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   Chapter 2 THE INVENTION OF THE BALLOON.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 23360

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was a November night of the year 1782, in the little town of Annonay, near Lyons. Two young men, Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier, the representatives of a firm of paper makers, were sitting together over their parlour fire. While watching the smoke curling up the chimney one propounded an idea by way of a sudden inspiration: "Why shouldn't smoke be made to raise bodies into the air?"

The world was waiting for this utterance, which, it would seem, was on the tip of the tongue with many others. Cavendish had already discovered what he designated "inflammable air," though no one had as yet given it its later title of hydrogen gas. Moreover, in treating of this gas-Dr. Black of Edinburgh, as much as fifteen years before the date we have now arrived at, had suggested that it should be made capable of raising a thin bladder in the air. With a shade more of good fortune, or maybe with a modicum more of leisure, the learned Doctor would have won the invention of the balloon for his own country. Cavallo came almost nearer, and actually putting the same idea into practice, had succeeded in the spring of 1782 in making soap bubbles blown with hydrogen gas float upwards. But he had accomplished no more when, as related, in the autumn of the same year the brothers Montgolfier conceived the notion of making bodies "levitate" by the simpler expedient of filling them with smoke.

This was the crude idea, the application of which in their hands was soon marked with notable success. Their own trade supplied ready and suitable materials for a first experiment, and, making an oblong bag of thin paper a few feet in length, they proceeded to introduce a cloud of smoke into it by holding crumpled paper kindled in a chafing dish beneath the open mouth. What a subject is there here for an imaginative painter! As the smoky cloud formed within, the bag distended itself, became buoyant, and presently floated to the ceiling. The simple trial proved a complete success, due, as it appeared to them, to the ascensive power of a cloud of smoke.

An interesting and more detailed version of the story is extant. While the experiment was in progress a neighbour, the widow of a tradesman who had been connected in business with the firm, seeing smoke escaping into the room, entered and stood watching the proceedings, which were not unattended with difficulties. The bag, half inflated, was not easy to hold in position over the chafing dish, and rapidly cooled and collapsed on being removed from it. The widow noting this, as also the perplexity of the young men, suggested that they should try the result of tying the dish on at the bottom of the bag. This was the one thing wanted to secure success, and that good lady, whose very name is unhappily lost, deserves an honoured place in history. It was unquestionably the adoption of her idea which launched the first balloon into space.

The same experiment repeated in the open air proving a yet more pronounced success, more elaborate trials were quickly developed, and the infant balloon grew fast. One worthy of the name, spherical in shape and of some 600 cubic feet capacity, was now made and treated as before, with the result that ere it was fully inflated it broke the strings that held it and sailed away hundreds of feet into the air. The infant was fast becoming a prodigy. Encouraged by their fresh success, the inventors at once set about preparations for the construction of a much larger balloon some thirty-five feet diameter (that is, of about 23,000 cubic feet capacity), to be made of linen lined with paper and this machine, launched on a favourable day in the following spring, rose with great swiftness to fully a thousand feet, and travelled nearly a mile from its starting ground.

Enough; the time was already ripe for a public demonstration of the new invention, and accordingly the 5th of the following June witnessed the ascent of the same balloon with due ceremony and advertisement. Special pains were taken with the inflation, which was conducted over a pit above which the balloon envelope was slung; and in accordance with the view that smoke was the chief lifting power, the fuel was composed of straw largely mixed with wool. It is recorded that the management of the furnace needed the attention of two men only, while eight men could hardly hold the impatient balloon in restraint. The inflation, in spite of the fact that the fuel chosen was scarcely the best for the purpose, was conducted remarkable expedition, and on being released, the craft travelled one and a half miles into the air, attaining a height estimated at over 6,000 feet.

From this time the tide of events in the aeronautical world rolls on in full flood, almost every half-year marking a fresh epoch, until a new departure in the infant art of ballooning was already on the point of being reached. It had been erroneously supposed that the ascent of the Montgolfier balloon had been due, not to the rarefaction of the air within it-which was its true cause-but to the evolution of some light gas disengaged by the nature of the fuel used. It followed, therefore, almost as a matter of course, that chemists, who, as stated in the last chapter, were already acquainted with so-called "inflammable air," or hydrogen gas, grasped the fact that this gas would serve better than any other for the purposes of a balloon. And no sooner had the news of the Montgolfiers' success reached Paris than a subscription was raised, and M. Charles, Professor of Experimental Philosophy, was appointed, with the assistance of M. Roberts, to superintend the construction of a suitable balloon and its inflation by the proposed new method.

