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   Chapter 12 HENRY COXWELL AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 17746

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Mention should be made in these pages of a night sail of a hundred miles, boldly carried out in 1849 by M. Arban, which took the voyager from Marseilles to Turin fairly over the Alps. The main summit was reached at 11 p.m., when the "snow, cascades, and rivers were all sparkling under the moon, and the ravines and rocks produced masses of darkness which served as shadows to the gigantic picture." Arban was at one time on a level with the highest point of Mont Blanc, the top of which, standing out well above the clouds, resembled "an immense block of crystal sparkling with a thousand fires."

In London, in the year of the Great Exhibition, and while the building was still standing in Hyde Park, there occurred a balloon incident small in itself, but sufficient to cause much sensation at the crowded spot where it took place. The ascent was made from the Hippodrome by Mr. and Mrs. Graham in very boisterous weather, and, on being liberated, the balloon seems to have fouled a mast, suffering a considerable rent. After this the aeronauts succeeded in clearing the trees in Kensington Gardens, and in descending fairly in the Park, but, still at the mercy of the winds, they were carried on to the roof of a house in Arlington Street, and thence on to another in Park Place, where, becoming lodged against a stack of chimneys, they were eventually rescued by the police without any material damage having been done.

But this same summer saw the return to England of Henry Coxwell, and for some years the story of the conquest of the air is best told by following his stirring career, and his own comments on aeronautical events of this date. We find him shortly setting about carrying out some reconnoitring and signalling experiments, designed to be of use in time of war. This was an old idea of his, and one which had, of course, been long entertained by others, having, indeed, been put to some practical test in time of warfare. It will be well to make note of what attention the matter had already received, and of what progress had been made both in theory and practice.

We have already made some mention in Chapter IV. of the use which the French had made of balloons in their military operations at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of nineteenth the century. It was, indeed, within the first ten years after the first invention of the balloon that, under the superintendence of the savants of the French Academy, a practical school of aeronautics was established at Meudon. The names of Guyton, De Morveau (a distinguished French chemist), and Colonel Coutelle are chiefly associated with the movement, and under them some fifty students received necessary training. The practising balloon had a capacity of 17,000 cubic feet, and was inflated with pure hydrogen, made by what was then a new process as applied to ballooning, and which will be described in a future chapter. It appears that the balloon was kept always full, so that any opportunity of calm weather would be taken advantage of for practice. And it is further stated that a balloon was constructed so sound and impervious that after the lapse of two months it was still capable, without being replenished, of raising into the air two men, with necessary ballast and equipment. The practical trial for the balloon in real service came off in June, 1794, when Coutelle in person, accompanied by two staff officers, in one of the four balloons which the French Army had provided, made an ascent to reconnoitre the Austrian forces at Fleurus. They ascended twice in one day, remaining aloft for some four hours, and, on their second ascent being sighted, drew a brisk fire from the enemy. They were unharmed, however, and the successful termination of the battle of Fleurus has been claimed as due in large measure to the service rendered by that balloon.

The extraordinary fact that the use of the balloon was for many years discontinued in the French Army is attributed to a strangely superstitious prejudice entertained by Napoleon. Las Cases (in his "Private Life of Napoleon at St. Helena ") relates an almost miraculous story of Napoleon's coronation. It appears that a sum of 23,500 francs was given to M. Garnerin to provide a balloon ascent to aid in the celebrations, and, in consequence, a colossal machine was made to ascend at 11 p.m. on December 16th from the front of Notre Dame, carrying 3,000 lights. This balloon was unmanned, and at its departure apparently behaved extremely well, causing universal delight. During the hours of darkness, however, it seems to have acquitted itself in a strange and well-nigh preternatural manner, for at daybreak it is sighted on the horizon by the inhabitants of Rome, and seen to be coming towards their city. So true was its course that, as though with predetermined purpose, it sails on till it is positively over St. Peter's and the Vatican, when, its mission being apparently fulfilled, it settles to earth, and finally ends its career in the Lake Bracciano. Regarded from whatever point of view, the flight was certainly extraordinary, and it is not surprising that in that age it was regarded as nothing less than a portent. Moreover, little details of the wonderful story were quickly endowed with grave significance. The balloon on reaching the ground rent itself. Next, ere it plunged into the water, it carefully deposited a portion of its crown on the tomb of Nero. Napoleon, on learning the facts, forbade that they should ever be referred to. Further, he thenceforward discountenanced the balloon in his army, and the establishment at Meudon was abandoned.

