One of the most inventive characters of the 18th century must surely have been Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, the Brazilian-born genius who created the earliest known flying machine he christened the Passarola, a fire-powered aircraft which he showcased to Portugal‘s king and queen in Lisbon‘s Terreiro do Paço square on the 8th of August 1709.
Born in the São Paulo district of Santos, Brazil, in December 1685, Lourenço de Gusmão registered his first invention at the tender age of twenty, a device that could lift water from a stream to a height of approximately 100 metres, meaning that large quantities of water no longer needed to be carried up to the top of a hill neither by man nor beast.
He belongs to that very rare group of brilliant individuals who stand out in history for their ingenious inventions, most notably in the field of air travel.
By 1709, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão had already joined the priesthood and embarked for Lisbon, capital of the Empire, in order to pursue his quest for knowledge.
He went on to study at Coimbra University, one of the world’s oldest academic institutions, where he devoted himself to the studies of mathematical science, astronomy, mechanics, physics, chemistry and philosophy.
It was a soap bubble rising in the hot air surrounding the flame of a candle that challenged Lourenço de Gusmão’s intellect and caused him to consider the difference between the different densities of air, bringing him to the conclusion that an object lighter than air should be able to leave the ground and fly.
Then, on the 19th of April 1709, he announced that he would present a flying machine to the royal court and Portugal’s King João V invited him over to the palace to demonstrate his invention, which he first did on the 3rd of August, but the small balloon made of paper burst into flames before it could rise in flight.
A second attempt two days later was much more successful. To the astonishment of the royal assembly, the balloon rose up into the air before palace staff promptly forced it down to earth for fear of it causing a fire.
Three days later, on the 8th of August 1709, a third test was carried out at the Casa da Índia in Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço square – today more commonly known as Praça do Comércio (indicated on the map below) – in front of King João V, Queen Maria Anna of Austria and a large gathering of other dignitaries.
This time Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão’s Passarola invention was a complete success, rising slowly from the ground and after a few minutes, after having exhausted the flame, descended into Terreiro do Paço square.
Loud was the acclaim and an account of the event written at the time described the ‘miracle’ as thus;
‘And one day, in presence of Their Majesties, and an immense crowd of spectators, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão raised himself, by means of a fire lighted in the machine, as high as the cornice of the building’.
The first lighter-than-air device had therefore been launched and the king was so impressed that he granted Lourenço de Gusmão the right to build any type of flying ships from that moment on. And for anyone who dared to intervene or copy his inventions, the penalty would be death.
The Brazilian chose to name his invention the Passarola, which means bird in Portuguese. It was filled with numerous tubes through which the wind flowed and gave it a bloated shape.
But Lourenço de Gusmão lived in very dangerous times and, despite his success and much to his chagrin, he lamented the raillery of the common people who called him a wizard.
He became terrified of the Inquisition (very active in Lisbon at the time) and took the advice of his friends to burn his manuscripts, disguise himself and flee to Toledo in neighbouring Spain, where he died on the 18th of November 1724.
Following his death, some French and English people of distinction (who had witnessed with great awe and amazement the first flight of his Passarola) made enquiries at the Carmelite monastery where Lourenço de Gusmão’s brother was living. He had preserved some of the inventor’s manuscripts relating to the construction of aerostatic machines.
Various people affirmed at the time that they were present at his experimental flights and that he had received the affectionate nickname O Voador, the Flying Man.
The conception and construction of his amazing early 18th-century airship represented the first gigantic step towards what would eventually metamorphose into the aeroplane we know today, making Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão the legitimate founder of the airship, having preceded by seventy-four years the Montgolfier Brothers’ hot-air balloon flight in 1783.