About a century ago, a group of influence was born in France, key to the development of the French aeronautics; the National Air League. The founder was René Quinton.
The thought that from 1908 to 1914 the aeronautics developped faster in France than elsewhere in the world due to the unique and misterious “French sharpness” (the famous “Génie français”) is a big mistake. Such a phenomen is explained by different technical, economical and political causes and convergences.
The National Air League was unquestionably, a fundamental agent in the development of the aeronatics industry in France. About the league, Patrick Facon said “The League has undoubtedly become an important group of pressure in the France prior to the Grande Guerre (WWI), relaying on all sorts of opinion diffusions and its own regional departments. “
This league was led by an almost unknown personality nowadays, but who before his death in 1925, everybody knew due to his influence, his leading figure in the industry, the army, the parliament, the local governments and the ministries; Doctor René Quinton.
Dr. René Quinton was never a Doctor of Medicine. He was a Reserve Officer and was deeply into the field of literature when, before turning 30, he developped a theory based on his lectures about the marine origins of life. He submited it to professor Charles Bréguet, future Nobel Prize in Medicine and future sponsor of Louis Bréguet, who refused it but guided the author towards Etienne Jules Marey, philosopher and professor at the Collège de France. In January 1896, Marey seduced by the ideas of R. Quinton, made him his personal assistant. From that very moment, Quinton had a laboratory at his disposal to go on with his research. He discovered that the elements found in Sea Water were identical to the ones found in blood plasma. In 1904, he then invented the Quinton Serum, which was inmediately successful.
In 1908, the injections of such “marine plasma” had already saved enough lives in France and the colonies, -mostly in the dispensaries for the homeless-, to make him a famous, respected and admired man.
However, Etienne Marey was also popular for inventing the cronophotography, instant photographs taken in waves which separated the animal movement, and had made the world discover, particularly, the flapping of the wings by a bird. Marey was the forefather of the cinema as well as the aviation. That’s why he tried to figure out the misteries of flying and he collaborated with other researchers, Victor Tatin among them. It seems that René Quinton ended up infected with the virus of aviation while being in touch with them. Since the beginning of the XIX century he was deeply interested in the studies “Heavier than air” by Captain Ferdinand Feber. Fascinated as many others rather for the birds’ ability to fly for hours without flapping their wings, he dreamt of a machine that would allow men to do so, despite not having the will nor the expertise to make it himself. In 1908, this was the reason that made him fund a prize worth 10 000 French Francs to reward whoever could “hold himself up in the air for five minutes without descending lower than 50 metres”. He had to put up with mocking and laughing.
Although Quinton was not a dreamer, and so proves the explanation he had to give once; “With an aeroplane, everything changes. It doesn’t fear at all the resistance of the air, but much on the contrary, it seeks it to get support. Air is not what we think it is, an inconsistant fluid due to its transparency in which we can only hang miraculously for barely a few instants. It’s completely the opposite; it’s a high resistance carrier able to carry very dense bodies, a thousand times denser than itself. Besides being active, the winds that break through it, are important forces. Air is an amazing force reserve.”
A movement to stimulate French Aviation.
September 3, 1908, while the German aeronautics industry became a popular success thanks to the development of the Zeppeling, René Quinton together with Ernest Archdeacon (who for the last few years had been determined to defend the aeroplane and who was president to a minor aviation committee that belonged to the French Flying Club), Paul Painlevé (Minister in many different occasions and President of the Ministers cabinet), Majors Ferber, Renard and a few more, founded the National Air League “with the goal of joining financial aids to create contests and awards in which anybody following the rules set by the French Flying Club, could take part.” Quinton led this League and informed Louis Barthou, (Minister of Civil Works, Telegraph and Postal Mail) on November 18, 1908. The purpose was to encourage and sponsor any aeronautic research through awards, competitions and contests, and also to create something more than a favorable pressure group, a true Foundation. From the very beginning, the League seduced a number of celebrities, Deutsch de La Meurthe (the wealthy Oil dealer), a few aeroplane builders among whom were some very successful men as: Henri Farman, Louis Blériot, powerful Industrial engineers, as the Marquis of Dion, Edouard Michelin or Lazare Weiller, High Commanders, Scientists of the Academy, researchers as Victor Tatin and Politicians.
According to Quinton, the League had the purpose of unifying the whole Air movement in France so that “our country, the true motherland of air locomotion, will have the glory of perfecting this great discovery of the Conquest of the Air, a dream to all men for centuries. The National Air League asks to all the French population who are concerned about the interest and the glory of our country, to become part of it. The German League has a million members who have sponsored half of the German fleet. With the aim of having as many members as possible, the annual fee per person is set to a very low price: 5 French Francs. The most pesimistic calculations are 50.000 members paying 5FF each; which means that the League will have 250.000FF that will be used to create contests and prizes.”