There is record of an attempt of some sort that was made to revive the French military ballooning school in the African campaign of 1830, but it was barren of results. Again, it has been stated that the Austrians used balloons for reconnaissance, before Venice in 1849, and yet again the same thing is related of the Russians at the time of the siege of Sebastopol, though Kinglake does not mention the circumstance. In 1846 Wise drew up and laid before the American War Office an elaborate scheme for the reduction of Vera Cruz. This will be discussed in its due place, though it will be doubtless considered as chimerical.

On the other hand, eminently practical were the experiments co-ordinated and begun to be put to an actual test by Mr. Coxwell, who, before he could duly impress his project upon the military authorities, had to make preliminary trials in private ventures. The earliest of these was at the Surrey Zoological Gardens in the autumn of 1854, and it will be granted that much ingenuity and originality were displayed when it is considered that at that date neither wireless telegraphy, electric flashlight, nor even Morse Code signalling was in vogue. According to his announcement, the spectators were to regard his balloon, captive or free, as floating at a certain altitude over a beleaguered fortress, the authorities in communication with it having the key of the signals and seeking to obtain through these means information as to the approach of an enemy. It was to be supposed that, by the aid of glasses, a vast distance around could be subjected to careful scrutiny, and a constant communication kept up with the authorities in the fortress. Further, the flags or other signals were supposed preconcerted and unknown to the enemy, being formed by variations of shape and colour. Pigeons were also despatched from a considerable height to test their efficiency under novel conditions. The public press commented favourably on the performance and result of this initial experiment.

Mr. Coxwell's account of an occasion when he had to try conclusions with a very boisterous wind, and of the way in which he negotiated a very trying and dangerous landing, will be found alike interesting and instructive. It was an ascent from the Crystal Palace, and the morning was fair and of bright promise outwardly; but Coxwell confesses to have disregarded a falling glass. The inflation having been progressing satisfactorily, he retired to partake of luncheon, entirely free from apprehensions; but while thus occupied, he was presently sought out and summoned by a gardener, who told him that his balloon had torn away, and was now completely out of control, dragging his men about the bushes. On reaching the scene, the men, in great strength, were about to attempt a more strenuous effort to drag the balloon back against the wind, which Coxwell promptly forbade, warning them that so they would tear all to pieces. He then commenced, as it were, to "take in a reef," by gathering in the slack of the silk, which chiefly was catching the wind, and by drawing in the net, mesh by mesh, until the more inflated portion of the balloon was left snug and offering but little resistance to the gale, when he got her dragged in a

direction slanting to the wind and under the lee of trees.

Eventually a hazardous and difficult departure was effected, Mr. Chandler, a passenger already booked, insisting on accompanying the aeronaut, in spite of the latter's strongest protestations. And their first peril came quickly, in a near shave of fouling the balcony of the North Tower, which they avoided only by a prompt discharge of sand, the crowd cheering loudly as they saw how the crisis was avoided. The car, adds Mr. Coxwell in his memoirs, "was apparently trailing behind the balloon with a pendulous swing, which is not often the case... In less than two minutes we entered the lower clouds, passing through them quickly, and noticing that their tops, which are usually of white, rounded conformation, were torn into shreds and crests of vapour. Above, there was a second wild-looking stratum of another order. We could hear, as we hastened on, the hum of the West End of London; but we were bowling along, having little time to look about us, though some extra sandbags were turned to good account by making a bed of them at the bottom ends of the car, which we occupied in anticipation of a rough landing."

As it came on to rain hard the voyagers agreed to descend, and Coxwell, choosing open ground, succeeded in the oft-attempted endeavour to drop his grapnel in front of a bank or hedge-row. The balloon pulled up with such a shock as inevitably follows when flying at sixty miles an hour, and Mr. Coxwell continues:-"We were at this time suspended like a kite, and it was not so much the quantity of gas which kept us up as the hollow surface of loose silk, which acted like a falling kite, and the obvious game of skill consisted in not letting out too much gas to make the balloon pitch heavily with a thud that would have been awfully unpleasant; but to jockey our final touch in a gradual manner, and yet to do it as quickly as possible for fear of the machine getting adrift, since, under the peculiar circumstances in which we were placed, it would have inevitably fallen with a crushing blow, which might have proved fatal. I never remember to have been in a situation when more coolness and nicety were required to overcome the peril which here beset us; while on that day the strong wind was, strange as it may sound, helping us to alight easily, that is to say as long as the grapnel held fast and the balloon did not turn over like an unsteady kite." Such peril as there was soon terminated without injury to either voyager.

The same remark will apply to an occasion when Coxwell was caught in a thunderstorm, which he thus describes in brief:-"On a second ascent from Chesterfield we were carried into the midst of gathering clouds, which began to flash vividly, and in the end culminated in a storm. There were indications, before we left the earth, as to what might be expected. The lower breeze took us in another direction as we rose, but a gentle, whirling current higher up got us into the vortex of a highly charged cloud.... We had to prove by absolute experience whether the balloon was insulated and a non-conductor. Beyond a drenching, no untoward incident occurred during a voyage lasting in all three-quarters of an hour."

