Wonderful Balloon Ascents/Part 2/Chapter 8

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Wonderful Balloon Ascents by Fulgence Marion
Part 2, Chapter 8: Green's Great Journey Across Europe.



It is probable that at the origin of navigation, man, before he had invented oars and sails, made use of trunks of trees upon which he trusted himself, leaving the rest to the winds and the currents of the water, whether these were known or unknown. There is some analogy between such rude rafts, the first discovered means of navigation on water, and balloons, the first discovered means of navigation in air. But unquestionably the advantage is with the latter. No means have yet been found of directly steering balloons, but by allowing the gas to escape the aeronaut can descend at will, and by lightening his car of part of the ballast he carries he can ascend as readily. It must also be remembered that the currents of air vary in their directions, according to their elevation, and were the aeronaut perfectly acquainted with aerial currents, he might, by raising or lowering himself, find a wind blowing in the direction in which he wished to proceed, and the last problem of aerostation would be solved. That any such knowledge can ever be acquired it is impossible to say; but this much may with safety be advanced, that distant journeys may frequently be taken with balloons for useful purposes.

One of the most remarkable excursions of this kind was that superintended by Green, in 1836, from London to Germany. This journey, 1,200 miles in length, is the longest that has been yet accomplished. Green set out from London on the 7th of November, 1836, accompanied by two friends—Monk-Mason, the historian of the journey, and a gentleman named Molland. Not knowing to what quarter of the globe he might be blown, Green provided himself with passports to all the states of Europe, and with a quantity of provisions sufficient to last him for some time, should he be driven by the wind over the sea. Shortly after mid-day the balloon rose with great grandeur, and, urged by a light breeze, floated to the south-east, over the plains of Kent. At four o'clock the voyagers sighted the sea.

"It was forty-eight minutes past four," says Monk-Mason, "that we first saw the line of waves breaking on the shores beneath us. It would have been impossible to have remained unmoved by the grandeur of the spectacle that spread out before us. Behind us were the coasts of England, with their white cliffs half lost in the coming darkness. Beneath us on both sides the ocean spread out far and wide to where the darkness closed in the scene. Opposite us a barrier of thick clouds like a wall, surmounted all along its line with projections like so many towers, bastions, and battlements, rose up from the sea as if to stop our advance. A few minutes afterwards we were in the midst of this cloudy barrier, surrounded with darkness, which the vapours of the night increased. We heard no sound. The noise of the waves breaking on the shores of England had ceased, and our position had for some time cut us off from all the sounds of earth."

In an hour the Straits of Dover were cleared, the lights of Calais shone out toward the voyagers, and the sound of the town drums rose up toward them. "Darkness was now complete," continues the writer, "and it was only by the lights, sometimes isolated, sometimes seen in masses, and showing themselves far down on the earth beneath us, that we could form a guess of the countries we traversed, or of the towns and villages which appeared before us every moment. The whole surface of the earth for many leagues round showed nothing but scattered lights, and the face of the earth seemed to rival the vault of heaven with starry fires. Every moment in the earlier part of the night before men had betaken themselves to repose, clusters of lights appeared indicating large centres of population. Those on the horizon gave us the notion of a distant conflagration. In proportion as we approached them, these masses of lights appeared to increase, and to cover a greater space, until, when right over them, they seemed to divide themselves into different parts, to stretch out in long streets, and to shine in starry quadrangles round the squares, so that we could see the exact plan of each city, given as on a small map. It would be difficult to give an idea of what sort of effect such a scene in such circumstances produces. To find oneself transported in the darkness of night, in the midst of vast solitudes of air, unknown, unperceived, in secret and in silence, exploring territories, traversing kingdoms, watching towns which come into view, and pass out of it before one can examine them in detail—these circumstances are enough in themselves to render sublime a science which, independent of these adjuncts, would be so interesting. If you add to this the uncertainty which, increasing as we went on into the night, began to assail us respecting our voyage, our ignorance of where we were, and what were the objects we were attempting to discover, you may form some idea of our singular position."

