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   Chapter 9 EARLY METHODS AND IDEAS.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 17610

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Before proceeding to introduce the chief actors and their achievements in the period next before us, it will be instructive to glance at some of the principal ideas and methods in favour with aeronauts up to the date now reached. It will be seen that Wise in America, contrary to the practice of Green in our own country, had a strong attachment to the antique mode of inflation with hydrogen prepared by the vitriolic process; and his balloons were specially made and varnished for the use of this gas. The advantage which he thus bought at the expense of much trouble and the providing of cumbersome equipment was obvious enough, and may be well expressed by a formula which holds good to-day, namely, that whereas 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen is capable of lifting 7 lbs., the same quantity of coal gas of ordinary quality will raise but 35 lbs. The lighter gas came into all Wise's calculations for bolder schemes. Thus, when he discusses the possibility of using a metal balloon, his figures work out as follows: If a balloon of 200 feet diameter were constructed out of copper, weighing one pound to the square foot; if, moreover, some six tons were allowed for the weight of car and fastenings, an available lifting power would remain capable of raising 45 tons to an altitude of two miles. This calculation may appear somewhat startling, yet it is not only substantially correct, but Wise entertained no doubt as to the practicability of such a machine. For its inflation he suggests inserting a muslin balloon filled with air within the copper globe, and then passing hydrogen gas between the muslin and copper surfaces, which would exclude the inner balloon as the copper one filled up.

His method of preparing hydrogen was practically that still adopted in the field, and seems in his hands to have been seldom attended with difficulty. With eight common 130-gallon rum puncheons he could reckon on evolving 5,000 cubic feet of gas in an hour, using his elements in the following proportions: water, 560 lbs.; sulphuric acid (sp. g. 1.85), 144 lbs.; iron turnings, 125 lbs. The gas, as given off, was cooled and purified by being passed through a head of water kept cool and containing lime in solution. Contrasted with this, we find it estimated, according to the practice of this time, that a ton of good bituminous coal should yield 10,000 cubic feet of carburetted hydrogen fit for lighting purposes, and a further quantity which, though useless as an illuminant, is still of excellent quality for the aeronaut.

It would even seem from a statement of Mr. Monck Mason that the value of coke in his day largely compensated for the cost of producing coal gas, so that in a large number of Green's ascents no charge whatever was made for gas by the companies that supplied him.

Some, at least, of the methods formerly recommended for the management of free balloons must in these days be modified. Green, as we have seen, was in favour of a trail rope of inordinate length, which he recommended both as an aid to steering and for a saving of ballast. In special circumstances, and more particularly over the sea, this may be reckoned a serviceable adjunct, but over land its use, in this country at least, would be open to serious objection. The writer has seen the consternation, not to say havoc, that a trail rope may occasion when crossing a town, or even private grounds, and the actual damage done to a garden of hops, or to telegraph or telephone wires, may be very serious indeed. Moreover, the statement made by some early practitioners that a trail rope will not catch so as to hold fast in a wood or the like, is not to be relied on, for an instance could be mentioned coming under the writer's knowledge where such a rope was the source of so much trouble in a high wind that it had to be cut away.

The trouble arose in this way. The rope dragged harmlessly enough along the open ground. It would, likewise, negotiate exceedingly well a single tree or a whole plantation, catching and releasing itself with only such moderate tugs at the car as were not disturbing; but, presently, its end, which had been caught and again released by one tree, swung free in air through a considerable gap to another tree, where, striking a horizontal bough, it coiled itself several times around, and thus held the balloon fast, which now, with the strength of the wind, was borne to the earth again and again, rebounding high in air after each impact, until freedom was gained only by the sacrifice of a portion of the rope.

Wise recommends a pendant line of 600 or 800 feet, capable of bearing a strain of 100 lbs., and with characteristic ingenuity suggests a special use which can be made of it, namely, that of having light ribbons tied on at every hundred feet, by means of which the drifts of lower currents may be detected. In this suggestion there is, indeed, a great deal of sound sense; for there is, as will be shown hereafter, very much value to be attached to a knowledge of those air rivers that are flowing, often wholly unsuspected, at various heights. Small parachutes, crumpled paper, and other such-like bodies as are commonly thrown out and relied on to declare the lower drifts, are not wholly trustworthy, for this reason-that air-streams are often very slender, mere filaments, as they are sometimes called, and these, though setting in some definite direction, and capable of entrapping and wafting away some small body which may come within their influence, may not affect the travel of so big an object as a balloon, which can only partake of some more general air movement.

