Wonderful Balloon Ascents/Part 2/Chapter 9

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Wonderful Balloon Ascents by Fulgence Marion
Part 2, Chapter 9: The "Géant" Balloon.



Not a few of our readers will remember the ascent of Nadar's colossal balloon from Paris, on Sunday, the 18th of October, 1863. This balloon was remarkable as having attached to it a regular two-story house for a car. Its ascent was witnessed by nearly half a million of persons. The balloon, after passing over the eastern part of France, Belgium, and Holland, suffered a disastrous descent in Hanover the day after it started on its perilous journey. It was a fool-hardy enterprise to construct such a gigantic and unmanageable balloon, presenting such an immense surface to the atmosphere, and being so susceptible to adverse aerial currents as to become the helpless prey of the elements; and it was still more fool-hardy to place the lives of its passengers at the mercy of such terrible and ungovernable forces. A large section of the public laboured under the delusion that Nadar's balloon was one capable of being steered. In reality, however, the 'Géant' was unquestionably the most rebellious and unruly specimen of its class that has been made since the days of Montgolfier. The object in view when this formidable monster was designed and constructed was to create the means to collect sufficient funds to form a "Free Association for Aerial Navigation by means of Machines heavier than Air," and for the construction of machines on this principle. The receipts from the exhibition of the "Géant" were intended to form the first capital of the association. The hopes, however, of the promoters have not been realised in this respect; for while the expenses of the construction of the balloon have amounted, directly and indirectly, to the sum of £8,300, its two ascents in Paris and its exhibition in London produced only £3,300.

Space forbids us to enter at length on the various stages of the idea of aerial navigation by means of an apparatus heavier than the atmosphere. The idea is not, however, by any means so absurd as it appears at first sight. Those who, like Arago, declare that the word "impossible" does not exist, except in the higher mathematics, and those who look hopefully to the future instead of resting content with the past, will join in applauding the spirit which dictated the manifesto of aerial locomotion to the founder of the association which we are about to describe. M. Babinet, speaking on this subject before the French Polytechnic Association, said: "It is absurd to talk of guiding balloons. How will you set about it? How is it possible that a balloon—say, for instance, like the Flesselles, whose diameter measures 120 feet—can resist and manoeuvre against opposing winds or currents of air? It would require a power equal to 400 horses for the sails of a ship to struggle on equal terms with the wind. Suppose an impossibility, namely, that a balloon could carry with it a force equal to 400 horse-power; this result would be of little use, for under the immense weight the fragile covering of the balloon would instantly collapse. If all the horses of a regiment were harnessed to the car of a balloon by means of a long rope, the result would be that the balloon would fly into shivers, being too fragile to withstand these two opposing forces. Man must seek to raise himself in the air by another mode of operation altogether, if he wish to guide himself at the same time. Some time ago I bought a play thing, very much in vogue at that time, called a Stropheor. This toy was composed of a small rotating screw propeller, which revolved on its own support when the piece of string wound round it was pulled sharply. The screw was rather heavy, weighing nearly a quarter of a pound, and the wings were of tin, very broad and thick. This machine, however, was rather too eccentric for parlour use, for its flight was so violent that it was continually breaking the pier glass, if there was one in the room; and, failing this, it next attacked the windows. The ascending force of this machine is so great that I have seen one of them fly over Antwerp Cathedral, which is one of the highest edifices in the world. The air from underneath the machine is exhausted by the action of the screw, which, passing under the wings, causes a vacuum, while the air above it replenishes and fills this void, and under the influence of these two causes the apparatus mounts from the earth. But the problem is not solved by means of this plaything, whose motive power is exterior to it. Messrs. Nadar, Ponton, D'Amécourt, and De la Landelle teach us better than this, although the wings of their different models are entirely unworthy of men who desire to demonstrate a truth to short-lived mortals. We have only arrived as yet at the infancy of the process, but we have made a good beginning, for, having once proved that a machine capable of raising itself in the air, wholly unaided from without, can be made, we have overcome with this apparently small result the whole difficulty. The principle of propulsion by means of a screw is by no means a novelty. It was first utilised in windmills, whose sails are nothing more nor less than an immense screw which is turned by the action of the wind on its surface. In the case of turbine water-wheels, where perhaps 970 cubic feet of water are utilised by means of a mechanism not larger than a hat, we see another illustration of it, with this difference, that water takes the place of wind as the motive power.

"The aerial screw is beset with great difficulties, but if we can succeed through its agency in raising even the smallest weight, we may be confident of being able to raise a heavier one, for a large machine is always more powerful in proportion to its size than a small one.

