Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Ballooning, past and present

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2944221Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — Ballooning, past and present
1863George Lumley


The excitement which has prevailed in Paris for several months past on the subject of aerial navigation almost equals that raised by the successful experiments of the Montgolfiers in the latter days of Louis XVI. Then, as now, people exercised their imaginations in conceiving the marvellous results which would flow from the power of flying through the air. With provisions sufficient to last him fourteen days, a man might travel to the most distant part of the globe, without fatigue or danger; alighting where he felt disposed, and proceeding on his journey as soon as he had satisfied his curiosity or transacted his business, if he had any business to transact. The idea of making a machine capable of floating in the atmosphere is probably as old as the hills, and, for aught we know, the materials of which the topmost stories of the Tower of Babel were built may have been lifted to the clouds by some such contrivance. In the “Noctes Atticæ” of Aulus Gellius mention is made of a pigeon made of wood (unless ligno will bear some more suitable interpretation), which was filled with a subtle kind of air and floated in the atmosphere. Comic writers of old abound in allusions to methods of doing the same thing. Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, says he reached the moon by filling phials with dew, which he fastened to his body, and which, when heated by the sun, ascended upwards, carrying him with it. So far as we know for certain, the first man who actually made a balloon capable of raising him in the air was a Portuguese Jesuit named Gusmao. He was sent for to Lisbon by John V., and made an ascent from the terrace in the presence of the whole court; but his balloon struck against the cornice of the palace, and was so much torn that it came down immediately. The priests who were not Jesuits excited such an outcry against him, probably on religious grounds, that he was not allowed to renew the attempt. The discovery of hydrogen by Cavendish, and its great lightness as compared with air, suggested to a man named Cavallo, of London, that it might be used for aerial navigation, in 1782. He filled paper bags with it, but the gas escaped through the paper, and when he substituted bladders they were too heavy to be raised. In the following year the difficulty was overcome by two Frenchmen.

Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier were paper-makers at Annonay in France, and to these it occurred that by coating the inside of a linen bag with paper and filling it with heated air they would have a balloon, the specific gravity of which, with its contents, would be less than the atmosphere it displaced. To test the matter in a satisfactory way, they made a balloon thirty-five feet in diameter, of a capacity of about 22,000 cubic feet. A wooden framework was attached to the balloon, which was suspended from a pole thirty-five feet high. Below the opening a fire was lighted, and as soon as the hot air had inflated the balloon it rose to a height which was estimated to be not less than 6000 feet. On the announcement of this successful experiment reaching Paris, scientific men there thought they would eclipse the provincialists, and a M. Faujas de St. Fonds set on foot a subscription for the purpose, and the sum required was soon raised. A professor of experimental philosophy named Charles, and Robert, a mathematical instrument maker, were selected to make the apparatus. These made a balloon of varnished silk, twelve feet in diameter, with a capacity of 950 feet. A thousand pounds of iron-filings and five hundred pounds of sulphuric acid were used in producing the hydrogen to inflate this balloon, which was taken from the Place des Victoires to the Champ de Mars during the night of the 26th August, 1783. The few people who saw it were so frightened that it is said they fell on their knees, though they made no attempt to treat it so roughly as the Spanish peasants did Madame Poitevin’s balloon the other day, who, probably to avenge themselves on it for the fright it had caused them, proceeded to cut and beat it to pieces as soon as it reached the ground:—it met, however, with precisely the same fate from the peasantry in the district where it fell. The next day was fixed for the ascent, and in the presence of an immense crowd of people the cord which held it to the ground was cut on a signal being given by the firing of a mortar, and it shot up into the clouds, and was soon lost sight of. It did not travel far, however; it either burst, or the gas escaped, and it came down in a field about fifteen miles from Paris.