Wise, by his expedient of tying ribbons at different points to his trail rope, would obtain much more correct and constant information respecting those general streams through which the pendant rope was moving. A similar expedient adopted by the same ingenious aeronaut is worthy of imitation, namely, that of tying ribbons on to a rod projecting laterally from the car. These form a handy and constant telltale as to the flight of the balloon, for should they be fluttering upwards the sky sailor at once knows that his craft is descending, and that he must act accordingly.

The material, pure silk, which was universally adopted up to and after the period we are now regarding, is not on every account to be reckoned the most desirable. In the first place, its cost alone is prohibitive, and next, although lighter than any kind of linen, strength for strength, it requires a greater weight of varnish, which, moreover, it does not take so kindly as does fabric made of vegetable tissue. Further, paradoxical as it may appear, its great strength is not entirely an advantage. There are occasions which must come into the experience of every zealous aeronaut when his balloon has descended in a rough wind, and in awkward country. This may, indeed, happen even when the ascent has been made in calm. Squalls of wind may spring up at short notice, or after traversing only two or three counties a strong gale may be found on the earth, though such was absent in the starting ground. This is more particularly the case when the landing chances to be on high ground in the neighbourhood of the sea. In these circumstances, the careful balloonist, who will generally be forewarned by the ruffle on any water he may pass, or by the drift of smoke, the tossing of trees, or by their very rustling or "singing" wafted upwards to him, will, if possible, seek for his landing place the lee of a wood or some other sheltered spot. But, even with all his care, he will sometimes find himself, on reaching earth, being dragged violently across country on a mad course which the anchor cannot check. Now, the country through which he is making an unwilling steeplechase may be difficult, or even dangerous. Rivers, railway cuttings, or other undesirable obstacles may lie ahead, or, worse yet, such a death trap as in such circumstances almost any part of Derbyshire affords, with its stone walls, its precipitous cliffs, and deep rocky dells. To be dragged at the speed of an express train through territory of this description will presently mean damage to something, perhaps to telegraph poles, to roofs, or crops, and if not, then to the balloon itself. Something appertaining to it must be victimised, and it is in all ways best that this should be the fabric of the balloon itself. If made of some form, or at least some proportion of linen, this will probably rend ere long, and, allowing the gas to escape, will soon bring itself to rest. On the other hand, if the balloon proper is a silk one, with sound net and in good condition, it is probable that something else will give way first, and that something may prove to be the hapless passenger or passengers.

And here be it

laid down as one first and all-important principle, that in any such awkward predicament as that just described, if there be more than one passenger aboard, let none attempt to get out. In the first place, he may very probably break a limb in so doing, inasmuch as the tangle of the ropes will not allow of his getting cut readily; or, when actually on the ground, he may be caught and impaled by the anchor charging and leaping behind. But, worse than all, he may, in any case, jeopardise the lives of his companions, who stand in need of all the available weight and help that the car contains up to the moment Of coming to final rest.

We have already touched on the early notions as to the means of steering a balloon. Oars had been tested without satisfactory result, and the conception of a rotary screw found favour among theorists at this time, the principle being actually tried with success in working models, which, by mechanical means, could be made to flit about in the still air of the lecture room; but the only feasible method advocated was that already alluded to, which depended on the undesirable action of a trail rope dragging over the ground or through water. The idea was, of course, perfectly practical, and was simply analogous to the method adopted by sailors, who, when floating with the stream but without wind, are desirous of gaining "steerage way." While simply drifting with the flood, they are unable to guide their vessel in any way, and this, in practice, is commonly effected by simply propelling the vessel faster than the stream, in which case the rudder at once becomes available. But the same result is equally well obtained by slowing the vessel, and this is easily accomplished by a cable, with a small anchor or other weight attached, dragging below the vessel. This cable is essentially the same as the guide-rope of the older aeronauts.

It is when we come to consider the impressions and sensations described by sky voyagers of bygone times that we find them curiously at variance with our own. As an instance, we may state that the earth, as seen from a highflying balloon, used to be almost always described as appearing concave, or like a huge basin, and ingenious attempts were made to prove mathematically that this must be so. The laws of refraction are brought in to prove the fact; or, again, the case is stated thus: Supposing the extreme horizon to be seen when the balloon is little more than a mile high, the range of view on all sides will then be, roughly, some eighty miles. If, then, a line were drawn from the aerial observer to this remote distance, that line would be almost horizontal; so nearly so that he cannot persuade himself that his horizon is otherwise than still on a level with his eye; yet the earth below him lies, as it seems, at the bottom of a huge gulf. Thus the whole visible earth appears as a vast bowl or basin. This is extremely ingenious reasoning, and not to be disregarded; but the fact remains that in the experience of the writer and of many others whom he has consulted, there is no such optical illusion as I have just discussed, and to their vision it is impossible to regard the earth as anything but uniformly flat.