"Mdlle. Garnerin once made a bet that she would guide herself in her descent from a considerable altitude towards a fixed spot on the earth at some distance, with no other help than the parachute; and she was really able to guide herself to within a few feet of the specified spot, by simply altering the inclination of the parachute.

"From observations in mountainous districts, where large birds of prey may be seen to the best advantage hovering with outstretched wings, I have come to the conclusion that they first of all attain the requisite height and then, extending their wings in the form of a parachute, let themselves glide gradually towards the desired spot. Marshal Niel confirms this opinion by his experience in the mountains of Algeria. It is, therefore, clear from these examples that we should possess the power of transporting ourselves from place to place if we could only discover a means of raising a weight perpendicularly in the air, which would then act as a capital of power, only requiring to be expended at will."

From the foregoing remarks we may gather an idea of the importance which may be attached to aerial locomotion notwithstanding the successive failures of all those who have hitherto taken up the subject. We come now to the description of the memorable ascent of the "Géant." We learn from the very interesting account of the "Géant," published at the time, all the mishaps and adventures it outlived from the time of the first stitch in its covering to its final inflation with gas. We must, however, be content to take up the narrative at the point at which the "Géant," with thirteen passengers on board, had, in obedience to the order to "let go," been released from the bonds which held it to the earth. The narrative is, as our readers will perceive, written in somewhat exaggerated language:—

"The "Géant" gave an almost imperceptible shake on finding itself free, and then commenced to rise. The ascent was slow and gradual at first—the monster seemed to be feeling its way. An immense shout rose with it from the assembled multitude. We ascended grandly, whilst the deafening clamour of two hundred thousand voices seemed to increase. We leant over the edge of the car, and gazed at the thousands of faces which were turned towards us from every point of the vast plain, in every conceivable angle of which we were the common apex. We still ascended. The summits of the double row of trees which surround the Champ de Mars were already under us. . . . . We reached the level of the cupola of the Military School. The tremendous uproar still reached us. . . . . We glided over Paris in an easterly direction, at the height of about six hundred feet. Every one took up the best possible position on the six light cane stools, and on the two long bunks at either end of the car, and contemplated the marvellous panorama spread out under us, of which we never grew weary.

"There is never any dizziness in a balloon, as is often erroneously supposed, for in it you are the only point in space without any possibility of comparison with another, and therefore the means of becoming giddy are not at hand." A very experienced aeronaut, who numbers his ascents by hundreds, has assured me that he never knew of a single case of dizziness.

"The earth seems to unfold itself to our view like an immense and variegated map, the predominant colour of which is green in all its shades and tints. The irregular division of the country into fields made it resemble a patchwork counterpane. The size of the houses, churches, fortresses, was so considerably diminished as to make them resemble nothing so much as those playthings manufactured at Carlsruhe. This was the effect produced by a microscopic train, which whistled very faintly to attract our attention, and which seemed to creep along at a snail's pace, though doubtless going at the rate of thirty miles an hour, and was enveloped in a minute cloud of smoke. What a lasting impression this microscopic neatness makes on us! What is that white puff I see down there? the smoke of a cigar? No: it is a cloud of mist. It must be a perfect plain that we are looking at, for we cannot distinguish between the different altitudes of a bramble-bush and an oak a hundred years old!

"It is one of the delights of an aeronaut to gaze on the familiar scenes of earth from the immense height of the car of a balloon! What earthly pleasure can compare with this! Free, calm, silent, roving through this immense and hospitable space, where no human form can harm me, I despise every evil power; I can feel the pleasure of existence for the first time, for I am in full possession, as on no other occasion, of perfect health of mind and body. The aeronauts of the 'Géant' will scarcely condescend to pity those miserable mortals whom they can only faintly recognise by their gigantic works, which appear to them not more dignified than ant-hills! "The sun had already set behind the purple horizon in our rear. The atmosphere was still quite clear round the 'Géant,' although there was a thick haze underneath, through which we could occasionally see lights glimmering from the earth. We had attained a sufficient altitude to be only just able to hear noises from villages that we left beneath us, and were beginning to enjoy the delicious calm and repose peculiar to aerial ascents.

"There is, however, a talk about dinner, or rather supper, and night is now fast approaching. Every one eats with the best possible appetite. Hams, fowls and dessert only appear to disappear with an equal promptitude, and we quench our thirst with bordeaux and champagne. I remind our companions of the pigeons we brought with us, and which are hanging in a cage outside the railing. I knew there was no danger of their flying away, so fearlessly opened the cage. The three or four birds I had put in the car seemed struck with terror. They flew awkwardly towards the centre of our party, tumbling among the plates and dishes and under our feet. It was not a case of hunger with them, and I ought to have remembered that their feeding time was long since past. I replaced them in their cage.

