Wonderful Balloon Ascents/Part 2/Chapter 10

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Wonderful Balloon Ascents by Fulgence Marion
Part 2, Chapter 10: The Necrology of Aeronautics.



We will conclude this second part by giving a brief notice of some of those who, in the early days of aerostation, fell martyrs to their devotion to the new cause, and sometimes victims to their own want of foresight and their inexperience.

First among these is Pilâtre des Roziers, with whose courage and ingenuity our readers are already familiar. After the passage of Blanchard from England over to France this hero, who was the first to trust himself to the wide space of the sky, resolved to undertake the return voyage from France to England—a more difficult feat, owing to the generally adverse character of the winds and currents. In vain did Roziers' friends attempt to make him understand the perils to which this enterprise must expose him; his only reply was that he had discovered a new balloon which united in itself all the necessary conditions of security, and would permit the voyager to remain an unusually long time in the air. He asked and obtained from government the sum of 40,000 livres, in order to construct his machine. It then became clear what sort of balloon he had contrived. He united in one machine the two modes previously made use of in aerostation. Underneath a balloon filled with hydrogen gas, he suspended a Montgolfière, or a balloon filled with hot air from a fire. It is difficult to understand what was his precise object in making this combination, for his ideas seem to have been confused upon the subject. It is probable that, by the addition of a Montgolfière, he wished to free himself from the necessity of having to throw over ballast when he wished to ascend and to let off this gas when he wished to descend. The fire of the Montgolfière might, he probably supposed, be so regulated as to enable him to rise or fall at will.

Wonderful Balloon Ascents, 1870 - Pilatre de Rozier.jpg

Pilatre de Roziers.

This mixed system has been justly blamed. It was simply "putting fire beside powder," said Professor Charles to Roziers; but the latter would not listen, and depended for everything on his own intrepidity and scientific skill of which he had already given so many proofs. There were, perhaps, other reasons for his unyielding obstinacy. The court that had furnished him with the funds for the construction of the balloon pressed him, and he himself was most ambitious to equal the achievement of Blanchard, who was the first to cross the Channel, on the 7th of January, 1785.

The fact was that at this time the prevailing fear in France was, that Great Britain should bear off all the honours and profits of aerostation before any of these had been won by France. It was thus that with an untried machine, and under conditions the most unfavourable for his enterprise, Roziers prepared to risk his life in this undertaking, which was equally dangerous and useless.

The double balloon was alternately inflated and emptied. While under cover it was assailed by the rats that gnawed holes in it, and when brought out of its place it was exposed to the tempests, so that the longer the experiment was delayed, the worse chance there was of getting through it successfully. At length Roziers went to Boulogne, and announced the day of his departure; but, as if by a special Providence, his attempt was delayed by unfavourable weather. For many weeks in succession the little trial balloons thrown up to show the course of the wind were driven back upon the shores of France. During all these trials the impatient Roziers continued to chafe and torment himself.

At last, on the 13th and 14th of June, 1785, the Aero-Montgolfière remained inflated, waiting a favourable moment for departure. On the 15th at four in the morning, a little pilot balloon that had been thrown up fell back on the spot from which it had been thrown free, thus showing that there was no wind. Seven hours later Roziers, accompanied by his brother Romain, one of the constructors of the balloon, appeared in the gallery. A nobleman present threw a purse of 200 louis into the car, and was preparing to follow it and join in the adventure. Roziers forbade him to enter, gently but firmly.

"The experiment is too unsafe," he said, "for me to expose to danger the life of another."

"Finally," says a narrative of the time, "the Aero-Montgolfière rose in an imposing manner. The sound of cannon signalised the departure, the voyagers saluted the crowd, who responded with loud shouts. The balloon advanced until it began to traverse the sea, and every one with eyes fixed upon the fragile machine, regarded it with fear. It had traversed upwards of a league of its journey, and had reached the height of 700 feet above sea level, when a wind from the west drove it back toward the shore, after having been twenty-seven minutes in the air.

"At this moment the crowd beneath perceived that the voyagers were showing signs of alarm. They seemed suddenly to lower the grating of the Montgolfière. But it was too late. A violet flame appeared at the top of the balloon, then spread over the whole globe, and enveloped the Montgolfière and the voyagers. "The unfortunate men were suddenly precipitated from the clouds to the earth, in front of the Tour de Croy, upwards of a league from Boulogne, and 300 feet from the sea beach.