The task was one of considerable difficulty, owing partly to the necessity of procuring some material which would prevent the escape of the lightest and most subtle gas known, and no less by reason of the difficulty of preparing under pressure a sufficient quantity of gas itself. The experiment, sound enough in theory, was eventually carried through after several instructive failures. A suitable material was found in "lustring," a glossy silk cloth varnished with a solution of caoutchouc, and this being formed into a balloon only thirteen feet in diameter and fitted without other aperture than a stopcock, was after several attempts filled with hydrogen gas prepared in the usual way by the action of dilute sulphuric acid on scrap iron.

The preparations completed, one last and all-important mistake was made by closing the stop-cock before the balloon was dismissed, the disastrous and unavoidable result of this being at the time overlooked.

On August 25, 1783, the balloon was liberated on the Champ de Mars before an enormous concourse, and in less than two minutes had reached an elevation of half a mile, when it was temporarily lost in cloud, through which, however, it penetrated, climbing into yet higher cloud, when, disappearing from sight, it presently burst and descended to earth after remaining in the air some three-quarters of an hour.

The bursting of this little craft taught the future balloonist his first great lesson, namely, that on leaving earth he must open the neck of his balloon; and the reason of this is obvious. While yet on earth the imprisoned gas of a properly filled balloon distends the silk by virtue of its expansive force, and in spite of the enormous outside pressure which the weight of air exerts upon it. Then, as the balloon rises high in the air and the outside pressure grows less, the struggling gas within, if allowed no vent, stretches the balloon more and more until the slender fabric bursts under the strain.

At the risk of being tedious, we have dwelt at some length on the initial experiments which in less than a single year had led to the discovery and development of two distinct methods-still employed and in competition with each other-of dismissing balloons into the heavens. We are now prepared to enter fully into the romantic history of our subject which from this point rapidly unfolds itself.

Some eleven months only after the two Montgolfiers were discovered toying with their inflated paper bag, the younger of the two brothers was engaged to make an exhibition of his new art before the King at Versailles, and this was destined to be the first occasion when a balloon was to carry a living freight into the sky. The stately structure, which was gorgeously decorated, towered some seventy feet into the air, and was furnished with a wicker car in which the passengers were duly installed. These were three in number, a sheep, a cock, and a duck, and amid the acclamations of the multitude, rose a few hundred feet and descended half a mile away. The cock was found to have sustained an unexplained mishap: its leg was broken; but the sheep was feeding complacently, and the duck was quacking with much apparent satisfaction.

Now, who among mortals will come forward and win the honour of being the first to sail the skies? M. Pilitre de Rozier at once volunteered, and by the month of November a new air ship was built, 74 feet high, 48 feet in largest diameter, and 15 feet across the neck, outside which a wicker gallery was constructed, while an iron brazier was slung below all. But to trim the boat properly two passengers were needed, and de Rozier found a ready colleague in the Marquis d'Arlandes. By way of precaution, de Rozier made a few preliminary ascents with the balloon held captive, and then the two intrepid Frenchmen took their stand on opposite sides of the gallery, each furnished with bundles of fuel to feed the furnace, each also carrying a large wet sponge with which to extinguish the flames whenever the machine might catch fire. On casting off the balloon rose readily, and reaching 3,000 feet, drifted away on an upper current.

The rest of the narrative, much condensed from a letter of the Marquis, written a week later, runs somewhat thus: "Our departure was at fifty-four minutes past one, and occasioned little stir among the spectators. Thinking they might be frightened and stand in need of encouragement, I waved my arm. M. de Rozier cried, 'You are doing nothing, and we are not rising!' I stirred the fire, and then began to scan the river, but Pilitre cried again, 'See the river; we are dropping into it!' We again urged the fire, but still clung to the river bed. Presently I heard a noise in the upper part of the balloon, which gave a shock as though it had burst. I called to my companion, 'Are you dancing?' The balloon by now had many holes burned in it, and using my sponge I cried that we must descend. My companion, however, explained that we were over Paris, and must now cross it. Therefore, raising the fire once more, we turned south till we passed the Luxemburg, when, extinguishing the flame, the balloon came down spent and empty."

Daring as was this ascent, it was in achievement eclipsed two months later at Lyons, when a mammoth balloon, 130 feet in height and lifting 18 tons, was inflated in seventeen minutes, and ascended with no less than seven passengers. When more than half a mile aloft this machine, which was made of too slender material for its huge size, suddenly developed a rent of half its length, causing it to descend with immense velocity; but without the smallest injury to any of the passengers. This was a memorable performance, and the account, sensational as it may read, is by no means unworthy of credit; for, as will be seen hereafter, a balloon even when burst or badly torn in midair may, on the principle of the parachute, effect its own salvation.

