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   Chapter 6 CHARLES GREEN AND THE NASSAU BALLOON.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 20177

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The balloon, which had gradually been dropping out of favour, had now been virtually laid aside, and, to all appearance, might have continued so, when, as if by chance concurrence of events, there arrived both the hour and the man to restore it to the world, and to invest it with a new practicability and importance. The coronation of George the Fourth was at hand, and this became a befitting occasion for the rare genius mentioned at the end of the last chapter, and now in his thirty-sixth year, to put in practice a new method of balloon management and inflation, the entire credit of which must be accorded to him alone.

From its very introduction and inception the gas balloon, an expensive and fragile structure in itself, had proved at all times exceedingly costly in actual use. Indeed, we find that at the date at which we have now arrived the estimate for filling a balloon of 70,000 cubic feet-no extraordinary capacity-with hydrogen gas was about L250. When, then, to this great outlay was added the difficulty and delay of producing a sufficient supply by what was at best a clumsy process, as also the positive failure and consequent disappointment which not infrequently ensued, it is easy to understand how through many years balloon ascents, no longer a novelty, had begun to be regarded with distrust, and the profession of a balloonist was doomed to become unremunerative. A simpler and cheaper mode of inflation was not only a desideratum, but an absolute necessity. The full truth of this may be gathered from the fact that we find there were not seldom instances where two or three days of continuous and anxious labour were expended in generating and passing hydrogen into a balloon, through the fabric of which the subtle gas would escape almost as fast as it was produced.

It was at this juncture, then, that Charles Green conceived the happy idea of substituting for hydrogen gas the ordinary household gas, which at this time was to be found ready to hand and in sufficient quantity in all towns of any consequence; and by the day of the coronation all was in readiness for a public exhibition of this method of inflation, which was carried out with complete success, though not altogether without unrehearsed and amusing incident, as must be told.

The day, July 18, was one of summer heat, and Green at the conclusion of his preparations, fatigued with anxious labour and oppressed by the crowding of the populace, took refuge within the car of his balloon, which was by that time already inflated, and only awaiting the gun signal that was to announce the moment for its departure. To allow of his gaining the refreshment of somewhat purer air he begged his friends who were holding the car of his balloon in restraint to keep it suspended at a few feet from the earth, while he rested himself within, and, this being done, it would appear that he fell into a doze, from which he did not awake till he found that the balloon, which had slipped from his friends' hold, was already high above the crowd and requiring his prompt attention. This was, however, by no means an untoward accident, and Green's triumph was complete. By this one venture alone the success of the new method was entirely assured. The cost of the inflation had been reduced ten-fold, the labour and uncertainty a hundred-fold, and, over and above all, the confidence of the public was restored. It is little wonder, then, that in the years that now follow we find the balloon returning to all the favour it had enjoyed in its palmiest days. But Green proved himself something more than a practical balloonist of the first rank. He brought to the aid of his profession ideas which were matured by due thought and scientifically sound. It is true he still clung for a while to the antiquated notion that mechanical means could, with advantage, be used to cause a balloon to ascend or descend, or to alter its direction in a tranquil atmosphere. But he saw clearly that the true method of navigating a balloon should be by a study of upper currents, and this he was able to put to practical proof on a memorable occasion, and in a striking manner, as we shall presently relate.

He learned the lesson early in his career while acquiring facts and experience, unassisted, in a number of solitary voyages made from different parts of the country. Among these he is careful to record an occasion when, making a day-light ascent from Boston, Lincolnshire, he maintained a lofty course, which promised to take him direct to Grantham; but, presently descending to a lower level, and his balloon diverging at an angle of some 45 degrees, he now headed for Newark. This experience he stored away.

