Clément Ader

In the footsteps of the aviation pioneer

Portrait de Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

Clément Ader was born on April 2, 1841 in Muret, near Toulouse. His father, a carpenter, hoped that his only son would take over the family business. However, Ader was a gifted student, and he continued with his studies instead. He graduated from a Toulouse technical school in 1860/61, and in 1862 he joined the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi railroad company as a foreman.

This marked the beginning of his engineering career, which was fueled by an insatiable curiosity for innovation

Velocipede (Circa 1867) by Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

"A Better Performing Velocipede"

In 1867, Clement Ader visited the Exposition Universelle that was held in Paris. It was there that he discovered the velocipede of locksmith and wheelwright Pierre Michaux (1813-1883). Ader thought the vehicle was poorly designed, with its very heavy iron frame and noisy, slippery, iron-clad wheels. So, he set about developing a better performing version.

Vélocipède de Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

He replaced the solid iron frame with a soldered sheet metal frame, making it lighter.

He also designed an elliptical layout for the spokes, making them lighter but also stronger.

Roue du vélocipèdeMusée des arts et métiers

Finally, Ader added a vulcanized rubber strip (patented in 1867) around the wheel. This strip helped to improve the velocipede’s grip and allowed for a smoother ride, ultimately increasing the comfort for the cyclist.

Chemin de fer amovible - Système AderMusée des arts et métiers

“A Movable Railroad”

Ader was also interested in railroads. In 1866, he filed his first patent for a “device to remove rails,” closely followed by a patent for a “movable railroad.” A forerunner to the caterpillar track, such a device would, in Ader's mind, bring the advantages of railroad transportation without the need for costly infrastructure work.

Rails sans fin : coupure de presseMusée des arts et métiers

Despite the innovative concept of this invention, the Ader railroad was not used for industrial applications. It was only ever used for demonstration purposes or for amusement.

Electrophone de Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

The Electrophone: Transmitting your Voice over Long Distances

Insatiably curious and a jack-of-all-trades, in 1876–77, Clément Ader moved onto the challenge of transmitting one’s voice over long distances. Attentive to research taking place in England and the United States on telephony, he launched into long experiments and managed to perfect an operational device, patented in 1878.

Théâtrophone de Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

The Theatrophone: “Listen to a Theater Performance Over the Telephone!”

In 1881, he invented the "théâtrophone", a device which allowed you to broadcast a show live, and listen to it on the phone! The device was a sensation at the International Electricity Exposition, which took place that same year in Paris.

Théâtrophone : coupure de presseMusée des arts et métiers

“We went with Alice and the 2 children to the Minister of Post’s hotel. It’s very intriguing. You put 2 earpieces attached to the wall over your ears and you hear an opera performance. Change your earpieces and you'll hear the "Théâtre-Français," "Coquelin," and so on. Change again and you'll hear the "Opéra-Comique." The children were delighted and so was I.”

Victor Hugo

The "théâtrophone" attracted the attention of manufacturers from the US, the UK, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Russia, who all bought Ader’s patents. This earned him a fortune that he would use to fund his aeronautical experiments—the big project that had always excited him!

Brevet de l'avion de Clément AderOriginal Source: INPI

Inventing “an aircraft heavier than air”

Based in Paris since 1875, Ader rubbed shoulders with engineers and scholars who enabled him to make progress in his research on motorized flight, and his heavier-than-air aircraft.
He designed a structure similar to the shape of a bat.

Designing the engine was one of the most difficult issues to resolve: it had to be powerful, lightweight and take up as little space as possible. So Ader invented a 10 to 12 horsepower vertical steam engine with a tubular boiler (1,500 tubes), weighing only 37 lbs, approximately.

Lettre d'André Binet à Clément Ader by André BinetMusée des arts et métiers

The first test flights took place in the late summer of 1890. The aircraft, christened the Éole, lifted, hopped, and then took off for around 100 yards before veering off the runway. Despite this incident, the Minister of War provided financial backing for Ader's work. Engineer André Binet was one of the witnesses of flight number 3.

