Jean Baptiste Marie Charles Meusnier de la Place (1754 — 1793) was a French mathematician and engineer. In 1784, less than a year after the first balloon flights, he presented a plan for a military dirigible in which the motive power would come from men turning a hand crank to operate a propeller. It would have been the world’s first airship, but the project was never built.
More than two centuries later, the BBC series “Building the Impossible” set out to recreate Meusnier’s design to find out whether it would have worked. Cameron balloons constructed the replica which was filled with helium for safety, instead of the flammable hydrogen proposed by Meusnier. The gondola had hand cranks driving a primitive propeller and a sail was fitted at the rear for steering.
A speed of about three miles per hour was achieved, although the steering sail was too small and steering was difficult. But it was clear that Meusnier’s design, at such an early time, was brilliant.