A month later we find him making a night voyage from Vauxhall Gardens, destined to be the scene of many memorable ascents in the near future; and on this occasion he gave proof of his capability as a close and intelligent observer. It was a July night, near 11 p.m., moonless and cloudy, yet the earth was visible, and under these circumstances his simple narrative becomes of scientific value. He accurately distinguished the reflective properties of the face of the diversified country he traversed. Over Battersea and Wandsworth-this was in 1826-there were white sheets spread over the land, which proved to be corn crops ready for the sickle. Where crops were not the ground was darker, with, here and there, objects absolutely black-in other words, trees and houses. Then he mentions the river in a memorandum, which reads strangely to the aeronaut who has made the same night voyage in these latter days. The stream was crossed in places with rows of lamps apparently resting on the water. These were the lighted bridges; but, here and there, were dark planks, and these too were bridges-at Battersea and Putney-but without a light upon them!

In these and many other simple, but graphic, narratives Green draws his own pictures of Nature in her quieter moods. But he was not without early experience of her horse play, a highly instructive record of which should not be omitted here, and which, as coming from so careful and conscientious an observer, is best gathered from his own words. The ascent was from Newbury, and it can have been no mean feat to fill, under ordinary circumstances, a balloon carrying two passengers and a considerable weight of ballast at the small gas-holder which served the town eighty-five years ago. But the circumstances were not ordinary, for the wind was extremely squally; a tremendous hail and thunderstorm blew up, and a hurricane swept the balloon with such force that two tons weight of iron and a hundred men scarce sufficed to hold it in check.

Green on this occasion had indeed a companion, whose usefulness however at a pinch may be doubted when we learn that he was both deaf and dumb. The rest of the narrative runs thus: "Between 4 and 5 p.m. the clouds dispersed, but the wind continued to rage with unabated fury the whole of the evening. At 6 p.m. I stepped into the car with Mr. Simmons and gave the word 'Away!' The moment the machine was disencumbered of its weights it was torn by the violence of the wind from the assistants, bounded off with the velocity of lightning in a southeasterly direction, and in a very short space of time attained an elevation of two miles. At this altitude we perceived two immense bodies of clouds operated on by contrary currents of air until at length they became united, and at that moment my ears were assailed by the most awful and longest continued peal of thunder I have ever heard. These clouds were a full mile beneath us, but perceiving other strata floating at the same elevation at which we were sailing, which from their appearance I judged to be highly charged with electricity, I considered it prudent to discharge twenty pounds of ballast, and we rose half a mile above our former elevation, where I considered we were perfectly safe and beyond their influence. I observed, amongst other phenomena, that at every discharge of thunder all the detached pillars of clouds within the distance of a mile around became attracted and appeared to concentrate their force towards the first body of clouds alluded to, leaving the atmosphere clear and calm beneath and around us.

"With very trifling variations we continued the same course until 7.15 p.m., when we descended to within 500 feet of the earth; but, perceiving from the disturbed surface of the rivers and lakes that a strong wind existed near the earth, we again ascended and continued our course till 7.30 p.m., when a final descent was safely effected in a meadow field in the parish of Crawley in Surrey, situated between Guildford and Horsham, and fifty-eight miles from Newbury. This stormy voyage was performed in one hour and a half."

It was after Green had followed his profession for fifteen years that he was called upon to undertake the management of an aerial venture, which, all things considered, has never been surpassed in genuine enterprise and daring. The conception of the project was due to Mr. Robert Hollond, and it took shape in this way. This gentleman, fresh from Cambridge, possessed of all the ardour of early manhood, as also of adequate means, had begun to devote himself with the true zeal of the enthusiast to the pursuit of ballooning, finding due opportunity for this in his friendship with Mr. Green, who enjoyed the management of the fine balloon made for ascents at the then popular Vauxhall Gardens. In the autumn of 1836 the proprietors of this balloon, contemplating making an exhibition of an ascent from Paris, and requiring their somewhat fragile property to be conveyed to that city, Mr. Hollond boldly came forward and offered to transfer it thither, and, as nearly as this might be possible, by passage through the sky. The proposal was accepted, and Mr. Holland, in conjunction with Green, set about the needful preparations. These, as will appear, were on an extraordinary scale, and no blame is to be imputed on that account, as a little consideration will show. For

the venture proposed was not to be that of merely crossing the Channel, which, as we have seen, had been successfully effected no less than fifty years before. The voyage in contemplation was to be from London; it was, moreover, to be pursued through a long, moonless winter's night, and under conditions of which no living aeronaut had had actual experience.

