved the vessel he proposed consisted of four large twenty five foot spheres made of thin sheet copper bound together and supporting a basket for the riders with a sail and rudder for steering.
After a long discussion of these principles Lana answers the objections to his proposal.

First the problem of evacuating the air could be accomplished by Boyle's pump. A second objection was that the air ship was liable to float off into outer space so that the riders would not be able to breathe. Lana shows unusual grasp of aerostatics by replying that the ship would stop rising as soon as the density of the atmosphere counter-balanced the weight of the ship. Landing the craft once it is air-borne is guarenteed by installing a valve to let air into the four spheres as ballast which would bring the ship back down to earth. The sail and a large rudder would take care of steering the ship so that it would not be blown away. Later experiments proved that a sail would not be an effective steering device.

The most serious problem Lana addresses and the one most scientists noticed was the fact that the spheres would be crushed by the atmosphere when the air was pumped out. Lana's answer was that the spherical shape would prevent it from being crushed because of the perfect uniformity of a sphere somewhat as an eggshell resists uniform pressure on its ends. He happened to be wrong in solving this last problem and so his proposed ship never did succeed. His expectation of landing ease was too optimistic also: "there is no need for ports since the balloon could land anywhere". Lana's treatment was remarkably thorough for an era when experimental data was quite scarce.

Lana was not the only member of
Ignatius Loyola's Society involved in flight

Lana's influence on speculation for flight was of long duration. For over a century it was studied and discussed by scientists such as Sturm who had great praise for the plan and by Leibniz who verified Lana's calculations. Berbardo Zamaga was inspired to write a poem concerning Lana's "Navis Aeria".

Some 39 years later another Jesuit Bartholomeu Lourenco de Gusmao, S.J. from Brazil did attempt to use hot air under a kind of umbrella, supporting a basket for riders, in the presence of the king of Portugal (who paid for the experiment) and momentarily got off the ground but in doing so nearly set fire to the king's house. "Fortunately the king did not take it ill". It would not be until 1783 that the first successful ballon flight would take place.

Lana never built the airship he described for several reasons. The first was that in his opinion God would never let such a dangerous innovation to succeed. His description of aerial bombing and air-borne invasion by his ship as well troop carrier are very accurate and are among the classic anticipations of modern warfare.
"....that God would surely never allow such a machine to be successful, since it would create many disturbances in the civil and political governments of mankind. Where is the man who can fail to see that no city would be proof against his surprise,as the ships at any time could be maneuvered over its public squares and houses? Fortreses, and cities could thus be destroyed, with the certainty that the aerial ship could come to no harm, as iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurled from a great height."

Lana's second reason was more personal.
"...I would willingly have (built such a ship)before publishing these my inventions, had not my vows of poverty prevented my expending 100 ducats , which sum at least would be required to satisfy so laudable a curiosity".
The sentiment of the time was enthusiasm for flying for pleasure, honor and profit and "the benefit of all mankind". "I hold it farre more honour to have been the first flying man, than to bee another Neptune" said Bishop Francis Godwin. Lana alone so much a scientist and man of his own century saw the possible destruction of civilization. It is ironic that he is at the head of the literature on the history of flight and is called the

The Father of Aeronautics







Adventures of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

José de Acosta, S.J. - 1600: Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences
François De Aguilon, S.J. - 1617: and his Six books on Optics
Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J. - 1787: and his atomic theory
Christopher Clavius, S.J. - 1612: and his Gregorian Calendar
Honoré Fabri, S.J. - 1688: and his post-calculus geometry
Francesco M. Grimaldi, S.J. - 1663: and his diffraction of light
Paul Guldin, S.J. - 1643: applications of Guldin's Rule
Maximilian Hell, S.J. - 1792: and his Mesmerizing encounters
Athanasius Kircher, S.J. - 1680: The Master of a Hundred Arts
Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J. - 1687: The Father of Aeronautics
Francis Line, S.J. - 1654: the hunted and elusive clock maker
Juan Molina, S.J. - 1829: The First Scientist of Chile
Jerôme Nadal, S.J. -1580: perspective art and composition of place
Ignace Pardies, S.J. - 1673: and his influence on Newton
Andrea Pozzo, S.J. - 1709: and his perspective geometry
Vincent Riccati, S.J. - 1775: and his hyperbolic functions
Matteo Ricci, S.J. - 1610: who brought scientific innovations to China
John Baptist Riccioli, S.J. - 167I: and his long-lived selenograph
Girolamo Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his solution to Euclid's blemish
Theorems of Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his non Euclidean Geometry
Christopher Scheiner, S.J. - 1650: sunspots and his equatorial mount
Gaspar Schott, S.J. - 1666: and the experiment at Magdeburg
Angelo Secchi, S.J. - 1878: the Father of Astrophysics
Joseph Stepling, S.J. - 1650: symbolic logic and his research academy
André Tacquet, S.J. - 1660: and his treatment of infinitesimals
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S. J. - 1955: and The Phenomenon of man
Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. - 1688: an influential Jesuit scientist in China
Juan Bautista Villalpando, S.J. - 1608: and his version of Solomon's Temple
Gregory Saint Vincent, S.J. - 1667: and his polar coordinates
Nicolas Zucchi, S.J. - 1670: the renowned telescope maker

Influence of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

The 35 lunar craters named to honor Jesuit Scientists: their location and description
Post-Pombal Portugal opinion of Pre-Pombal Jesuit Scientists: a recent conference
Seismology, The Jesuit Science. a Jesuit history of geophysics

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Jesuit history, tradition and spirituality

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