Wonderful Balloon Ascents/Part 2/Chapter 3

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Experiments in Montgolfierès—Roziers and Proust—The Duke of Chartres—The Comte d'Artois—Voyage of the Abbé Carnus to Rodez.

THE longest course travelled by Montgolfière balloons, and the highest elevation reached by them, were achieved by Roziers and Proust with the Montgolfière la Marie Antoinette, at Versailles, on the 23rd of June, 1784. Roziers himself has left us a picturesque narrative of this excursion from Versailles to Compiegne. He says:—

"The Montgolfière rose at first very gently in a diagonal line, presenting an imposing spectacle. Like a vessel which has just been precipitated from the stocks, this astonishing machine hung balanced in the air for some time, and seemed to have got beyond human control. These irregular movements intimidated a portion of the spectators, who, fearing that, should there be a fall, their lives would be in danger, scattered away with great speed from under us. After having fed my fire, I saluted the people, who answered me in the most cordial manner. I had time to remark some faces, in which there was a mixed expression of apprehension and joy. In continuing our upward progress, I perceived that an upper current of air made the Montgolfière bend, but on increasing the heat, we rose above the current. The size of objects on the earth now began perceptibly to diminish, which gave us an idea of the distance at which we were from them. It was then that we became visible to Paris and its suburbs, and so great was our elevation that many in the capital thought we were directly over their heads.

"When we had arrived among the clouds, the earth disappeared from our view. Now a thick mist would envelop us, then a clear space showed us where we were, and again we rose through a mass of snow, portions of which stuck to our gallery. Curious to know how high we could ascend, we resolved to increase our fire and raise the heat to the highest degree, by raising our grating, and holding up our fagots suspended on the ends of our forks.

"Having gained these snowy elevations, and not being able to mount higher, we wandered about for some time in regions which we felt were now visited by man for the first time. Isolated and separated entirely from nature, we perceived beneath us only enormous masses of snow, which, reflecting the sunshine, filled the firmament with a glorious light. We remained eight minutes at this elevation, 11,732 feet above the earth. This situation, however agreeable it might have been to the painter or the poet, promised little to the man of science in the way of acquiring knowledge; and so we determined, eighteen minutes after our departure, to return through the clouds to the earth. We had hardly left this snowy abyss, when the most pleasant scene succeeded the most dreary one. The broad plains appeared before our view in all their magnificence. No snow, no clouds were now to be seen, except around the horizon, where a few clouds seemed to rest on the earth. We passed in a minute from winter to spring. We saw the immeasurable earth covered with towns and villages, which at that distance appeared only so many isolated mansions surrounded with gardens. The rivers which wound about in all directions seemed no more than rills for the adornment of these mansions; the largest forests looked mere clumps or groves, and the meadows and broad fields seemed no more than garden plots. These marvellous tableaux, which no painter could render, reminded us of the fairy metamorphoses; only with this difference, that we were beholding upon a mighty scale what imagination could only picture in little. It is in such a situation that the soul rises to the loftiest height, that the thoughts are exalted and succeed each other with the greatest rapidity. Travelling at this elevation, our fire did not demand continual attention, and we could easily walk about the gallery. We were as much at peace upon our lofty balcony as we should have been upon the terrace of a mansion, enjoying all the pictures which unrolled themselves before us continually, without experiencing any of the giddiness which has disturbed so many persons. Having broken my fork in my exertions to raise the balloon, I went to obtain another one. On my way to get it, I encountered my companion, M. Proust. We ought never to have been on the same side of the balloon, for a capsize and the escape of all our hydrogen gas might have been the result. As it was, so well was the machine ballasted, that the only effect of our being on the one side made the balloon incline a little in that direction. The winds, although very considerable, caused us no uneasiness, and we only knew the swiftness of our progress through the air by the rapidity with which the villages seemed to fly away from under our feet; so that it seemed, from the tranquillity with which we moved, that we were borne along by the diurnal movement of the globe. Often we wished to descend, in order to learn what the people were crying to us. The simplicity of our arrangements enabled us to rise, to descend, to move in horizontal or oblique lines, as we pleased and as often as we considered necessary, without altogether landing."

When they came to Luzarche, the delighted aeronauts resolved to land. Already the people were testifying their pleasure at seeing them. Men came running together from all directions, while all the animals rushed away with equal precipitation, no doubt taking the balloon for some wild beast. Finding that their course would lead them straight against certain houses, the aeronauts again increased their fire, and, slightly rising, escaped the buildings that had been in their way. Shortly afterwards they safely landed forty miles from the spot from which they had started.