Calculation, based on a sufficient knowledge of fast upper currents, told that their course, ere finished, might be one of almost indefinite length, and it is not too much to say that no one, with the knowledge of that day, could predict within a thousand miles where the dawn of the next day might find them. The equipment, therefore, was commensurate with the possible task before them. To begin with, they limited their number to three in all-Mr. Hollond, as chief and keeper of the log; Mr. Green, as aeronaut; and an enthusiastic colleague, Mr. Monck Mason, as the chronicler of the party. Next, they provided themselves with passports to all parts of the Continent; and then came the fitting out and victualling of the aerial craft itself, calculated to carry some 90,000 cubic feet of gas, and a counterpoise of a ton of ballast, which took the form partly of actual provisions in large quantity, partly of gear and apparatus, and for the rest of sand and also lime, of which more anon. Across the middle of the car was fixed a bench to serve as table, and also as a stage for the winding in and out of an enormous trail rope a thousand feet long, designed by Mr. Green to meet the special emergencies of the voyage. At the bottom of the car was spread a large cushion to serve the purposes of rest. When all was in readiness unfitness of weather baulked the travellers for some days, but Monday, the 7th of November, was judged a favourable day, so that the inflation was rapidly proceeded with, and at 1.30 p.m. the "Monstre Balloon," as it was entitled in the "Ingoldsby Legends," left the earth on her eventful and ever memorable voyage. The weather was fine and promising, and, rising with a moderate breeze from the N.W., they began to traverse the northern parts of Kent, while light, drifting upper clouds gave indication of other possible currents. Mr. Hollond was precise in the determination of times and of all readings and we learn that at exactly 2.48 p.m. they were crossing the Medway, six miles west of Rochester, while at 4.5 p.m. the lofty towers of Canterbury were well in view, two miles to the east, and here a little function was well carried out. Green had twice ascended from this city under patronage of the authorities, and the idea occurred to the party that it would be a graceful compliment to drop a message to the Mayor as they passed. A suitable note, therefore, quickly written, was dismissed in a parachute, and it may be mentioned that this, as also a similar missive addressed later to the Mayor of Dover, were duly received and acknowledged.

At a quarter past four they sighted the sea, and here, the air beginning to grow chill, the balloon dropped earthward, and for some miles they skimmed the ground, disturbing the partridges, scattering the rooks, and keeping up a running conversation the while with labourers and passers below. In this there was exercise of perfectly proper aerial seamanship, such as moreover presently led to an exhibition of true science. To save ballast is, with a balloon, to prolong life, and this may often best be done by flying low, which doubtless was Green's present intention. But soon his trained eye saw that the ground current which now carried them was leading them astray. They were trending to the northward, and so far out of their course that they would soon make the North Foreland, and so be carried out over the North Sea far from their desired direction. Thereupon Green attempted to put in practice his theory, already spoken of, of steering by upper currents, and the event proved his judgment peculiarly correct. "Nothing," wrote Mr. Monck Mason, "could exceed the beauty of the manoeuvre, to which the balloon at once responded, regaining her due course, and, in a matter of a few minutes only, bearing the voyagers almost vertically over the castle of Dover in the exact line for crossing the straits between that town and Calais."

So far all was well, and success had been extraordinary; but from this moment they became faced with new conditions, and with the grave trouble of uncertainty. Light was failing, the sea was before them, and-what else thenceforth? 4.48 p.m. was recorded as the moment when the first line of breaking waves was seen directly below them, and then the English coast line began rapidly to fade out from their view. But, ahead, the obscurity was yet more intense, for clouds, banked up like a solid wall, crowned along its frowning heights, with "parapets and turrets and batteries and bastions," and, plunging into this opposing barrier, they were quickly buried in blackness, losing at the same time over the sea all sound from earth soever. So for a short hour's space, when the sound of waves once again broke in upon them, and immediately afterwards emerging from the dense cloud (a sea-fog merely) they found themselves immediately over the brilliantly lighted town of Calais. Seeing this, the travellers attempted to signal by igniting and lowering a Bengal Light, which was directly followed by the beating of drums from below.

