Louis Blériot crosses the Channel

Musée des arts et métiers

“England is no longer an island”
Louis Blériot, 1909

The name Blériot is associated with the early days of aviation. An engineer and a shrewd businessman, Louis Blériot (1872-1936) notably brought about progress in building and experimenting on airplanes.

His first Channel crossing by air, on July 25 1909, was a great sporting and technical feat, and opened the way for the birth of the aeronautics industry.

Louis Blériot was born on July 1st 1872 to a wealthy family in Cambrai, in Northern France. After achieving stellar results at school, in 1892 he entered the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, located at the time opposite the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.

On graduating in 1895, the engineer worked for a Parisian company before founding the Établissements Louis Blériot, dedicated to the production of acetylene headlamps, widely used for automobile lighting.

Acetylene, produced by the reaction of calcium carbide to the addition of water, produces a bright white light. The generator’s small size makes it ideal for mobile applications, in the automobile industry for example, where it became widespread before being replaced by dynamos.

The financial security provided by his headlamp company enabled Louis Blériot to conduct research in the aviation field.

On discovering the work of Clément Ader and his famous airplanes, he used his company as a basis to build his first aircraft from 1901.

This airplane is one of the oldest in our collection. Despite rather unconvincing results during experimentation, it helped demonstrate the pertinence of an aircraft heavier than air flying.

“He who masters the air will master the world”. Clément Ader, 1919.

Nicknamed “the man who always falls” by the press, Blériot built ten types of airplane, fine-tuning their form and perfecting their construction.

“Blériot went through monoplanes at a frightening rate. He would always come out unharmed through some miracle and start over again.”  L’Envol, 1932.

Louis Blériot had about ten airplanes built between 1901 and 1909. As his trials progressed, he improved the construction and profile of his aircraft.

“From fall to fall, instead of sinking to the bottom of the abyss, I raised myself up – if I may express it that way – a little more each day.”  Louis Blériot.

In this case, Blériot prioritised a “tandem” arrangement with two wings. The choice of a hydroplane avoided any brutal impact caused by landing on terra firma.

Blériot was the creator of the “cloche”, the bell-shaped ancestor of the joystick used to centralise controls and which enables the aircraft’s altitude and course to be controlled.

At the start of 1909, Blériot had an operational airplane whose performances were encouraging.

The average speed of the Blériot XI was 60 km/h, its weight 340 kilograms (including fuel and pilot).

Compact and powerful, the engines designed by the Italian Alessandro Anzani were chosen to power Louis Blériot’s airplanes.

However they were still complex to use: castor oil had to be injected constantly and airmen were subjected to hot oil being forced out of the cylinders during the flight.

Responding to the challenge thrown up by the Daily Mail in 1908, he eagerly joined the first Channel crossing adventure. His direct competitor, Hubert Latham, broke down.

So the path was free for Blériot : on July 25 1909, at 4.41 a.m., he took off.

“I built the Blériot XI with all the fervour that shipwrecked sailors put into tying the boards of their raft together. This machine is everything for me and I’m asking everything of it.” Louis Blériot.

After a 37-minute flight, Louis Blériot landed on the English coast !

“Without a compass, losing sight of French soil, unable to make out English territory, I kept both my feet still so as not to move the rudder, I was afraid of drifting off course.” Louis Blériot.

“At the risk of breaking everything, I switched the ignition off at 20 metres altitude. And now it was all up to fate! The frame landed badly; the propeller was damaged. But what did it matter: I had crossed the Channel!” Louis Blériot.

As soon as he had landed, Louis Blériot posed in front of the airplane, draped in the French flag. The brutal landing had broken the landing gear.

The British capital salutes Louis Blériot’s feat before his return to France.

The Parisian crowds cheer Louis Blériot on his return to France after his feat in making the first Channel crossing.

“The great gesture had been accomplished: for the first time ever, a man flying a bird made of canvas and steel, spewing fire, like some dragon from the frightful legends of the past, crossed the sea, and, leaving the continent, landed on the other side taking the half-tamed path of the air.” Franz Reichel, L’Illustration, 1909.

After the feat of July 25, Blériot’s airplane was repaired and bought by the newspaper Le Matin, which donated it to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. A transfer ceremony was organised with great pomp and the airplane was delivered to the institution on October 13 1909.

Invitation to the transfer ceremony in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, Paris, 1909.

Official presentation of Blériot XI airplane at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, Paris.

The airplane was then put on display in the former church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs where it has since celebrated the memory of Blériot’s feat, bearing witness to the heroic days of the aviation pioneers.

Since 2000, the Blériot XI has been suspended under the vault of the former church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs alongside Breguet’s RU1 biplane and Esnault-Pelterie’s airplane.

A witness to the aeronautics industry’s transition from era of experimentation to era of industrialisation, the Blériot XI opened the way to the mass construction of airplanes, which was accelerated with the onset of World War I.

The Blériot factory continued to play a key role in this nascent industry and underlined the major role played by France in aeronautics construction.

In 2009, the Musée des Arts et Métiers celebrated the centenary of Blériot’s Channel crossing. On the occasion of a commemorative exhibition, the Blériot XI was the subject of a study and restoration campaign.

Street View of the Blériot XI in the museum.

Credits: Story

Conception — Musée des arts et métiers
Textes et sélection iconographique — Lionel Dufaux
Sources — Banque d'images - http://phototheque.arts-et-metiers.net - Conservatoire numérique des arts et métiers - http://cnum.cnam.fr
Réalisation — Julia Bource
Traduction Anglais — Rebecca Reid

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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