It was not only the man of science or the mechanician that devoted himself to the task of taking possession of the new empire, but the nobles gave their hands to the aeronauts, and humbly asked the favour of an ascent. The king had addressed letters to the Brothers Montgolfier, and the marvellous invention had become an affair of state. The princes of the blood and the nobles of the court considered it an honour to count among the number of their friends a celebrated aeronaut.

The Count d'Artois, afterwards Charles X., and the Duke de Chartres, father of Louis Philippe, made experiments in aerial navigation. The chemists Alban and Vallet made a magnificent balloon for the Count, who went up many times in it, with several persons of all ranks.

Already at St. Cloud, the Duke of Chartres, afterwards Philippe Egalité, had, on the 15th of July, 1784, made, with the Brothers Robert, an ascent which put their courage to terrible tests. The hydrogen gas balloon was oblong, sixty feet high and forty feet in diameter, and it had been constructed upon a plan supplied by Meunier. In order to obviate the use of the valve, he had placed inside the balloon a smaller globe, filled with ordinary air. This was done on the supposition that, when the balloon rose high, the hydrogen being rarefied would compress the little globe within, and press out of it a quantity of ordinary air equal to the amount of its dilation.

Wonderful Balloon Ascents, 1870 - Ascent of the Duke of Chartres.jpg

Ascent of the Duke of Chartres.

At eight o'clock, the Brothers Robert—Collin and Hullin—and the Duke of Chartres, ascended in presence of an immense multitude. The nearest ranks kneeled down to allow those behind to have a view of the departure of the balloon, which disappeared among the clouds amid the acclamations of the prostrate multitude. The machine, obedient to the stormy and contrary winds which it met, turned several times completely round. The helm, which had been fitted to the machine, and the two oars, gave such a purchase to the winds that the voyagers, already surrounded by the clouds, cut them away. But the oscillations continued, and the little globe inside not being suspended with cords, fell down in such an unfortunate manner as to close up the opening of the large balloon, by means of which provision had been made for the egress of the gas now dilated by the heat of the sun, which poured down its rays, a sudden gust having cleared the space of the clouds. It was feared that the case of the balloon would crack, and the whole thing collapse, in spite of the efforts of the aeronauts to push back the smaller balloon from the opening. Then the Duke of Chartres seized one of the flags they carried, and with the lance-head pierced the balloon in two places. A rent of about nine feet was the consequence, and the balloon began to descend with amazing rapidity. They would have fallen into a lake had they not thrown over 60 lbs. of ballast, which caused them to rise a little, and pass over to the shore, where they got safely to the earth.

The expedition lasted only a few minutes. The Duke of Chartres was rallied by his enemies, who accused him of cowardice; and Monjoie, his historian, making allusion to the combat of Ouessant, says that he had given proofs of his cowardice in the three elements—earth, air, and water.

M. Gray, professor at the seminary of Rodez, presented us some years ago with the following letter from the Abbé Carnus, upon the aerial voyage which he undertook, August 6th, 1784:—

"The progress of the Montgolfière was so sudden that one might almost have believed that it arose all inflated and furnished out of some chasm in the earth. The air was calm, the sky without clouds, the sun very strong. Our fuel and instruments were put into the gallery, my companion, M. Louchet, was at his post, and I took mine. At twenty minutes past eight the cords were loosened, we waved a farewell to the spectators, and while two cannon-shots announced our departure, we were already high above the loftiest buildings.

"To the general acclamations of the crowd succeeded a profound silence. The spectators, half in fear, half in admiration, stood motionless, with eyes fixed, and gazing eagerly at the superb machine, which rose almost vertically with rapidity and also with grandeur. Some women, and even some men, fainted away; others raised their hands to heaven; others shed tears; all grew pale at the sight of our bright fire.

"'We have quitted the earth,' said I to my companion.

"'I compliment you on the fact,' he answered; 'keep up the fire!'

"A truss of hay, steeped in spirits of wine accelerated the swiftness of our ascent. I cast my glance upon the town, which seemed to flee rapidly from under our feet. Terrestrial objects had already lost their shape and size. The burning heat which I felt at first now gave place to a temperature of the most agreeable kind, and the air which we breathed seemed to contain healthful elements unknown to dwellers on the lower earth.

"'How well I am!' I said to Louchet; 'how are you?'

