Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Baron Ladislas d'Orcy, Airships, and an Obsession

The Following is from my Introduction to our Third Place Press edition of D'ORCY's AIRSHIP MANUAL, a book I've been meaning to remind the world about since we first printed it last year. Sure, you can get this as a free Google Books download, but you won't get it clean & complete, nor will you get the essays I have included in this edition:

How will history remember you?

It’s a question that runs through every person’s mind at least once in their lives. In this modern, interconnected, social-media-saturated era there’s a strong chance none of us will be forgotten by history—all our glories, mistakes, our most banal moments recorded forever. Back before the internet, before computers even, the printed word was the way to be remembered by history. Sure, there was also artwork, photography and, in the case of the early 20th century, film, but print was the medium of empires and historians. How is it then, that a man as prolific a writer & multi-faceted as Ladislas d’Orcy has fallen into the folds and margins of history?

D’Orcy’s Airship Manual began its modern life as part of a book digitization initiative in the early 1990s called Project Gutenberg. Hundreds of volunteers painstakingly typed, scanned, and collated as many works in the public domain as they could. By the time Google stepped in with its vast resources and man-power, Gutenberg had an archive of over 1.5 million titles (now part of the wonderful www.archive.org). It was through Google, that this book came across my desk. We had just started Third Place Press in late 2009, and were testing our Espresso Book Machine (‘Ginger’) with public domain titles of varying sizes and page-lengths, and one of our earliest customers ordered the Google edition of this book. The odd-shaped book bounced out of our machine and into my hands and I was spell-bound with the information inside: this exhaustive compilation of all manner of airships in existence in 1917, with commentary on their construction and materials, with dozens of schematics and photographs. A few months, and a few more printed copies later, I decided to create our own version of D’Orcy’s Airship Manual for our Rediscovery Editions. It was not simply a matter of simply printing the PDF of the book; there was much work to be done on the sizing, and all manner of marginalia and markings. I also discovered that the edition we were printing was missing pages. After some careful work I managed to ‘stitch’ together a complete edition of the book, but still there was one thing missing: a biography or even a mention of Ladislas d’Orcy.

And this is where the story truly began. It started with a book and became about a man. A man with no Wikipedia entry, and no biography to speak of. So I proceeded to do what any modern lay-researcher would do: I began scouring the internet via Google. Over time, and many sessions searching I managed to dig up a wisp of biography, and like the book itself, I’ve managed to stitch together something coherent, albeit brief.

Baron Ladislas Emile D’Orcy was born in Gratz, Austria in 1887 and raised in Paris. His barony is part of the Austro-Hungarian aristocratic families. With such privilege comes a fine education, and Ladislas was educated in Hungary and Italy, after which he traveled extensively as a young man throughout Europe, the Balkans, India and the Far East.

Sometime during this period, it seems he became fascinated with the nascent aviation field. Pre-World War I was, by all accounts, a vibrant and exciting (not to mention dangerous) time to be involved in the business of flight. D’Orcy himself was involved in many ventures, including the Henry Farman Company in the United States. In doing so, D’Orcy and his colleagues stimulated aeronautical innovation and competition in a nation woefully behind its European counterparts.

D’Orcy helped found many Aviation clubs around the world, including the most secretive and prestigious of them all, The Society of Quiet Birdmen. Aviators were a daring and small community—aviation was still looked-upon as more of a hobby by the public at large—and it seems that they thrived in their outsider nature. D’Orcy was in the middle of all this revelry and camaraderie, soaking up life to the fullest.
As a writer, D’Orcy was precise, detail-oriented, and broadly knowledgeable. He was considered an authority on lighter-than-air craft (Zeppelins, dirigibles, etc.), and wrote articles for Scientific American, Flight, L’Aero and Hydro. He was also editor of several aviation journals, including Aviation and Aircraft Journal.

The essays included in this book allow the reader to step into the mind of D’Orcy and experience his bright intellect. Super-Zeppelins is remarkable in that it is an article written in 1916,at the height of World War I, based on scant information on two downed German Zeppelins; one sunk beneath the Thames and the other destroyed off the English coast. With only eye-witness accounts, some photographs and analysis of wreckage, D’Orcy reverse-engineers these Zeppelins to astounding detail: length, payload and fuel capacity, munitions, crew-capacity and more. Here is a man moving across disciplines easily—physics, engineering, chemistry, aeronautics—to deduce, correctly the true shape of these war machines. In Mastery of the Air vs. The Control of the Sea (also written in 1916) we see D’Orcy’s capacity for military analysis, already foreseeing that a military with a strong air presence will dominate in 20th century conflicts. Moreso, he uses science and mathematics to back up his reasoning. On the Threshold of the Flying Age, and Is Transport by Air a Success? (both written in 1921), we see D’Orcy the pragmatist and businessman, discussing the evolution of the aviation industry in the United States and Europe. D’Orcy is equally optimistic and tough, demanding such visionary things as government subsidies, sound-proofed passenger cabins, and parachutes, which may sound ludicrous but at the dawn of the flying age, it was a free-for-all of safety standards and regulations.

Sadly, in my research I discovered that D’Orcy died on February 12th, 1928. It is a rather curt single sentence mentioned in Aircraft Year Book, 1928. Just the date, and that he was an editor of an Aviation Journal. That’s all.

But I know that it’s not all. There is more to uncover in this clever man’s life, and so for me it’s a journey that has only started. D’Orcy died in 1928. He missed out on seeing many of his hopes and fears for aviation realized during the horrors and necessity of World War II; he missed out on the advent of the Space Race and the moon landing. It would have been a treat to read his analysis of all of this, his inquisitive mind bringing insight to us all.

For now though, we have this book and his essays, and perhaps in the future there will be more to know about Baron Ladislas D’Orcy and the dawn of the flying age.