Several imitative experiments succeeded this, which are not worth notice; nor a second one, made by the younger Montgolfier a few days after that just described, further than to say that it was made with a balloon covered inside and outside with paper, which was larger than the one they first made, and was found capable of raising a weight of five hundred pounds. The first ascent made in which living creatures were concerned was on the 10th September, 1783. It took place at Versailles, in the presence of the king and queen; and the occupants of the wicker-basket attached to the balloon were a sheep, a cock, and a duck. Owing to some extensive rents made in it, it did not remain in the air many minutes; but when it reached the ground it was discovered that the animals were so little impressed by the novelty of the voyage that the sheep was found feeding on the hay which had been placed in the car, and the two fowls were uninjured, except a slight hurt in one of the wings of the cock.

Montgolfier’s next attempt was made with a balloon seventy feet in height and forty-six feet in diameter. It had a wicker gallery round the orifice, with openings to enable the person occupying it to keep up the fire in the brazier. The person who was bold enough to occupy this gallery was Pilatre de Rozier. On the 15th of October of the year just mentioned he took his place in the car, and was gently raised to a height of eighty feet, where he maintained his position by burning straw and wool on the fire. Four days afterwards he made a second ascent to three times the height, when the balloon was pulled down and a second person entered the car, and together they were raised to a height of nearly three hundred and fifty feet. Just one month after this successful essay, a still bolder attempt was made. The balloon was made by Montgolfier of the same flimsy materials he had used previously; and its dimensions were the same as that just mentioned. The place from which it rose was the Chateau de la Muette, belonging to the king, situated not far from Paris. Eight minutes were occupied in inflating it, and then Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes got into the car. Before the ropes were cut the balloon was dashed by the wind on one of the walks and several rents made in it, but these were soon sewn up, and the ascent began in earnest in less than two hours afterwards. This time the balloon was free to take its own course; and after mounting to a height which was computed to be about three thousand feet, they allowed it to descend at a distance from the place whence they had started of between four and five miles. The official account of this aerial trip was signed by Franklin, the Dukes of Polignac and Guines, and several dignitaries of the court.

The first scientific ascent was made by the Messrs. Charles and Robert already mentioned. The ascent was made under extremely favourable circumstances as regarded the weather, and the comfort of the voyagers was looked to by their friends in a way which might perhaps be worthy of imitation by the friends of Mr. Glaisher and Mr. Coxwell, everybody seeming to think that champagne was a particularly suitable drink for the locality to which they were about to ascend, and that they could not have too many blankets and furs. The balloon rose steadily till the light wind which was blowing caught it and carried it away in its course. As it was intended by M. Charles to make a second ascent alone, the balloon was allowed to touch the ground, when it was laid hold of by a number of peasants, and Robert got out. The Duke de Chartres, the Duke de Fitz-james, and Mr. Farrer, who had followed the balloon on horseback, rode up at the moment, and after a hasty embrace between these parties and the aeronauts, the balloon was liberated, and re-ascended with professor Charles stretched at full length in the car, his right hand holding the valve-string and a pen, and his left a watch and a sheet of paper; and in this attitude he was elevated in a few minutes to an altitude of nine thousand feet. He had with him a barometer and other scientific instruments; but his observations, though interesting at the time, have no interest for us now. He had the satisfaction of seeing the sun set twice on that day, he says. It was probably from their recollection of this ascent that the mob, when they invaded the Louvre, a few years later, refrained from entering the apartments he occupied there, or of molesting him in any way.