"The dead body of Roziers was found burnt in the gallery, many of the bones being broken. His brother was still breathing, but he was not able to speak, and in a few minutes he expired."

De Maisonfort, who, against his own will, was left on the earth, was witness of this sad event. He has given the following explanation of it:—

"Some minutes after their departure the voyagers were assailed by contrary winds, which drove them back again upon the land. It is probable that then, in order to descend and seek a more favourable current of air, which would take them out again to sea, Roziers opened the valve of the gas balloon; but the cord attached to this valve was very long, it worked with difficulty, and the friction which it occasioned tore the valve. The stuff of the balloon, which had suffered much from many preliminary attempts, and from other causes, was torn to the extent of several yards, and the valve fell down inside the balloon, which at once emptied itself."

According to this narrative, there was no conflagration of the gas in the middle of the atmosphere, nor is it stated precisely whether the grating of the Montgolfière was lighted.

Maisonfort ran to the spot when the travellers fell, found them covered with the cloth of the balloon, and occupying the same positions which they had taken up on departing.

By a sad chance, that seems like irony, they were thrown down only a few paces from the monument which marks the spot where Blanchard descended. At the present day Frenchmen going to England viâ Calais do not fail to visit at the forest of Guines the monument consecrated to the expedition of Blanchard. A few paces from this monument the cicerone will point out with his finger the spot where his rivals expired.

"Such was the end of the first of aeronauts, and the most courageous of men," says a contemporaneous historian. "He died a martyr to honour and to zeal. His kindness, amiability, and modesty endeared him to all who knew him. She who was dearest to him—a young English lady, who boarded at a convent at Boulogne, and whom he had first met only a few days prior to his last ascent—could not support the news of his death. Horrible convulsions seized her and she expired, it is said, eight days after the dreadful catastrophe. Roziers died at the age of twenty-eight and a half years."

Olivari perished at Orleans on the 25th of November, 1802. He had ascended in a Montgolfière made of paper, strengthened only by some bands of cloth. His car, made of osiers, and loaded with combustible matter, was suspended below the grating; and when at a great elevation it became the prey of the flames. The aeronaut, thus deprived of his support, fell, at the distance of a league from the spot from which he had risen.

Mosment made his last ascent at Lille on the 7th of April, 1806. His balloon was made of silk, and was filled with hydrogen gas. Ten minutes after his departure he threw into the air a parachute with which he had provided himself. It is supposed that the oscillations consequent on the throwing off of the parachute were the cause of they aeronaut's fall. Some pretend that Mosment had foretold his death, and that it was caused by a willful carelessness. However this may be, the balloon continued its flight alone, and the body of the aeronaut was found partly buried in the sand of the fosse which surrounds the town.

Bittorff made a great many successful ascents. He never used any machine but the Montgolfière. At Manheim, on the 17th of July, the day of his death his balloon, which was of paper, sixteen mètres in diameter, and twenty in height, took fire in the air, and the aeronaut was thrown down upon the town. His fall was mortal.

Harris, an old officer of the English navy, together with another English aeronaut, named Graham, had made a great many ascents. He conceived the idea of constructing a balloon upon an original plan; but his alterations do not seem to have been improvements. In May, 1824, he attempted an ascent from London, which had much apparent success, but which terminated fatally. When at a great elevation, it seems, the aeronaut, wishing to descend, opened the valve. It had not been well constructed, and after being opened it would not close again. The consequent loss of gas brought the balloon down with great force. Harris lost his life with the fall; but the young lady who had accompanied him received only a trifling wound.

Sadler, a celebrated English aeronaut, who, in one of his many experiments, had crossed the Irish Channel between Dublin and Holyhead, lost his life miserably near Bolton, on the 28th of September, 1824. Deprived of his ballast, in consequence of his long sojourn in the air, and forced at last to descend, at a late hour, upon a number of high buildings, the wind drove him violently against a chimney. The force of the shock threw him out of his car, and he fell to the earth and died. His prudence and knowledge were unquestionable, and his death is to be ascribed alone to accident. It was an aerial shipwreck.

Cocking had gone up twice in Mr. Green's balloon as a simple amateur. He took it into his head to go up a third time. He wished to attempt a descent in a parachute of his own construction, which he believed was vastly superior to the ordinary one. He altered the form altogether, though that form had been proved to be satisfactory. In place of a concave surface, supporting itself on a volume of air, Cocking used an inverted cone, of an elaborate construction, which, instead of supporting him in the air, only accelerated his fall. Unhappily, Green participated in this experiment. The two made an ascent from Vauxhall, on the 27th of September, 1836, Green having suspended Cocking's wretched contrivance from the car of his balloon. Cocking held on by a rope, and at the height of from 1,000 to 1,200 feet the amateur, with his patent parachute, were thrown off from the balloon. A moment afterwards Green was soaring away safely in his machine, but Cocking was launched into eternity.