In the meanwhile, the rival balloon o

f hydrogen gas-the Charliere, as it has been called-had had its first innings. Before the close of the year MM. Roberts and Charles constructed and inflated a hydrogen balloon, this time fitted with a practicable valve, and in partnership accomplished an ascent beating all previous records. The day, December 17, was one of winter temperature; yet the aeronauts quickly reached 6,000 feet, and when, after remaining aloft for one and a half hours, they descended, Roberts got out, leaving Charles in sole possession. Left to himself, this young recruit seems to have met with experiences which are certainly unusual, and which must be attributed largely to the novelty of his situation. He declared that at 9,000 feet, or less than two miles, all objects on the earth had disappeared from view, a statement which can only be taken to mean that he had entered cloud. Further, at this moderate elevation he not only became benumbed with cold, but felt severe pain in his right ear and jaw. He held on, however, ascending till 10,500 feet were reached, when he descended, having made a journey of thirty miles from the start.

Ascents, all on the Continent, now followed one another in rapid succession, and shortly the MM. Roberts essayed a venture on new lines. They attempted the guidance of a balloon by means of oars, and though they failed in this they were fortunate in making a fresh record. They also encountered a thunderstorm, and by adopting a perfectly scientific method-of which more hereafter-succeeded in eluding it. The storm broke around them when they were 14,000 feet high, and at this altitude, noting that there were diverse currents aloft, they managed to manoeuvre their balloon higher or lower at will and to suit their purpose, and by this stratagem drew away from the storm centre. After six and a half hours their voyage ended, but not until 150 miles had been covered.

It must be freely granted that prodigious progress had been made in an art that as yet was little more than a year old; but assuredly not enough to justify the absurdly inflated ideas that the Continental public now began to indulge in. Men lost their mental balance, allowing their imagination to run riot, and speculation became extravagant in the extreme. There was to be no limit henceforward to the attainment of fresh knowledge, nor any bounds placed to where man might roam. The universe was open to him: he might voyage if he willed to the moon or elsewhere: Paris was to be the starting point for other worlds: Heaven itself had been taken by storm.

Moderation had to be learned ere long by the discipline of more than one stern lesson. Hitherto a marvellous-call it a Providential-good fortune had attended the first aerial travellers; and even when mishaps presently came to be reckoned with, it may fairly be questioned whether so many lives were sacrificed among those who sought to voyage through the sky as were lost among such as first attempted to navigate the sea.

It is in such ventures as we are now regarding that fortune seems readiest to favour the daring, and if I may digress briefly to adduce experiences coming within my own knowledge, I would say that it is to his very impulsiveness that the enthusiast often owes the safety of his neck. It is the timid, not the bold rider, that comes to grief at the fence. It is the man who draws back who is knocked over by a tramcar. Sheer impetus, moral or physical, often carries you through, as in the case of a fall from horse-back. To tumble off when your horse is standing still and receive a dead blow from the ground might easily break a limb. But at full gallop immunity often lies in the fact that you strike the earth at an angle, and being carried forward, impact is less abrupt. I can only say that I have on more than one occasion found the greatest safety in a balloon venture involving the element of risk to lie in complete abandonment to circumstances, and in the increased life and activity which the delirium of excitement calls forth. In comparing, however, man's first ventures by sky with those by sea, we must remember what far greater demand the former must have made upon the spirit of enterprise and daring.

We can picture the earliest sea voyager taking his first lesson astride of a log with one foot on the bottom, and thus proceeding by sure stages till he had built his coracle and learned to paddle it in shoal water. But the case was wholly different when the first frail air ship stood at her moorings with straining gear and fiercely burning furnace, and when the sky sailor knew that no course was left him but to dive boldly up into an element whence there was no stepping back, and separated from earth by a gulf which man instinctively dreads to look down upon.

Taking events in their due sequence, we have now to record a voyage which the terrors of sky and sea together combined to make memorable. Winter had come-early January of 1785-when, in spite of short dark days and frosty air, M. Blanchard, accompanied by an American, Dr. Jeffries, determined on an attempt to cross the Channel. They chose the English side, and inflating their balloon with hydrogen at Dover, boldly cast off, and immediately drifted out to sea. Probably they had not paid due thought to the effect of low sun and chilly atmosphere, for their balloon rose sluggishly and began settling down ere little more than a quarter of their course was run. Thereupon they parted with a large portion of their ballast, with the result that they crept on as far as mid-Channel, when they began descending again, and cast out the residue of their sand, together with some books, and this, too, with the uncomfortable feeling that even these measures would not suffice to secure their safety.