"Meanwhile, the sun has left us for some time. Our longing gaze followed it behind the dark clouds in the horizon, whose edges it tipped with a glorious purple. Its last rays shone on us, and then came a bluish-grey twilight. Suddenly we are enveloped in a dense fog. We look around, above us. Everything has disappeared in the mist. The balloon itself is no longer visible. We can see nothing except the ropes which suspend us, and these are only visible for a few feet above our heads, when they lose themselves in the fog. We are alone with our wickerwork house in an unfathomable vault.

"We still ascend, however, through the compact and terrible fog, which is so solid-looking as to seem capable of being carved into forms with a knife. As we were without a moon, and had no light at all, in fact, we were unable to distinguish nicely the different shades of colour in these thick clouds. Now and then, when the clouds seemed to be lighter, they had a bluish tinge; but the thicker ones were dirty and muddy-looking. Dante must have seen some like these.

"Water trickled down our faces, hands, and clothes, and the ropes and sides of our car.

"The water did not fall in rain-drops or in flakes, as it sometimes does in the tropics; but we were as completely saturated by this heavy, penetrating mist as if we had been under a waterfall. We still continued to traverse these rainy regions. The thick fog which the balloon dislodged in forcing a passage closed immediately after it. At one moment I thought I felt something press against my cheek, which could only be compared to the points of a thousand needles, or to floating particles of ice. We were all of us too much absorbed with our situation to think of the hour or of the height to which we had attained. Suddenly the Prince of Wittgenstein, who was standing at my left hand, cried out under his breath—

"'Look at the balloon, sir! look at the balloon!'

"I raised my eyes, in company with several others, and shall never forget the magnificent sight which awaited them. I saw the balloon, for which I had been searching in vain a few minutes before. It had undergone a transformation. It looked now as if coated with silver, and floating in a pale phosphorescent glimmer. All the ropes and cords seemed to be of new, bright, and liquid silver, like mercury, caused by the mist which had rested on them becoming suddenly congealed. Two luminous arcs intervened between us, in a sea of mother-of-pearl and opal, the lower one being the colour of red ochre and the upper one orange. Both of them, blinding in their brilliancy, seemed about to embrace one another.

"'How far are they off?' thought I to myself. 'Can I touch them with my hand, or are they separated from me by an immense space?' We are not capable of forming ideas of perspective, floating as we are in the midst of such a glimmering splendour.

"Above and around us are nothing but thick fogs and enormous black clouds, whose ragged edges and backs are relieved by a pale silver coating. They undulate ceaselessly to and fro, and either usurp quietly the place of others, or disappear only to be superseded by more formidable ones. But the last ray of reflected light has died out, and we plunge into this chaos of dreadful forms. Monsters seem to wish to approach us, and to envelop us in their dark embraces. One of them, on my right hand, looks like a deformed human arm in a menacing attitude, writhing its jagged top like a blind serpent feeling its way. The vague monster has disappeared; but the momentary splendour being followed by the original gloom, we plunge once more into a darkness that can be felt.

"The water which had collected on the balloon during its ascent now began to take effect, and caused it to descend with such rapidity into the dark abyss that the ballast, which was immediately thrown overboard, was overtaken in its descent and fell on our heads again. "I hear exclamations and voices near me. My companions are evidently agitated, and with good reason, too; for the lights which we could see a long way below us approach with terrible rapidity. We reached the earth rather quicker than we left it.

"Suddenly we feel a dreadful shock, followed by ominous crackings. The car has grounded. The 'Géant' has made its descent. But in what part of the habitable globe, and under what zone? At Meaux!"

To employ an expression of M. Nadar's it seems that these gentlemen never before experienced such a "knock-down blow."

After all these preparations, all this trouble, all the energy employed in the undertaking—sufficient, indeed, wherewith to attempt to cross the Atlantic—to "descend at Meaux!"

The 'Géant,' however, had its revenge. Its second ascent gave it this revenge. We shall be as brief as possible in relating this voyage; but the details are all so very interesting that we regret extremely our being unable to give more than extracts from the narrative.

Our travellers committed themselves again to the mercy of the air. The Emperor, following the example of a former King of France, took considerable interest in the construction of this aerial monster, and wished the aeronaut "Bon voyage" at starting. The passengers endeavoured to pass the night as comfortably as possible, having first instituted a four hours' watch, as on board ship.

