KREBS - SommaireKREBS - Le dirigeable La FranceKREBS - Le sous-marin Le GymnoteKREBS - Le Service Incendie de la Ville de ParisKREBS - Panhard et LevassorKREBS - Plan du site

Arthur-Constantin KREBS hand written letter




The 1870 war
The St Cyr military school
The LA FRANCE dirigible balloon

The Ville de Paris fire department
The GYMNOTE submarine
The Panhard & Levassor automobiles

To Monsieur le Général de Montluisant Château de Marsanne
(Drôme, France)
June 1924
My dear cousin, you ask me, in your kind letter dated of the 25th of May, to explain how, simple infantry officer, I had been brought to fulfil roles and perform works weakly connected with the career I entered.

This forces me to recall my souvenirs and to remember me that since the age where I started to appreciate mechanical toys, my greatest diversion consisted in repairing and fitting in good condition all those who were falling into my hands. 

Later my readings always related to books describing mechanics, with the result that at eleven, the Ganot’s Physic falling into my hands, I studied it with the greatest interest, becoming initiated to all the mysteries of the steam machine and its applications.

That particular aptitude was not without cause somewhat a detriment to my humanities, as my mind, more preoccupied with what he had learn by himself, was trying to realize them practically.

This brought me naturally to draw with precision and was, later, of great help for me. A diagram well made translates better, for others, the thinking of the author, than all descriptions or explanations that can be given, when a construction or any machine is concerned. That practice of translating my thinking into a drawing had developed in me the ability of well seeing in the space, and I remember that, in the Special Mathematics class, my teacher was always sending me to the blackboard for the mathematic descriptive drawings executions in which he was often becoming confused.

The 1870 war
In 1870, I stood for examinations of Polytechnique school, and for those of St-Cyr school. But the war occurring before orals examinations of admissibility to the “X” [other word for Polytechnique school in French] should be passed in Besançon where I was terminating my studies, I couldn’t go through them and I followed the fate of the admissibles to St-Cyr.

The St Cyr military school
After the war and the time passed at St-Cyr, I came in garrison in Brest. As officer, the navy shipyard was opened to me. I widely took advantage of it to improve my knowledge in mechanics and continue my technical studies.

My future father-in-law, infancy friend of my father, gave me books about sea steam machines and ship construction that he professed at the Génie Maritime school. 

I took benefit of them, and later, in garrison in Nantes, in 1875, I wrote the plans of a ship which was built by an industrial I met.

Gravure d'Arthur Krebs en 1884

The LA FRANCE dirigible balloon
At the end of 1876, my battalion came to Paris. Introduced by a common friend with the captain Renard, I entered in acquaintance with him and he put me in the know of his works in the Commission des Communications Aériennes and asked me to collaborate.

The Colonel Laussedat, who was in charge of that commission, make me appointed by the minister, and I had been detached to the Direction du Génie, from which the workshops of Chalais-Meudon was depending.

The dearest of my wishes was then fulfilled, but to give confidence and obtain credits, we had to succeed and promise only what we were sure to be able to realize.

Renard had yet built a captive balloon, only the mechanical part, allowing ascendings, was at the embryo state. 

I took in charge its realization, and thanks to the 1878 International Exposition of Paris, I collected rapidly all the necessary elements for the building of a steam windlass which operated to our greater satisfaction since the august month.

Experiences and demonstrations were following one another brilliantly, all safety, and allowing us to involve members of the Commission du budget, as we had to obtain credits in order to continue studies and realize projects which were the subject of the Commission des Communication Aériennes.

Gambetta and Clémenceau, went successively attend to the experiences and promised their support.

Two objectives were to carry on:
1/ study and construction of a captive balloon equipment movable in operation;
2/ study and construction of a dirigible balloon.

La voiture treuil Krebs : Manuel 1916

The first one seemed to me easy to realize. It came down to the construction of a steam windlass on wheels for the balloon manoeuvres, and to the construction of two other carriages for conveying apparatus and accessories (water and coal), and of a device on wheels as well, for the hydrogen gas production.