This was in reality the first time that a sea passage had been made by sky, and the gravity of their situation must not be under-estimated. We are so accustomed in a sea passage to the constant passing of other vessels that we allow ourselves to imagine that a frequented portion of the ocean, such as the Channel, is thickly dotted over with shipping of some sort. But in entertaining this idea we are forgetful of the fact that we are all the while on a steamer track. The truth, however, is that anywhere outside such a track, even from the commanding point of view of a high-flying balloon, the ocean is seen to be more vast than we suppose, and bears exceedingly little but the restless waves upon its surface. Once fairly in the water with a fallen balloon, there is clearly no rising again, and the life of the balloon in this its wrong element is not likely to be a long one. The globe of gas may under favourable circumstances continue to float for some while, but the open wicker car is the worst possible boat for the luckless voyagers, while to leave it and cling to the rigging is but a forlorn hope, owing to the mass of netting which surrounds the silk, and which would prove a death-trap in the water. There are many instances of lives having been lost in such a dilemma, even when help was near at hand.

Our voyagers, whom we left in mid-air and stream, were soon descending again, and this time they threw out their tackle-anchor, ropes, and other gear, still without adequately mending matters. Then their case grew desperate. The French coast was, indeed, well in sight, but there seemed but slender chance of reaching it, when they began divesting themselves of clothing as a last resort. The upshot of this was remarkable, and deserves a moment's consideration. When a balloon has been lightened almost to the utmost the discharge of a small weight sometimes has a magical effect, as is not difficult to understand. Throwing out ten pounds at an early stage, when there may be five hundred pounds more of superfluous weight, will tell but little, but when those five hundred pounds are expended then an extra ten pounds scraped together from somewhere and cast overboard may cause a balloon to make a giant stride into space by way of final effort; and it was so with M. Blanchard. His expiring balloon shot up and over the approaching land, and came safely to earth near the Forest of Guiennes. A magnificent feast was held at Calais to celebrate the above event. M. Blanchard was presented with the freedom of the city in a gold box, and application was made to the Ministry to have the balloon purchased and deposited as a memorial in the church. On the testimony of the grandson of Dr. Jeffries the car of this balloon is now in the museum of the same city.

A very noteworthy example of how a balloon may be made to take a fresh lease of life is supplied by a voyage of M. Testu about this date, which must find brief mention in these pages. In one aspect it is laughable, in another it is sublime. From every point of view it is romantic.

It was four o'clock on a threatening day in June when the solitary aeronaut took flight from Paris in a small hydrogen balloon only partially filled, but rigged with some contrivance of wings which were designed to render it self-propelling. Discovering, however, that this device was inoperative, M. Testu, after about an hour and a half, allowed the balloon to descend to earth in a corn field, when, without quitting hold of the car, he commenced collecting stones for ballast. But as yet he knew not the ways of churlish proprietors of land, and in consequence was presently surprised by a troublesome crowd, who proceeded, as they supposed, to take him prisoner till he should pay heavy compensation, dragging him off to the nearest village by the trail rope of his balloon.

M. Testu now had leisure to consider his situation, and presently hit on a stratagem the like of which has often since been adopted by aeronauts in like predicament. Representing to his captors that without his wings he would be powerless, he suffered them to remove these weighty appendages, when also dropping a heavy cloak, he suddenly cut the cord by which he was being dragged, and, regaining freedom, soared away into the sky. He was quickly high aloft, and heard thunder below him, soon after which, the chill of evening beginning to bring him earthward, he descried a hunt in full cry, and succeeded in coming down near the huntsmen, some of whom galloped up to him, and for their benefit he ascended again, passing this time into dense cloud with thunder and lightning. He saw the sun go down and the lightning gather round, yet with admirable courage he lived the night out aloft till the storms were spent and the midsummer sun rose once more. With daylight restored, his journey ended at a spot over sixty miles from Paris.

We have, of course, recounted only a few of the more noteworthy early ballooning ventures. In reality there had up to the present time been scores of ascents made in different localities and in all conditions of wind and weather, yet not a life had been lost. We have now, however, to record a casualty which cost the first and boldest aeronaut his life, and which is all the more regrettable as being due to circumstances that should never have occurred.

M. Pilatre de Rosier, accompanied by M. Romain, determined on crossing the Channel from the French side; and, thinking to add to their buoyancy and avoid the risk of falling in the sea, hit on the extraordinary idea of using a fire balloon beneath another filled with hydrogen gas! With this deadly compound machine they actually ascended from Boulogne, and had not left the land when the inevitable catastrophe took place.

The balloons caught fire and blew up at a height of 3,000 feet, while the unfortunate voyagers were dashed to atoms.

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