The French were more than a little sniffy of American claims to have pioneered aviation. France had led the world in manned flight since the first crossing of the English Channel by hot-air balloon in 1785. It was only logical that the French would be the first to fly aeroplanes. In 1898, the Aéro-Club was set up with that aim in mind.
But in December 1903, the Wright Brothers ruined it all, when the wheels of the Wright Flyer left the ground at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the first controlled flight in an aeroplane. Or so the American brothers had boasted.
The French press was having none of it. The Wright Brothers were either “flyers or liars”, read one editorial in 1906. Everything was still very much to play for as far as the Aéro-Club was concerned.
Two of its founders, Ernest Archdeacon, a lawyer of Irish descent with money to burn, and Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe, the so-called ‘oil king of Europe’, established the Grand Prix d’Aviation to spur on French aviation.
The Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize, as it became known, of 50,000 francs would be awarded to whoever could fly one kilometre in a circular course. And if it was so easy for the Wright Brothers, then surely they would travel to France and perform the feat without any problem.
But the Wright Brothers responded with open ridicule, preferring instead to concentrate on their business interests. Wilbur Wright referred to Archdeacon as “an ass”. As it happened, the brothers had achieved such a feat in 1904, and had flown 39km a year later. But the Aéro-Club wasn’t convinced and the prize still stood to be won.
And won it was on 13 January 1908. The 50,000 francs were awarded to Anglo-French pilot Henri Farman, who flew his Voisin aeroplane over the one-kilometre course in one minute 28 seconds. Feted as a hero, Henri went into business with his brother, Maurice, later founding Lignes Aériennes Farman. In 1933, the airline merged with others to become the French national flag carrier, Air France.
Also on this day
On this day in 1948, Henry Ford was granted a patent for his method of making cars with plastic bodywork. Read more here.