"The Avion III seemed to have all that was needed to fly, that is, everything needed firstly to take off, and then to be steered. Aside from the problems caused by a circular, dirt track, it was primarily the lack of a pilot who knew how to maneuver the plane after leaving the ground that was the sticking point in my opinion."

Moteur de l'avion n°2 de Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

From 1892, Ader began constructing the Avion II, which was named the Zéphyr. A workshop was specially built for him on Rue de Jasmin in the 16th arrondissement in Paris. The engine was developed quickly, with Ader reusing specific innovations that he had patented the year before.

Dessin de l'avion n°3Musée des arts et métiers

In 1887, he completed a third model by advancing the existing structure of the Avion II.

He installed a cockpit in the middle of the aircraft, behind the engine. The wings were still built in a bat-like structure, covered with several silk panels.

Moteur de l'avion n°3Musée des arts et métiers

One of the main challenges for Ader was to minimize the weight of the plane. By removing every superfluous element and using innovative materials, Ader managed to construct a “heavier-than-air” aircraft that weighed only 882 pounds—a remarkable achievement at the time!

Avion n°3, ailes repliéesMusée des arts et métiers

The aircraft trials took place on October 12, 1887 at the Satory army base in Versailles. A circular track had been carefully constructed, so that there would be no obstacles at the end of the runway.

The first trial run went well: the wheel marks on the ground had disappeared in places, proving that the plane had lifted off the ground!

Essai de l'avion n°3Musée des arts et métiers

On October 14, taking advantage of the calm weather, Ader launched the official test flight; the aircraft lifted, but it was still difficult to maneuver and a crosswind coming from the south pushed the Avion III to the edge of the runway, where it crashed.

The disappearance of the wheel marks for about 984 yards confirmed that the “heavier-than-air” machine had indeed flown.

A to R: Wheel marks can be seen on the ground
R to C: Wheel marks become intermittent
C to V: The plane did not touch the ground
V to T: Swerving off the runway
T: The plane crash
From C to T: The plane lifted off the ground for about 980 feet

Avion n°3, ailes déployées.Musée des arts et métiers

After the test flight, Ader modified the Avion III and even considered an Avion IV, with a gasoline engine. But the Minister of War decided to end his contract, and Ader had to suspend his work. The Avion III was then stored alongside the Éole in the workshop on Rue de Jasmin where Ader presented it to the leading scholars in the world of academia.

Avion n°3 dans la nef de l'église Saint-Martin-des-ChampsMusée des arts et métiers

Despite this, Ader’s hopes of finding more funding were dwindling. In 1902, he offered to donate the Éole, the engine of the Avion II, and the Avion III to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (Conservatory of Arts and Industry). Due to a lack of space, only the Avion III and the engine of the Avion II were added to the collection.

Avion n°3 à l’Exposition internationale de l’automobileMusée des arts et métiers

In December 1908, the airplane was presented at the international exposition of automobiles, bicycles, and sports at the Grand Palais.

Although Louis Espinosa, Ader’s former foreman, was in charge of supervising the moving and installation, the engineer feared that the plane would be damaged by “the jolting and jarring of the transport.”

Lettre de Clément Ader by Clément AderMusée des arts et métiers

“I Resolved to Destroy Everything”

"After the experiments at Satory, my Avion III was abandoned by General Billot, the Minister of War. Despondent and feeling completely alone in my distress, I resolved to destroy everything."

"I started to break apart and burn everything: the Éole was reduced to nothing, all the drawings and models were burned, and the Avion III was about to meet the same fate when Mr. Mascart intervened and said he wanted to put it in the Arts et Métiers (…). This plane is therefore undoubtedly the property of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers."

Carte postale de l'avion n°3Musée des arts et métiers

The Avion III is on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, near Joseph Cugnot’s "fardier à vapeur" (steam dray), another landmark in the history of transport.

It forms part of the history of technical development marked by progressively turning away from the natural driving forces in search of innovative solutions for motorization, safety, speed, and autonomy.

Clément Ader's technical masterpiece, which paved the way for the future of aviation, is now on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

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