In the League’s executive board, Quinton was very careful not to mention anybody susceptible to work for personal interests. Besides this, he also organized this association with an outstanding technical committee whose main task was to determine the axes that needed to be confronted firstly, with a military commission whose rol was similar but a lot more discreet, in order to define both the Air Force as the doctrine to use it, which at the time wasn’t evident at all.
From that moment on, René Quinton and the National Air League were the most efficient agents of the French aeronautical industry in general. In the XXI century, René Quinton would have been taken for an example of publicist or lobbyist. He never wasted a single minute. On October 15, 1908, the first number of the Air Magazine was published, the main League’s media in which Archdeacon signed an article with the title: “Yes, we shall fly.” The subscriptions came in by thousands in just a few weeks. However, encouraging public opinion was not enough, the fundamental was to convince the political power. So was the explanation given by Mr. Quinton a few months later. Through the two Chambers of Parliament, the League finally obtained aeronautical commissions that would provide a first budget of 100.000 FF and another one of 1M.
Aerodromes, Aviation fornights, a flying academy…
Meanwhile, Quinton had written letters to every school headmaster asking them to join their schools to the League and specially, all the Mayors from every big city, with the purpose of stimulating the making of aerodromes and Flying exhibitions. At the same time as he did this, he also created very active subsidiary regional branches and collected important donations from companies and private accounts, to sponsor the competitions and prizes showing their names. The league inspired this way, the construction of Port Aviation, the aerodrome known as “Juvisy” in the South of Paris, the Pau aerodrome where the Wrights decided to settle down, and Aviation fornights in Caen and Rouen among other cities. The League would also take part in the well-known “Great weeks of Champagne” in 1909 and 1910, or the organization of great competitions as the Pommery Cup, the East Circuit, the Paris-Cairo race, etc.
They also created the first Flying Academy in 1908 with the hope of training instructors who could then train other future pilots. The first instructor, more devoted to the theory than to the practice, would be Ferdinand Ferber. His first airplane would later be a biplane called Alsace (a real symbol).
There is no doubt that the multiplying of the Air event celebrations between 1908 and 1913, were the result of the actions of René Quinton, and the popular enthusiasm for aviators, was at least, due to the implication of his League for the glory of France.
More discreetly than on aerodromes terraces, the League also pondered about many topics as for example; the runway lighting with pannels on solid ground, the safety of the airplanes and the pilots, the armament of the planes (from 1910), the instructing of the youngsters through tiny model planes, etc. Countless topics with an occasional naïve or premature approach, in an amergency of some sort.
But, this industry was lacking clients or organizations to guide it. The League kept trying to play that role. It was much more than a reflection club. In a way, they tried to achieve the tasks that only 8 years later would be covered by a superior administrative authority; an Air Ministery.
Failures and blunders were inevitable. Quinton’s will and his League, crashed against the tecnique that took ages to materialize their wishes and their dreams. The more they progressed, the more trouble they made. The National Air League was hopeless against the quarrels between the different Army Forces who worsened the crisis which, starting in 1911, devastated a French aviation unable to fulfill the over-ambitious and badly-defined wishes. Nevertheless, René Quinton remained an incorruptible reference in a perturbed aeronautical world.
Back to his first love, Free Flying.
Quinton didn’t have the enthusiasm of the excessive flatterers of the airplanes and the pilots, who jubilated for every new great deed. He didn’t get too excited about every new record constantly beaten, he knew perfectly the weaknesses of the existing materials, although he had faith in progress. During the Great Week of Champagne he said these words: “The ideas are going to compete, the ideas are going to fight, not the brands.” He defended a cause without taking into account his own morality.
When the war started in 1914, he was 46 years old. Although he had no military obligations, he enrolled the artillery “An officer as fearless as it could be.” He was wounded seven times and seven times decorated. He came out of the conflict as a Colonel, glorious but weakened, wishing to never have a male child who would never have to go through the hell he had known.
Aviation had greatly evolved. The League became an aeronautical propaganda association. René Quinton went back to his first love: Free Flying. The family files that are coming out, prove that he was first to free-fly in France, the contest in Combegrasse in 1922, but specially Lieutenant Thoret’s deeds in pending flights in Biskra in a Henriot 14 (Fana de l´aviation #394) were Quinton’s prerogatives and therefore it was him who promoted Mountain Flying to which Thoret was the first instructor in France.
What René Quinton had always believed possible unlike the rest of the world, had become a reality. His prize, created in 1908 and retaken after the war, finally had a winner.
Quinton died prematurely of an angina in 1925. He was wearing his soldier uniform shirt and was at the summit of his fame of an amplitude hard to imagine nowadays. Just a few days earlier he had held a long conversation about aviation and defence with a few close friends among who was Édouard Michelin. He would call them on the phone a bit later to say farewell.