Another impression invariably insisted on by early balloonists is that the earth, on quitting it, appears to drop away into an abyss, leaving the voyagers motionless, and this illusion must, indeed, be probably universal. It is the same illusion as the apparent gliding backwards of objects to a traveller in a railway carriage; only in this latter case the rattling and shaking of the carriage helps the mind to grasp the real fact that the motion belongs to the train itself; whereas it is otherwise with a balloon, whose motion is so perfectly smooth as to be quite imperceptible.

Old ideas, formed upon insufficient observations, even if erroneous, were slow to die. Thus it used to be stated that an upper cloud floor adapted itself to the contour of the land over which it rested, giving what Mr. Monck Mason has called a "phrenological estimate" of the character of the earth below; the clouds, "even when under the influence of rapid motion, seeming to accommodate themselves to all variations of form in the surface of the subjacent soil, rising with its prominences and sinking with its depressions." Probably few aeronauts of the present time will accept the statement.

It used commonly to be asserted, and is so often to this day, that a feeling as of sea-sickness is experienced in balloon travel, and the notion has undoubtedly arisen from the circumstances attending an ascent in a captive balloon. It were well, now that ballooning bids fair to become popular, to disabuse the public mind of such a wholly false idea. The truth is that a balloon let up with a lengthy rope and held captive will, with a fitful breeze, pitch and sway in a manner which may induce all the unpleasant feelings attending a rough passage at sea. It may do worse, and even be borne to earth with a puff of wind which may come unexpectedly, and considerably unsettle the nerves of any holiday passenger. I could tell of a "captive" that had been behaving itself creditably on a not very settled day suddenly swooping over a roadway and down into public gardens, where it lay incontinently along the ground, and then, before the astonished passengers could attempt to alight, it was seized with another mood, and, mounting once again majestically skyward, submitted to be hauled down with all becoming grace and ease. It is owing to their vagaries and want of manageability that, as will be shown, "captives" are of uncertain use in war. On the other hand, a free balloon is exempt from such disadvantages, and at moderate heights not the smallest feeling of nausea is ever experienced. The only unpleasant sensation, and that not of any gravity, ever complained of, is a peculiar tension in the ears experienced in a rapid ascent, or more often, perhaps, in a descent. The cause, which is trivial and easily removed, should be properly understood, and cannot be given in clearer language than that used by Professor Tyndall:-"Behind the tympanic membrane exists a cavity-the drum of the ear-in part crossed by a series of bones, and in part occupied by air. This cavity communicates with the mouth by means of a duct called the Eustachian tube. This tube is generally closed, the air space behind the tympanic membrane being thus cut off from the external air. If, under these circumstances, the external air becomes denser, it will press the tympanic membrane inwards; if, on the other hand, the air on the other side becomes rarer, while the Eustachian tube becomes closed, the membrane will be pressed outwards. Pain is felt in both cases, and partial deafness is experienced.... By the act of swallowing the Eustachian tube is opened, and thus equilibrium is established between the external and internal pressure."

Founded on physical facts more or less correct in themselves, come a number of tales of olden days, which are at least more marvellous than credible, the following serving as an example. The scientific truth underlying the story is the well-known expedient of placing a shrivelled apple under the receiver of an air pump. As the air becomes rarefied the apple swells, smooths itself out, and presently becomes round and rosy as it was in the summer time. It is recorded that on one occasion a man of mature years made an ascent, accompanied by his son, and, after reaching some height, the youth remarked on how young his father was looking. They still continued to ascend, and the same remark was repeated more than once. And at last, having now reached attenuated regions, the son cried in astonishment, "Why, dad, you ought to be at school!" The cause of this remark was that in the rarefied air all the wrinkles had come out of the old man's face, and his cheeks were as chubby as his son's.

This discussion of old ideas should not be closed without mention of a plausible plea for the balloon made by Wise and others on the score of its value to health. Lofty ascents have proved a strain on even robust constitutions-the heart may begin to suffer, or ills akin to mountain sickness may intervene before a height equal to that of our loftiest mountain is reached. But many have spoken of an exhilaration of spirits not inferior to that of the mountaineer, which is experienced, and without fatigue, in sky voyages reasonably indulged in-of a light-heartedness, a glow of health, a sharpened appetite, and the keen enjoyment of mere existence. Nay, it has been seriously affirmed that "more good may be got by the invalid in an hour or two while two miles up on a fine summer's day than is to be gained in an entire voyage from New York to Madeira by sea."

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