A voyage which Coxwell (referring, doubtless, to aerial travel over English soil only) describes as "being so very much in excess of accustomary trips in balloons" will be seen to fall short of one memorable voyage of which the writer will have to give his own experiences. Some account, however, of what the famous aeronaut has to tell will find a fitting place here.

It was an ascent on a summer night from North Woolwich, and on this occasion Coxwell was accompanied by two friends, one being Henry Youens, who subsequently became a professional balloonist of considerable repute, and who at this time was an ardent amateur. It was half an hour before midnight when the party took their places, and, getting smartly away from the crowd in the gala grounds, shot over the river, and shortly were over the town of Greenwich with the lights of London well ahead. Then their course took them over Kennington Oval, Vauxhall Bridge, and Battersea, when they presently heard the strains of a Scotch polka. This came up from the then famous Gardens of Cremorne, and, the breeze freshening, it was but a few minutes later when they stood over Kingston, by which time it became a question whether, being now clear of London, they should descend or else live out the night and take what thus might come their way. This course, as the most prudent, as well as the most fascinating, was that which commended itself, and at that moment the hour of midnight was heard striking, showing that a fairly long distance had been covered in a short interval of time.

From this period they would seem to have lost their way, and though scattered lights were sighted ahead, they were soon in doubt as to whether they might not already be nearing the sea, a doubt that was strengthened by their hearing the cry of sea-fowl. After a pause, lights were seen looming under the haze to sea-ward, which at times resembled water; and a tail like that of a comet was discerned, beyond which was a black patch of considerable size.

The patch was the Isle of Wight, and the tail the Water from Southampton. They were thus wearing more south and towards danger. They had no Davy lamp with which to read their aneroid, and could only tell from the upward flight of fragments of paper that they were descending. Another deficiency in their equipment was the lack of a trail rope to break their fall, and for some time they were under unpleasant apprehension of an unexpected and rude impact with the ground, or collision with some undesirable object. This induced them to discharge sand and to risk the consequences of another rise into space, and as they mounted they were not reassured by sighting to the south a ridge of lighter colour, which strongly suggested the coast line.

But it was midsummer, and it was not long before bird life awakening was heard below, and then a streak of dawn revealed their locality, which was over the Exe, with Sidmouth and Tor Bay hard by on their left. Then from here, the land jutting seawards, they confidently traversed Dartmoor, and effected a safe, if somewhat unseasonable, descent near Tavistock. The distance travelled was considerable, but the duration, on the aeronaut's own showing, was less than five hours.

In the year 1859 the Times commented on the usefulness of military balloons in language that fully justified all that Coxwell had previously claimed for them. A war correspondent, who had accompanied the Austrian Army during that year, asks pertinently how it had happened that the French had been ready at six o'clock to make a combined attack against the Austrians, who, on their part, had but just taken up positions on the previous evening. The correspondent goes on to supply the answer thus:-"No sooner was the first Austrian battalion out of Vallegio than a balloon was observed to rise in the air from the vicinity of Monsambano-a signal, no doubt, for the French in Castiglione. I have a full conviction that the Emperor of the French knew overnight the exact position of every Austrian corps, while the Emperor of Austria was unable to ascertain the number or distribution of the forces of the allies."

It appears that M. Godard was the aeronaut employed to observe the enemy, and that fresh balloons for the French Army were proceeded with.

The date was now near at hand when Coxwell, in partnership with Mr. Glaisher, was to take part in the classical work which has rendered their names famous throughout the world. Before proceeding to tell of that period, however, Mr. Coxwell has done well to record one aerial adventure, which, while but narrowly missing the most serious consequences, gives a very practical illustration of the chances in favour of the aeronaut under extreme circumstances.

It was an ascent at Congleton in a gale of wind, a and the company of two passengers-Messrs. Pearson, of Lawton Hall-was pressed upon him. Everything foretold a rough landing, and some time after the start was made the outlook was not improved by the fact that the dreaded county of Derbyshire was seen approaching; and it was presently apparent that the spot on which they had decided to descend was faced by rocks and a formidable gorge. On this, Coxwell attempted to drop his grapnel in front of a stone wall, and so far with success; but the wall went down, as also another and another, the wicker car passing, with its great impetus, clean through the solid obstacles, till at last the balloon slit from top to bottom. Very serious injuries to heads and limbs were sustained, but no lives were lost, and Coxwell himself, after being laid up at Buxton, got home on crutches.

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