Renard dealt with that last question and I took the first. In order to bring to an end and rapidly these works, we was brought to put up a laboratory and to fit a mechanics workshop, provided each other with necessary tools and equipments.

As workmen we got Sapeurs from the Génie [branch of the French army], coming from the regiment of Versailles. The next year (June 1879), a first park was realized and permitted to make experiences of balloons transport and ascendings on the plateau which dominates Meudon at the south.

After these trials, the minister decided that this park will be present to the Grandes Manoeuvres which should take place in the région of Silliers-le-Guillaume (22 and 23 of September 1880).

During these maoeuvres, the information given by the balloon about operations progression, supervised by a staff officer who had been appointed to the park, was so convincing that the construction of 4 similar parks was decided and was assigned to us.

Credits allocated let us extend workshops, improve equipments and set a fabrication which was used as a prototype for the 25 captive balloons parks which was present in the various army corps and places fortes in 1914.

Cahiers de Krebs : Construction du ballon dirigeable

Meanwhile, studies and experiments for the construction of the dirigible were going on. Its realization was for us the culmination of our aspiration and was the subject of our deepest meditations.

The shape of the balloon, the layout of the gondola and the selection of the kind of energy to apply for the power supply necessary to its propulsion, was the subject of a long examination and in-depth discussions.

Le ballon dirigeable LA FRANCE : plans, croquis, photos

In that time, electric industry was increasing. The Congrès International de l’Électricité of 1881 [in Paris] just settled on the measurement units needed for the study and for the application of that new branch of energy.

Petrol engines, so common today, was not yet known. We decided to use electricity for the power supply of the balloon.

Renard dedicated himself to the research of an electricity supply able to develop under a very low weight the energy needed by a 10 hp engine during a 2 hours running.

Myself, I took in charge the engine and all mechanical devices operating the screw-propeller.

That is the reason why I was brought to study electricity when that science was expanding industrially.

Albums photo de Krebs : le dirigeable LA FRANCE

The first ascending of the La France balloon, which took place in August 9, 1884, and which was the first time an aerostat described by its own a closed curve coming back to its departure point, was the crowning of our works.

We couldn’t expect then getting an operating duration exceeding 2 hours because of the weight of engines. So it was an interesting experiment but short lived.

Indeed, 15 years had to elapse before, thanks to improvements brought by automobile to petrol engine, we could fit a balloon similar to La France with an engine enough light to allow it keeping the air during 10 hours.

KREBS dans les dictionnaires : la Grande Encyclopédie des Sciences ...
Le Service Incendie vers 1900

The Ville de Paris fire department
The dirigible experiment was over without giving the hope of doing better at short term.

That’s then the general Zédé, brother of Mr Zédé director of the Construction Navales, with whom I acquainted by my brother-in-law, proposed me to leave the Direction du Génie, where I had no future to hope, and to appoint me to the Régiment des Sapeurs-Pompiers whose action means we wanted to improve in order to bring them to the rate of abroad.

KREBS : brevet de téléphone 1888

It should be too long to detail all the works I realized during the 12 years (1885-1897) I spent in this corps.

After several travels in the United-States of America and in Europe, I was brought to make propositions : but, that time, the task was not the same. Propositions were discussed in commissions and, before execution; we had to make them prevail.

I succeeded in making them accepted and the result was to completely transform the organisation of the fire service as well as its equipment.

Albums photo de Krebs : le Gymnote

The GYMNOTE submarine
M. Gustave Zédé, former director of the Construction Navales and administrator of the Société des Forges et Chantiers, had begin, in 1885, the study of a submarine on behalf of the Navy.

This ship had to be propelled by the mean of an electric engine supplied by accumulators. All that mechanical part was still to be studied and executed. He put me in the know of his project and asked me to collaborate with him.

The hull was built in the Toulon shipyard and all the mechanical and the electrical part had to be executed in the Forges et Chantiers workshops in Le Havre.

I accepted the offer with pleasure, unless the building conditions of a 50 hp electric machine at 200 rpm presented serious difficulties.