In 1785 Mr. Crosbie made an ascent from Dublin in a balloon and car, which are described as “beautifully painted, and the arms of Ireland emblazoned on them in superior elegance of taste.” The description of the aeronaut and his dress is worth reading. “His figure is genteel; his aerial dress consisted in a robe of oiled silk lined with white fur, his waistcoat and breeches in one, of white satin, quilted, morocco boots, and a Montero cap of leopard-skin.” The Duke of Leinster, Lord Charlemont, and other persons of note, did not think it beneath their dignity to arm themselves with white staves and regulate the proceedings. At the time this ascent was made, the Londoners were crowding to the Lyceum, in the Strand, to see a balloon exhibited there by Count Zambecarri,—who was, on a subsequent ascent at Bologna, dashed to pieces by jumping from his balloon to save himself from being first burnt along with it, like Bittorf, who was picked out of the burning embers of his car, literally a roasted mass of flesh,—and Admiral Sir Edward Vernon. The day they ascended was a cold one, and snow was falling; notwithstanding which, a Miss Grice, who happened to be passing the field near Tottenham Court Road where the balloon was stationed, entreated so earnestly to be allowed to go with them, that they consented; but the balloon was unable to ascend with such a weight, and they were therefore obliged to put the young lady out, and make their trip without her. The descent was made at Horsham, about thirty-five miles distant from London. The rage for witnessing these balloon ascensions increased so much that they became quite frequent. Immediately after that just mentioned Decker went up at Bristol, and Colonel Fitzpatrick at Oxford, and Major Money at Norwich, who was carried out to sea and very nearly drowned, the balloon, as the gas escaped, sinking lower and lower, and letting him down into the water inch by inch till it reached his shoulders, when he was rescued by a revenue cutter, after being two hours in this unpleasant situation. To obviate this peril of drowning, Mr. Blanchard and Dr. Jefferies ascended from Dover with a balloon to which a car was attached, provided with oars and a sail, and a couple of cork jackets, their intention being to cross the Channel. The ascent was made from the open space on which Queen Anne’s Pocket-pistol is placed. Guns were fired at the castle as signals to regulate the proceedings. The Channel was crossed safely, though the balloon almost touched the water once, and the descent was made in France about twelve miles beyond Calais, the voyagers having been obliged to strip themselves and the car of nearly everything to enable the balloon to ascend to a sufficient height. As a proof of the interest felt in these ascents, it may be mentioned that they took with them letters of introduction written by the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Devonshire, and other members of the nobility, to the Duke de Chartres, Count d’Artois, and others at the French Court. At Calais the commandant sat up till three o’clock in the morning waiting till they should come in from the country, and later on the same morning they received congratulatory visits from the mayor, governor, and every official of note, and were accorded all the honours it was customary to offer the king whenever he happened to visit the town.

Up to this time aeronauts had been singularly fortunate in escaping accidents, and the first to suffer was the first who ascended since Gusmao. Between the time when Pilatre de Roziere made his ascent before Marie Antoinette and the Court, and the 15th June, 1785, he had been up repeatedly. A fortnight previous to this date he dined with Lord Orford, in England, then paid a visit to Miss Dyer, a young lady of considerable fortune, to whom he was engaged to be married, after which he crossed to Boulogne for the purpose of returning thence in a balloon, which had been constructed at King Louis’s expense. The balloon he used was a double one, the upper one being small, and filled with hydrogen, and the lower one a large Montgolfier. The fire was duly kindled, and the balloon was soon darting upwards; the wind blowing so strongly at the time that the fuel, as it was placed on the brazier, was driven about among the wicker-work. An immense crowd had assembled to see him start on his voyage to England, who watched the balloon with intense interest till it was supposed to be about three-quarters of a mile high, and their horror it is hardly possible for us to conceive when they saw at this moment flames issuing from the balloon. The flimsy structure was consumed almost instantly and the car, with the two unfortunate occupants standing upright in it, was seen falling through the air. Almost as soon as the crash was heard a number of persons surrounded the fragments, and released the human beings enveloped in them. Roziere was already dead, but his companion lived for some moments afterwards; the bodies of both appearing as if they had been broken on the wheel. In the succeeding year a Mr. Heron was taken up by a balloon, which was released prematurely in consequence of a panic among the holders of the ropes, he himself clinging tightly to his, and being in consequence raised about a hundred and fifty yards from the ground, when the balloon collapsed, and he fell to the earth, and was, of course, killed. The mania for going up in balloons spread everywhere, even to Constantinople, where a Persian doctor went up in one; so much to the gratification of the “grand Signior,” that he ordered the machine to be suspended in the mosque of St. Sophia as a perpetual memorial of the wonderful achievement.