The aerial vessel glided rapidly through the air. "We repeatedly," said Nadar, "passed over some manufacturing centre, whose lights were not yet extinguished. I either hailed them with my speaking-trumpet or rang our two bells. Sometimes we received a reply from below, in the shape of a shout, for, although we still had no moon, the night was occasionally clear enough for people to distinguish us; and sometimes we heard a peal of laughter from out of the atmosphere in which we were travelling. . . . . It was another party of aeronauts in a smaller balloon, who left at the same time as we did, and who would persist in keeping the 'Géant' company. We are passing over a small town; we hear the usual shouting and the report of a gun. Our first thoughts are—Was it loaded with shot or ball? The inhuman brute who fired will say, 'Certainly not;' but as balloons have often been damaged in this way, we may be confident there was more than powder in this one. It would be satisfactory, at any rate, if the name of the person could be ascertained who favoured us with this welcome. But it is rather late to make inquiries on this subject. It was between a quarter and half-past nine o'clock when this occurred. 'The sea!' cried Jules; 'look at the revolving lights of the lighthouses. There: one has just disappeared: it will flash out again in a moment!' But what is this? Before us, as far as our eyes can reach, we distinguish faint lights, which in this case are neither lamps nor torches. As we continue to draw nearer we get a better view of these numerous, violent, and smoking furnaces. Loud and ringing sounds strike on our ear at the same time. Am I right in my conjectures? Is this not that splendid country I love more than ever now? It must be Erquelines! And the dignified Custom-house official, had it been possible, would have added thereto 'Belgium!'

"We still continue to pass over fires, forges, tall chimneys, and coal mines at frequent intervals. Not long after we distinguish a large town on our right hand, which, by its size and brilliant lighting by gas, we recognise as Brussels. There could be no mistake, for close by, more modest in size and appearance, we see Catholic Malines. We have left it behind us.

"Onward! Onward! Behind us the fires fade gradually away, and disappear one after another. Before us nothing at present visible. We seemed to drift on for about one hundred or one hundred and fifty yards more. We cannot distinguish a single point in front of us on which to fix our gaze. But we still continue our course in silence.

"This mournful darkness, this endless shroud, in which we can discover neither rent nor spangle, still continues. Where are we? Over what strange country, possessing neither cities, towns, nor villages, are we hovering in the tomb-like silence of this interminable darkness? We seem, indeed, to have been carried by a puff of wind towards the west.

"But something seems to approach us. What are those pale rays of light which we can faintly see a long, long way before us—rays pale and soft, quite unlike those flaming fires we have left behind us? Surely these do not denote the presence of human activity! As we continue to advance, these pale flakes of light—resembling nothing so much in appearance as molten lead—which at first were scanty and isolated, gradually expand, and leave only narrow strips of darkness to divide them into fantastic shapes. By their help we discovered we were passing over the immense marshes of Holland, which extended to and lost themselves in the hazy horizon. On our right hand we hear a deep moan, still distant, but rapidly approaching every moment. It is undoubtedly the rushing of the wind. A fresh breeze for five minutes would bring us to the sea. "But now the dawn is breaking. We can almost distinguish each other's features on the platform of the car, and still continue to advance in the direction of the light, which gets clearer and clearer every minute. Large, blood-red streaks appear on the sky in front of us; then follow those of a yellowish or orange tint, which naturally combine and harmonise with the darker shades of green and red. Behind them the sun is preparing to disperse in a moment its forerunners of light. Suddenly, as with a burst of joy, a flash of light darts through the azure vault. It is the signal, re-echoed from the most distant horizons, of the ushering in of day in all its splendours. . . . We glide now over an infinite panorama of plains, woods, towns, lakes, and rivers. A most entrancing sight is spread out for the eye to feast on. The fields are resplendent with a soft pale green, only seen in the early morning. Fairy wreaths of smoke curl upwards from brick chimneys, showing that already breakfast is being prepared. Flocks, herds, houses—in fact, everything visible in its microscopic state of neatness and regularity—seem to smile, or rather to rejoice, under the benign influence of the sun's rays."

We should never reach the end of our tale if we followed step by step the adventures of the strange and colossal traveller. Suffice it, then, to say that the drama soon became more exciting, for this immense inflated monster, which held the lives of nine passengers in its claws, threatened to burst its fragile covering. The safety-valve is hastily opened, and, unheedful of the ballast, the gas is allowed to escape. The balloon immediately falls, and its descent is so rapid as to cause the hair of the passengers' heads to stand on end, and the wind to whistle in their ears.