It had, in fact, to realize entirely new devices in order to be able to arrange, in a very limited volume, machine, accumulators and manoeuvres apparatus.

On the Navy minister demand, I had been granted by the War minister to provide my support to the Navy while keeping my functions in the Régiment des Sapeurs-Pompiers.

A first experiment, consisting in propelling a Navy’s boat by the mean of a dynamo and accumulators, had firstly to be prepared to persuade the Navy minister of the feasibility of the operating.

That first experiment (1887) took place in Le Havre and fully succeeded. Works for the submarine could then start. The years 87 and 88 were employed to their execution.

The installation of the machines, previously tested in Le Havre where they gave entire satisfaction, took place in Toulon under the direction of M. Romazzotti, Navy engineer in charge of the construction of the submarine Le Gymnote.

In December 1888, I was sent in Toulon to attend to the trials. The year 1889, had been employed to fit the submarine with particular dispositions for sight improvement, and with an electric gyroscope, whose plans I provided, for the magnetic compass replacement which feel indifferent when inside a steel hull.

In December 1889 I attended again to various trials, all successful, resulting in getting a bigger ship under way, studied and built directly by the Constructions Navales.

Les navires à propulsion mécanique - encyclopédie ATLAS 1999

It was during that period I studied a portable electric motor for operating drills used on ships under construction to bore holes in the metal sheets which afterwards had to be joined by rivets.

Similarly, electric motors operating fans doing circulate the air in all parts of the ships etc.

Photo d'Arthur Krebs en 1910

The Panhard & Levassor automobiles
By 1894 appeared first motor cars powered by petrol engines.

Automotive locomotion having yet struck my imagination from the point of view of its application to the fire service, I got a small engine from the Panhard & Levassor House to well study its operating and built a small trial car whose gear changes was obtained with magnetic clutches.

I imagined that disposition to avoid brutal shocks endured by gears during changes of speed, solution which appeared to me barbaric.

Voiturette Krebs 1896

At the beginning of 1897, I showed my car achieved and operating to Mr Levassor. He was deeply struck by it and asked me to allow him putting several ones under construction in his workshops and to follow their fabrication.

Two months later, Mr Levassor was dying suddenly. His partner, Mr Panhard, transformed his association into a Société Anonyme and asked me to take its direction.

Automobile industry was beginning, his future was not doubtful and the house Panhard & Levassor was in the lead.

Encouraged by the success of my earlier works and my personal preferences, I did not hesitate to accept and to abandon the military career for entering the industry.

Albums photo de Krebs : voitures de course

Beginnings were not without difficulties. I had firstly to gain the sympathy of a technical crew very closed up and jealous of his experience.

Some improvements I introduced from now in various mechanical devices and the next year the success of the 4 cars of the House in the Paris-Amsterdam run (the cars arriving first at each stop), gained me the trust of the screw.

In 1898, I took with me, to assist me, my brother-in-law Mr Charles de Fréminville, engineer of the Arts et Manufactures, who was in charge more specifically of the administrative part of workshops, the work organization, the choice and the process of steels employed in fabrication, etc.

During my 18 years of direction, I had been highly satisfied of the devoted contribution of all my collaborators, whom I always found disposed to assist me in achieving modifications or new dispositions introduced in the mechanical devices of the cars.

Communication Acad. des sciences : le carburateur automatique 17 nov. 1902

It is useless to remind them here in detail. Those I point out willingly because they brought me great personal satisfactions are :
- the balance of engines ;
- the automatic carburettor allowing the engine speed variation and giving him a smoothness that the adjustment by all or nothing did not permit ;
- the dynamometric brake for engines testing at high rotative speed, giving the measure of the work on the shaft according to the Prony formula, retrieving about 90% of the energy generated, etc.

La Direction Panhard et Levassor en 1912

In 1916, reaching the age where the need of rest is beginning to come and where we cannot develop the same physical activity, I cancelled my functions of Director keeping those of engineer consultant.

The year before Mr de Fréminville had to leave the Panhard & Levassor House for entering to the Creusot.

KREBS dans les dictionnaires : le Larousse