"The descent was so rapid," says one who witnessed it, "that the mean rate of the fall was not less than twenty yards a second. In less than a minute and a half the unfortunate aeronaut was thrown to the earth, and killed by the fall."

Madame Blanchard, thinking to improve upon Garnerin, who had decorated the balloon which ascended in celebration of the coronation of Napoleon I. with coloured lights, fixed fireworks instead to hers. A wire rope ten yards long was suspended to her car; at the bottom of this wire rope was suspended a broad disc of wood, around which the fireworks were ranged. These consisted of Bengal and coloured lights. On the 6th of July, 1819, there was a great fête at Tivoli, and a multitude had assembled around the balloon of Madame Blanchard. Cannon gave the signal of departure, and soon the fireworks began to show themselves. The balloon rose splendidly, to the sound of music and the shoutings of the people. A rain of gold and thousands of stars fell from the car as it ascended. A moment of calm succeeded, and then to the eyes of the spectators, still fixed on the balloon, an unexpected light appeared. This light did not come from under the balloon, where the crown of fireworks was already extinguished, but shone in the car itself. It was evident that the lady aeronaut, although now so high above the spectators, was busy about something. The light increased, then disappeared suddenly; then appeared again, and showed itself finally at the summit of the balloon, in the form of an immense jet of gas. The gas with which the balloon was inflated had taken fire, and the terrible glare which the light threw around was perceived from the boulevards, and all the Quartier Montmartre.

It was at this moment—a frightful one for those who perceived what had taken place—that a general sentiment of satisfaction and admiration among the spectators found vent in cries of "Brava! Vive Madame Blanchard!" &c. The people thought the lady was giving them an unexpected treat. Meantime, by the light of the flame, the balloon was seen gradually to descend. It disappeared when it reached the houses, like a passing meteor, or a train of fire which a blast of wind suddenly extinguishes. A number of workmen and other persons, who had perceived that some accident had taken place, ran in the direction in which the balloon appeared to descend. They arrived at a house in the Rue de Provence. On the roof of this house the balloon had fallen, and the unfortunate Madame Blanchard, thrown out of the car by the shock, was killed by her fall to the earth.

This news spread rapidly from Tivoli, where it occasioned a stupefying surprise. It was the first time that a fall of the kind had taken place from the sky at Paris. Fireworks were from this time discontinued, the fête came to an end, and a subscription was rapidly organised, producing some thousands of francs, which shortly afterwards were employed in erecting a monument to the lady, which is now to be seen in the cemetery of Père-la-Chaise.

Madame Blanchard had wished to surpass the ordinary spectacle of an aerial ascent; she had really prepared a surprise for the spectators. She had prepared and she took with her a small parachute of about two yards in diameter. After the extinction of the crown or star of fireworks, she intended to throw this little parachute loose; and as it was terminated by another supply of fireworks, it was supposed that the effect would be as beautiful as surprising.

The unhappy lady was small in stature, and very light, and unfortunately made use of a very small balloon. That of the 6th of July, 1819, was only seven mètres in diameter; and to make it ascend with the weight it carried it had to be filled to the neck with inflammable air. In quitting the earth some of this gas escaped, and rising above the balloon, formed a train like one of powder, which would certainly flash into a blaze the moment it came in contact with the fire. But on this day it was she who with her own hand fired this train. At the moment when, detaching the little parachute from her car, she took the light for the fireworks in her other hand, she crossed this train with the light and set it on fire. Then the brave woman, throwing away the parachute and the match, strove to close the mouth of the balloon, and to stifle the fire. These efforts being unavailing, Madame Blanchard was distinctly seen to sit down in her car and await her fate.

The burning of the hydrogen lasted several minutes, during which time the balloon gradually descended. Had it not been that it struck on the roof of the house Madame Blanchard would have been saved. At the moment of the shock she was heard to cry out, "À moi." These were her last words. The car, going along the roof of the house, was caught by an iron bar and overturned, and the lady was thrown head foremost upon the pavement.

When she reached the ground she immediately expired. Her head and shoulders were slightly burnt, otherwise she exhibited no marks of the fire which had destroyed the balloon.