"'As well as can be. Would that I could dispatch a message to the earth!'

"Immediately I threw over a roll of paper on which I had written the words, 'All well on board the City of Rodez.'

"At thirty-two minutes past eight our elevation was at least 6,000 feet above sea level. A flame from our fire, rising from eighteen to twenty feet, sent us up another 1,000 feet. It was then that our machine was seen by every spectator within a circuit of nine miles, and it appeared to be right over the heads of all of them.

"'Send us up out of sight,' said my adventurous confrère.

"I had to moderate his ardour—a larger fire would have burnt our balloon.

"From our moving observatory the most splendid view developed itself. The boundaries of the horizon were vastly extended. The capital of the Rouergue appeared to be no more than a group of stones, one of which seemed to rise to the height of two or three feet. This was no other than the superb tower of the cathedral. Fertile slopes, agreeable valleys, lofty precipices, waste lands, ancient castles perched upon frowning rocks, these form the endlessly varied spectacle which the Rouergue and the neighbouring provinces present to the view of those who traverse the surface of the earth. But how different is the scene to the aerial voyager! We could perceive only a vast country, perfectly round, and seemingly a little elevated in the middle, irregularly marked with verdure, but without inhabitants, without towns, valleys, rivers, or mountains. Living beings no longer existed for us; the forests were changed into what looked like grassy plains; the ranges of the Cantal and the Cevennes had disappeared; we looked in vain for the Mediterranean, and the Pyrenees seemed only a long series of piles of snow, connected at their bases. Our own balloon, which from Rodez appeared about the size of a marble, was the only object that for us retained its natural dimensions. What wonderful sensations then arose within us! I had often reflected upon the works of nature; their magnificence had always filled me with admiration. In this soul-stirring moment how beautiful did nature seem—how grand! With what majesty did it strike my imagination. Never did man appear to me before such an excellent being. His latest triumph over the elements recalled to my mind his other conquests of nature. My companion was animated with the same sentiments, and more than once we cried out, 'Vive Montgolfier! vive Roziers! vivent ceux qui ont du courage et de la constance!'

"In the meantime our fuel was getting near the end. In eighteen minutes we had run a distance of 12,000 feet. 'Make your observations while I attend to the fire,' said my companion to me. I examined the barometer, the thermometer, and the compass, and having sealed up a small bottle of the air at this elevation, I asked my companion to reduce the fire. We descended 1,800 feet, and at this height I filled another bottle with air.

"Afterwards we felt the refreshing breath of a slight breeze, which carried us gently toward the south-east. In six minutes we had run 18,000 feet. Then, having only sufficient fuel to enable us to choose the place of our descent, we considered whether we should not bring our aerial voyage to a termination. We had neither lake nor forest to fear, and we were secure against danger from fire, as we could detach the grating at some distance from the earth. At fifty-eight minutes past eight all our fuel was exhausted, except two bundles of straw, of four pounds each, which we reserved for our descent. The balloon came gradually down, and terrestrial objects began again to resume their proper forms and dimensions. The animals fled at the sight of our balloon, which seemed likely to crush them in its fall. Horsemen were obliged to dismount and lead their frightened horses. Terrified by such an unwonted sight, the labourers in the fields abandoned their work. We were not more than 600 feet from the earth. We threw on the two bundles of straw, but still gradually descended. The grating was then detached, and I had no difficulty in leaping to the ground. But now a most surprising and unlooked-for event happened. M. Louchet had not been able to descend at the same moment as myself, and the balloon, now free from my weight, immediately re-ascended with the speed of a bird, bearing away my companion. I followed him with my eyes, and it was to my agreeable surprise that I heard him crying to me, 'All is well; fear not!' though it was not without a species of jealousy that I saw him mounting up to the height of 1,400 or 1,500 feet. The balloon, after having run a distance of 3,600 feet in a horizontal direction, began gently to descend at four minutes past nine, at the village of Inïeres, after having travelled 42,000 feet from the point of departure. When it had touched the ground it bumped up again two or three feet. M. Louchet jumped out, and seized one of the ropes, but had much difficulty in holding the balloon in hand. He cried to the frightened peasants to come and help him. But they seemed to regard him as a dangerous magician, or as a monster, and they feared to touch the ropes lest they might be swallowed up by the balloon. Soon afterwards I came to the rescue. The balloon was in as thorough repair as when we began our journey. We then pressed out the hot air, folded up the envelope, placed it upon a small cart drawn by two oxen, and drove off with it."