It adds a touch of reality, as well as cheerfulness, to the narrative to read that at this period of their long journey the travellers apply themselves to a fair, square meal, the first for twelve hours, despite the day's excitement and toil. We have an entry among the stores of the balloon of wine bottles and spirit flasks, but there is no mention of these being requisitioned at this period. The demand seems rather to have been for coffee-coffee hot; and this by a novel device was soon prepared. It goes without saying that a fire or flame of any kind, except with special precautions, is inadmissable in a balloon; but a cooking heat, sufficient for the present purpose, was supplied from the store of lime, a portion of which, being placed in a suitably contrived vessel and slaked quickly, procured the desired beverage.

This meal now indulged in seems to have been heartily and happily enjoyed; and from this point, for a while, the narrative becomes that of enthusiastic and delighted travellers. In the gloom below, for leagues around, they regarded the scattered fires of a watchful population, with here and there the lights of larger towns, and the contemplation begot romantic reveries. "Were they not amid the vast solitudes of the skies, in the dead of night, unknown and unnoticed, secretly and silently reviewing kingdoms, exploring territories, and surveying cities all clothed in the dark mantle of mystery?" Presently they identified the blazing city of Liege, with the lurid lights of extensive outlying iron works, and this was the last visible sign they caught of earth that night; save, at least, when occasional glimpses of lightning momentarily and dimly outlined the world in the abyss below.

Ere long, they met with their first discomfort, which they seem to have regarded as a most serious one, namely, the accidental dropping overboard of their cherished coffee-boiling apparatus. With its loss their store of lime became useless, save as ballast, and for this it was forthwith utilised until nothing remained but the empty lime barrel itself, which, being regarded as an objectionable encumbrance, it was desirable to get rid of, were it not for the risk involved in rudely dropping it to earth. But the difficulty was met. They possessed a suitable small parachute, and, attached to this, the barrel was allowed to float earthward.

As hours advanced, the blackness of night increased, and their impressions appear somewhat strange to anyone familiar with ordinary night travel in the sky. Mr. Monck Mason compares their progress through the darkness to "cleaving their way through an interminable mass of black marble." Then, presently, an unaccountable object puzzles and absorbs the attention of all the party for a long period. They were gazing open-mouthed at a long narrow avenue of feeble light, which, though apparently belonging to earth, was too long and regular for a river, and too broad for a canal or road, and it was only after many futile imaginings that they discovered they were simply looking at a stay rope of the balloon hanging far out over the side.

Somewhat later still, there was a more serious claim upon the imagination. It was half-past three in the morning, and the balloon, which, to escape from too low an altitude, had been liberally lightened, had now at high speed mounted to a vast height. And then, amid the black darkness and dead silence of that appalling region, suddenly overhead came the sound of an explosion, followed by the violent rustling of the silk, while the car jerked violently, as though suddenly detached from its hold. This was the idea, leading to the belief that the balloon had suddenly exploded, and that they were falling headlong to earth. Their suspense, however, cannot have been long, and the incident was intelligible enough, being due to the sudden yielding of stiffened net and silk under rapid expansion caused by their speedy and lofty ascent.

The chief incidents of the night were now over, until the dawn arrived and began to reveal a strange land, with large tracts of snow, giving place, as the light strengthened, to vast forests. To their minds these suggested the plains of Poland, if not the steppes of Russia, and, fearing that the country further forward might prove more inhospitable, they decided to come to earth as speedily as possible. This, in spite of difficult landing, they effected about the hour that the waking population were moving abroad, and then, and not till then, they learned the land of their haven-the heart of the German forests. Five hundred miles had been covered in eighteen hours from start to finish!

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