The narrator of this voyage says, respecting this moment:—"We continued our furious course. It was not a descent, but a fall. The earth approached with a frightful rapidity. About thirty yards yet separate us from it. In two or three seconds we shall touch! Below we see the trees bent with the force of the wind. Why did not our conductor seize this moment, for which he ought to have been prepared, to throw overboard some of the ballast, of which I am confident twenty sacks remained, and thus in an instant check our precipitous descent, and allow us time to reconnoitre the ground underneath, and see if the wind was favourable? Who is it that's in such a hurry to descend in this manner? Why? But there is no time to speak a word, or one second to lose! I hastily draw my wife with me into a corner of the platform, and placing her hands on two of the suspending ropes, I put my arm round her, and hold on to them myself and wait. The wind blew with such terrific violence near the surface of the earth that our fall, notwithstanding the impetus we had acquired, although not stopped was diverted, our diagonal course becoming more oblique and then horizontal. Most fervent prayers were offered up from every heart during our descent.

"'Hold on—hold on! Ah!'

"Such was the force of the shock that every one's hands were strained and forced to let go their hold, and many were thrown on their heads. The balloon rebounded with an immense spring. The platform of the car was in a dreadful state of confusion, but every one hastened to take his place again, well knowing that it was the only chance of safety.

"'Look out—hold on!'

"Villages and fields fled past us with lightning speed. "We experienced another shock not less formidable than the first. The 'Géant' is trembling from its effects. The cable of our first anchor has just broken like a piece of thread. We could not hope for a better result. The violence of the wind which is carrying us along seems to be redoubled. A bump; another and another—then shock after shock.

"'The second anchor is lost,' cries Jules; 'we are all dead men!'

"This truth is too palpable to all of us to require expressing in so many words, for we are just commencing that furious, tearing course called 'trailing.'

"Our swift pace was considerably accelerated by the lower part of the balloon, which—limp, empty, and forming nearly a third of the whole—had been set free at the first shock, and flapped against the distended part, acting as a sail. The shocks continued to multiply so fast that it was impossible to count them. The car continued to rebound from these shocks to the height of five, ten, sometimes thirty, forty, and even fifty feet, for all the world like an india-rubber ball from the hands of an indefatigable player. Unfortunately, all our human freight, terror stricken and without advice, had crowded into one side of the car; and as this happened to be the side on which we invariably bumped, we experienced all the worst effects of the joltings.

"What a dizzy whirl! What a succession of breathless shocks! What a strain on both muscles and nerves! By the least negligence or slip, or by the loss of presence of mind for one moment, we should have been thrown out and dashed to atoms.

"Every collision tries our muscles and strains our wrists or our shoulders; and every rebound dashes us one against the other, constituting each individual a tormentor
Wonderful Balloon Ascents, 1870 - The Wreck of the Géant.jpg


and victim at the same time. Our flight is so rapid that we can only distinguish an occasional glimpse of anything. Far, far in the distance we distinguish an isolated tree. We approach it like lightning, and we break it as though it were a straw.

"Two terrified horses, with manes and tails erect, endeavour to fly from us. But we consume distances; we leave them behind immediately. We skip over a flock of affrighted sheep in one of our bounds. But now comes the real danger.

"At this moment, when we were perfectly benumbed with fear, and had lost all power of articulation, we saw a locomotive, drawing two carriages, running along an embankment at right angles to our course. A few more revolutions of the wheels, and it will be all over with us, for we seem to be fated to meet with geometrical precision at one spot!

"What will happen?

"Travelling at our present hurricane pace, we shall undoubtedly lift up and overturn the machine and what it is drawing. But shall we not be crushed ourselves? A few paces still intervene between us and our foe, and we give vent to a shout of terror.

"It is heard, and the locomotive answers it by a whistle, then slackens its pace, and after seeming to hesitate an instant backs quickly and only just in time to give us a free passage, whilst the driver, waving his cap, salutes us with—

"'Look out for the wires!'

"The caution was well timed, for we had not noticed the four telegraph wires which we rapidly approached. We energetically ducked our heads on seeing them, but fortunately we escaped any more damage than having two or three of our ropes cut. These we continued to drag after us like the tail of a ragged comet, having the telegraph-wires and the posts which lately supported them attached to us."

After having been dragged thus for some time at the mercy of a hurricane which they ought to have been able to avoid, these aerial navigators at last got entangled in the outskirts of a wood near Rethem, in Hanover. A few broken arms and legs paid for their temerity in meddling with this monster, and one and all of the passengers have reason to be thankful that it will be unnecessary for us to proclaim their virtues and their fate in our next chapter.