The first nation to make use of a balloon in warfare was the French, and, singularly enough, when we remember of how much use the same machine was found in ascertaining the position of the Austrians at Solferino and elsewhere, it was against the same enemy that it was first used. The occasion was when General Jourdain attacked a body of Austrians 18,000 strong, who had fortified a position on the banks of a river a few miles from Liege. The exact position of the Austrians was sketched by two engineers, who ascended over the camp in a balloon, and who hovered over it during the French attack, and reported the movements of the Austrians; so that the former avoided attacking the strongest parts of the camp, and directed their efforts against those parts where the defence was weakest. By this means they penetrated to every part of the Austrian camp, and defeated its defenders with great loss. It was made use of on several other similar occasions.

Garnerin’s ascent from Ranelagh, in 1802, was attended with as many dangers as any aeronaut’s since. The wind was so strong that it carried the balloon to Colchester, about sixty miles, in three-quarters of an hour, and on reaching the earth again it was dashed so violently against the ground that he and his companion were very much bruised. His next descent was made by means of a parachute, to the great horror of the spectators, who, from the manner in which the flimsy apparatus rolled about, fully expected he would be dashed to pieces. There was certainly more novelty and daring displayed in these early days of ballooning than now. Notwithstanding the occasional destruction of an aeronaut, through the Montgolfier taking fire (and it would be very difficult indeed for any man to imagine a more terrible end than falling from a body of flame amidst the clouds to the surface of the earth), the same Garnerin ascended from the Tivoli Gardens, at Paris, one evening, with fourteen coloured lamps hanging from the car. As it was certain he would have to let out gas, there was an imminent risk of this igniting and, by communicating with that in the balloon, blowing the whole concern to pieces. He remained in the air seven hours and a half, and suffered much from cold. He settled some moot points with respect to the alleged loss of magnetic power by the loadstone, &c., on this occasion. His next night ascent from Paris was extremely perilous, the weather being very bad, the wind blowing strongly, accompanied with heavy rain. He reached the ground, however, in safety more than 150 miles from the place whence he had set out. As will be imagined from Garnerin having ascended under such dangerous circumstances, ballooning had now lost some of its novelty; but just about this time it received a fillip from an event which came off at Paris. A M. Grandpre and one Le Pique had a dispute about an opera-dancer, which ended in a challenge to fight a duel. It is not unlikely that it was at the suggestion of the lady that they agreed to settle their difference in the air—a duel on the earth at that time being a very common-place affair, except to the parties concerned. The balloons were taken to a field adjoining the Tuileries, and everything being arranged the principals, with their seconds, took their places, the ropes were released, and in a few seconds they were floating in the air about fifty yards apart. Each was armed with a blunderbuss; and when about 1000 yards from the earth Le Pique fired at his antagonist, without inflicting any damage; the other returned the fire almost immediately, and some of the balls shattered the balloon, which at once collapsed, and the unfortunate occupants fell headlong to the ground and were dashed to a jelly. Women, from the days of Madame Blanchard to this day, seem to have been unlucky when they have ascended alone. This poor woman had several children, and it is probable that necessity compelled her to incur such dreadful risks. In one of her ascents she was caught in such a tempest of wind, hail, and rain, that the noise and cold stunned her, and she became insensible. How long she remained in this condition she did not know, but she was absent from the earth more than fourteen hours. Her end was a fearful one. She ascended one night with a number of lighted Bengal fire-pots and a quantity of fireworks. As soon as she had attained a sufficient altitude she began letting off the fireworks. These were seen flashing and darting about, when, all of a sudden, a great broad red flame leaped forth among the clouds, cries of horror rose from the spectators, and in a few minutes they were aware of the mangled body of a woman having been picked up at a short distance from where they were assembled.

