Wonderful Balloon Ascents/Part 2/Chapter 5

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In spite of their known powers of industry and perseverance, the English did not throw themselves with any great ardour into the exploration of the atmosphere. From one cause or another it is the French and the Italians that have chiefly distinguished themselves in this art. The English historian of aerostation gives some details of the first aerial voyage made in this country by the Italian, Vincent Lunardy.

The balloon was made of silk covered with a varnish of oil, and painted in alternate stripes—blue and red. It was three feet in diameter. Cords fixed upon it hung down and were attached to a hoop at the bottom, from which a gallery was suspended. This balloon had no safety-valve—its neck was the only opening by which the hydrogen gas was introduced, and by which it was allowed to escape.

In September, 1784, it was carried to the Artillery Ground and filled with gas. After being two-thirds filled, the gallery was attached with its two oars or wings, and Lunardy, accompanied by Biggin and Madame Sage, took his place; but it was found that the balloon had not sufficient lifting power to carry up the whole three, and Lunardy went up alone, with the exception of the pigeon, the cat, and the dog, that were with him.

The balloon rose to the height of about twenty feet, then followed a horizontal line, and descended. But the gallery had no sooner touched the earth than Lunardy threw over the sand that served as ballast, and mounted triumphantly, amid the applause of a considerable multitude of spectators. After a time he descended upon a common, where he left the cat nearly dead with cold, ascended, and continued his voyage. He says, in the narrative which he has left, that he descended by means of the one oar which was left to him, the other having fallen over; but, as he states that, in order to rise again, he threw over the remainder of his ballast, it is natural to believe that the descent of the balloon was caused by the loss of gas, because, if he descended by the use of the oar, he must have re-ascended when he stopped using it. He landed in the parish of Standon, where he was assisted by the peasants.

He assures us again that he came down the second time by means of the oar. He says:—"I took my oar to descend, and in from fifteen to twenty minutes I arrived at the earth after much fatigue, my strength being nearly exhausted. My chief desire was to escape a shock on reaching the earth, and fortune favoured me." The fear of a concussion seems to indicate that he descended more because of the weight of the balloon than by the action of the oar.

It appears that the only scientific instrument he had was a thermometer which fell to 29°. The drops of water which had attached themselves to the balloon were frozen.

The second aerial journey in England was undertaken by Blanchard and Sheldon. The latter, a professor of anatomy in the Royal Academy, is the first Englishman who ever went up in a balloon. This ascent was made from Chelsea on the 16th October, 1784.

The same balloon which Blanchard had used in France served him on this occasion, with the difference that the hoop which went round the middle of it, and the parasol above the car, were dispensed with. At the extremity of his car he had fitted a sort of ventilator, which he was able to move about by means of a winch. This ventilator, together

Wonderful Balloon Ascents, 1870 - Blanchard.jpg


with the wings and the helm, were to serve especially the purpose of steering at will, which he had often said was quite practicable as soon as a certain elevation had been reached.

The two aeronauts ascended, having with them a number
Wonderful Balloon Ascents, 1870 - Dr. Jeffries.jpg


of scientific and musical instruments, some refreshments, ballast, &c. Twice the ascent failed, and eventually Sheldon got out, and Blanchard went up again alone.

Blanchard says that, on this second ascent, he was carried first north-east, then east-south-east of Sunbury in Middlesex. He rose so high that he had great difficulty in breathing, the pigeon he had with him escaped, but could hardly maintain itself in the rarefied air of such an elevated region, and finding no place to rest, came back and perched on the side of the car. After a time, the cold becoming excessive, Blanchard descended until he could distinguish men on the earth, and hear their shouting. After many vicissitudes he landed upon a plain in Hampshire, about seventy-five miles from the point of departure. It was observed that, so long as he could be clearly seen, he executed none of the feats with his wings, ventilator, &c., which he had promised to exhibit.

Enthusiasm about aerial voyages was now at its climax; the most wonderful deeds were spoken of as commonplace, and the word "impossible" was erased from the language. Emboldened by his success, Blanchard one day announced in the newspapers that he would cross from England to France in a balloon—a marvellous journey, the success of which depended altogether upon the course of the wind, to the mercy of which the bold aeronaut committed himself.

A certain Dr. Jeffries offered to accompany Blanchard. On the 7th of January the sky was calm, in consequence of a strong frost during the preceding night, the wind which was very light, being from the north-north-west. The arranged meets were made above the cliffs of Dover. When the balloon rose, there were only three sacks of sand of 10 lbs. each in it. They had not been long above ground when the barometer sank from 29.7 to 27.3. Dr. Jeffries, in a letter addressed to the president of the Royal Society, describes with enthusiasm the spectacle spread out before him: the broad country lying behind Dover, sown with numerous towns and villages, formed a charming view; while the rocks on the other side, against which the waves dashed, offered a prospect that was rather trying.

They had already passed one-third of the distance across the Channel when the balloon descended for the second time, and they threw over the last of their ballast; and that not sufficing, they threw over some books, and found themselves rising again. After having got more than half way, they found to their dismay, from the rising of the barometer, that they were again descending, and the remainder of their books were thrown over. At twenty-five minutes past two o'clock they had passed three-quarters of their journey, and they perceived ahead the inviting coasts of France. But, in consequence either of the loss or the condensation of the inflammable gas, they found themselves once more descending. They then threw over their provisions, the wings of the car, and other objects. "We were obliged," says Jeffries, "to throw out the only bottle we had, which fell on the water with a loud sound, and sent up spray like smoke."

They were now near the water themselves, and certain death seemed to stare them in the face. It is said that at this critical moment Jeffries offered to throw himself into the sea, in order to save the life of his companion.

"We are lost, both of us," said he; "and if you believe that it will save you to be lightened of my weight, I am willing to sacrifice my life." This story has certainly the appearance of romance, and belief in it is not positively demanded.

One desperate resource only remained—they could detach the car and hang on themselves to the ropes of the balloon. They were preparing to carry out this idea, when they imagined they felt themselves beginning to ascend again. It was indeed so. The balloon mounted once more; they were only four miles from the coast of France, and their progress through the air was rapid. All fear was now banished. Their exciting situation, and the idea that they were the first who had ever traversed the Channel in such a manner, rendered them careless about the want of certain articles of dress which they had discarded. At three o'clock they passed over the shore half-way between Cape Blanc and Calais. Then the balloon, rising rapidly, described a great arc, and they found themselves at a greater elevation than at any part of their course. The wind increased in strength, and changed a little in its direction. Having descended to the tops of the trees of the forest of Guines, Dr. Jeffries seized a branch, and by this means arrested their advance. The valve was then opened, the gas rushed out, and the aeronauts safely reached the ground after the successful accomplishment of this daring and memorable enterprise.

A number of horsemen, who had watched the recent course of the balloon, now rode up, and gave the adventurers the most cordial reception. On the following day a splendid fête was celebrated in their honour at Calais. Blanchard was presented with the freedom of the city in a box of gold, and the municipal body purchased the balloon, with the intention of placing it in one of the churches as a memorial of this experiment, it being also resolved to erect a marble monument on the spot where the famous aeronauts landed.

Some days afterwards Blanchard was summoned before the king, who conferred upon him an annual pension of 1,200 livres. The queen, who was at play at the gambling table, placed a sum for him upon a card, and presented him with the purse which she won.