About midnight, the travellers found themselves above Liége. Situated in the midst of a thickly-peopled country, full of foundries, smelting works, and forges, this town was quite a blaze of light. The gas-lamps with which this town is so well lighted, clearly marked out for our travellers the main streets, the squares, and the public buildings. But after midnight, at which time the lamps in continental towns are mostly put out, the whole of the under world disappeared from the view of the aeronauts.

"After the turn of the night," says Mason, "the moon did not show itself, and the heavens, always more sombre when regarded from great altitudes, seemed to us to intensify the natural darkness. On the other hand, by a singular contrast, the stars shone out with unusual brilliancy, and seemed like living sparks sown upon the ebony vault that surrounded us. In fact, nothing could exceed the intensity of the night which prevailed during this part of our voyage. A black profound abyss surrounded us on all sides, and, as we attempted to penetrate into the mysterious deeps, it was with difficulty we could beat back the idea and the apprehension that we were making a passage through an immense mass of black marble, in which we were enclosed, and which, solid to within a few inches of us, appeared to open up at our approach."

Until three o'clock the voyagers were in this state. The height of the balloon, as calculated by the barometer, was 2,000 feet. They had not then anything to fear from a disastrous encounter, when all at once a sudden explosion was heard, the silk of the balloon quivered, the car received a violent shock, and seemed to be shot suddenly into the gloomy abyss. A second explosion and a third succeeded, accompanied each time by this fearful shock to the car. The travellers soon found out that, owing to the great altitude, the gas had expanded, and the rope which surrounded it, saturated with water, and frozen with the intense cold, had yielded to the pressure, in jerks which caused the report and the shock.

"From time to time," continues Mason, "vast masses of clouds covered the lower regions of the atmosphere, and spread a thick, whitish veil over the earth, intercepting our view, and leaving us for some time uncertain if this was not a continuation of the same plains covered with snow which we had already noticed. From these masses of vapour, there seemed more than once during the night to come a sound as of a great fall of water, or the contending waves of the sea; and it required all the force of our reason, joined to our knowledge—such as it was—of the direction of our route, to repress the idea that we were approaching the sea, and that, driven by the wind, we had, been carried along the coasts of the North Sea or the Baltic. As the day advanced these apprehensions disappeared. In place of the unbroken surface of the sea, we gradually made out the varied features of a cultivated country, in the midst of which flowed a majestic river, which lost itself, at both extremities, in the mist that still lay on the horizon."

This river was the Rhine, and as the neighbourhood seemed suitable for a descent, and as the travellers did not wish to be carried too far into the heart of Europe, they allowed a portion of the gas to escape, came gradually down, and dropped their anchor.

It was then half-past seven in the morning. It was only then that the inhabitants, who had hitherto held themselves aloof, watching the movements of the strangers from under the brushwood, began to assemble from all sides. A few words in German spoken from the balloon dissipated their fears, and, recovering from their mistrust, they hastened immediately to lend assistance to the aeronauts. The latter were now informed that the place they had selected for their descent was in the Duchy of Nassau. The town of Wiberg, where Blanchard had descended, after his ascent at Frankfort in 1785 was, by a singular chance, only two leagues distant. The three aeronauts received a most flattering reception, and, in memory of the event, they placed the flag which they had borne in their car during their adventurous excursion in the ducal palace, side by side with that of Blanchard.

"Thus," says Mason, "terminated an expedition which, whether we regard the extent of the journey, the length of time occupied in it, or the results which were the objects of the experiment, may justly be considered as one of the most interesting and most important ever undertaken. The best answer which one could give to those who would be disposed to criticise the employment of the peculiar means which we made use of, or to doubt their efficiency, would be to state that, after having traversed without hindrance, without either danger or difficulty, so large a portion of the European continent, we arrived at our destination still in possession of as much force as, had we wished it, might have carried us round the whole world."