Sadler and Green were both great aeronauts in their day, and made some wonderfully quick voyages, distances of from sixty to eighty miles having been repeatedly traversed by them in an hour, and the latter actually ascended from London and came down at Coblentz. But since their time balloon ascents have become so common that now a man who has been up would hardly think of mentioning it, and if Nadar has succeeded in reawakening the excitement with respect to aerial travelling, it is not so much on account of the extraordinary size of his balloon, as from the curiosity he has excited with respect to the new machine, or Aeronef, as he calls it, which is to ascend without the aid of gas, and to be navigable in any direction. M. Nadar’s Giant is certainly the largest balloon ever constructed, and probably the strongest; in point of fact it is a double balloon, one inside the other; both are made of silk of the very best quality. From the crown of the balloon to the bottom of the car is nearly 200 feet, and the greatest circumference of the balloon is about 300 feet. Its capacity is 6098 cubic metres. It is pear-shaped, as usual; but below the larger balloon is a small one, attached to the stalk, so to speak, which is placed there for the purpose of receiving the gas as it dilates in the upper part, and so preserving it, instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere as heretofore, thereby enabling the aeronaut to remain in the air apparently as long as his provisions hold out. The car is the most novel part of the machine. Its appearance is that of a fourwheeled caravan, and it is unsinkable in water. The interior is divided into six compartments. At one end is the captain’s cabin, with a berth, and beneath the berth a receptacle for luggage; at the other end the passengers’ cabin, with three berths. The other compartments are—1, larder; 2, dressing-room; 3, photographic-room; 4, printing-office; all of them well stocked with materials.

M. Nadar’s object in constructing this enormous balloon was to raise a fund sufficiently large to defray the cost of making the Aeronef, which is to give us the long-sought means of traversing the air in any direction desired. There is a design of this proposed aerial ship in his journal. “L’Aeronaute,” which represents something like an ordinary steam-engine partially enveloped in a cloud. The ascensional power of this aerial machine is derived from two screws attached to a vertical shaft, which being made to revolve by means of the engine at the foot of the shaft with great rapidity, works its way upward through the air—in the same way as a screw fixed at the bow of a vessel would drag the vessel along, which, when placed at the stern of a ship, propels it. It is not quite easy to distinguish the shape of the sails, or, to speak more technically, the blades of the screw in the engraving; we may therefore say, as the simplest way of giving an idea of their form, that they resemble half a pear hollowed out with the hollow side downward, and fixed to the shaft with an oblique inclination. Let us say that it is a fact proved by experiment with a small model invented by MM. Ponton d’Amécourt and de la Landelle, that the rapid rotation of these arms, or by whatever other name we may please to call them, will cause the machine of which they form part, to rise in the air, provided, of course, that the weight to be raised is not greater than the ascensional power derived from the rotation of the screws. Above the screws is a parachute, which is intended chiefly, it is to be presumed, as an anchor of safety in the event of an accident happening to the machinery, and also to assist in the descent. It remains folded like an umbrella when the machine is ascending, and opens when it is descending. It is fixed in such a way that the engineer shall have the power, by means of cords which connect it with the car, of inclining it in any direction, so as to steer the machine towards the point selected for landing, precisely as a hawk uses its wings when it pounces on the fugitive it seeks to make its prey. There is a horizontal screw fixed to the machine, which is intended to communicate the motion of translation, or in other words, to give the engineer power to direct the course of the aerial ship.

It is never safe to prophesy what may be accomplished by engineers when their minds are directed to the discovery of a method of effecting a particular purpose. A new engine, capable of communicating continuous and rapid motion to the shaft, may be invented which will not require a large supply of fuel to keep it in action. But this engine must be much, very much, lighter than the existing steam-engine; and even supposing this engine to be invented, there will then arise the question which, after all, settles the working of all inventions—its cost. However, M. Nadar and his friends appear convinced that the successful working of the Aeronef is beyond a doubt, and that all that is required is money sufficient for its construction.