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   Chapter 17 ADVENTURE AND ENTERPRISE.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 18887

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


A balloon which has become famous in history was frequently used in the researches of the French aeronauts mentioned in our last chapter. This was known as "The Giant," the creation of M. Nadar, a progressive and practical aeronaut, who had always entertained ambitious ideas about aerial travel.

M. Nadar had been editor of L'Aeronaut, a French journal devoted to the advancement of aerostation generally. He had also strongly expressed his own views respecting the possibility of constructing air ships that should be subject to control and guidance when winds were blowing. His great contention was that the dirigible air ship would, like a bird, have to be made heavier than the medium in which it was to fly. As he put it, a balloon could never properly become a vessel. It would only be a buoy. In spite of any number of accessories, paddles, wings, fans, sails, it could not possibly prevent the wind from bodily carrying away the whole concern.

After this strong expression of opinion, it may appear somewhat strange that such a bold theoriser should at once have set himself to construct the largest gas balloon on record. Such, however, was the case and the reason urged was not otherwise than plausible. For, seeing that a vast sum of money would be needed to put his theories into practice, M. Nadar conceived the idea of first constructing a balloon so unique and unrivalled that it should compel public attention in a way that no other balloon had done before, and so by popular exhibitions bring to his hand such sums as he required. A proper idea of the scale of this huge machine can be easily gathered. The largest balloons at present exhibited in this country are seldom much in excess of 50,000 cubic feet capacity. Compared with these the "Great Nassau Balloon," built by Charles Green, which has been already sufficiently described, was a true leviathan; while Coxwell's "Mammoth" was larger yet, possessing a content, when fully inflated, of no less than 93,000 cubic feet, and measuring over 55 feet in diameter. This, however, as will be seen, was but a mere pigmy when compared with "The Giant," which, measuring some 74 feet in diameter, possessed the prodigious capacity of 215,000 cubic feet.

But the huge craft possessed another novelty besides that of exceptional size. It was provided with a subsidiary balloon, called the "Compensator," and properly the idea of M. L. Godard, the function of which was to receive any expulsion of gas in ascending, and thus to prevent loss during any voyage. The specification of this really remarkable structure may be taken from M. Nadar's own description. The globe in itself was for greater strength virtually double, consisting of two identical balloons, one within the other, each made of white silk of the finest quality, and costing about 5s. 4d. per yard. No less than 22,000 yards of this silk were required, and the sewing up of the gores was entirely done by hand. The small compensating balloon was constructed to have a capacity of about 3,500 cubic feet, and the whole machine, when fully inflated, was calculated to lift 4 1/2 tons. With this enormous margin of buoyancy, M. Nadar determined on making the car of proportionate and unparalleled dimensions, and of most elaborate design. It contained two floors, of which the upper one was open, the height of all being nearly 7 feet, with a width of about 13 feet. Then what was thought to be due provision was made for possible emergencies. It might descend far from help or habitations, therefore means were provided for attaching wheels and axles. Again, the chance of rough impact had to be considered, and so canes, to act as springs, were fitted around and below. Once again, there was the contingency of immersion to be reckoned with; therefore there were provided buoys and water-tight compartments. Further than this, unusual luxuries were added, for there were cabins, one for the captain at one end, and another with three berths for passengers at the other. Nor was this all, for there was, in addition, a larder, a lavatory, a photographic room, and a printing office. It remains now only to tell the tale of how this leviathan of the air acquitted itself.

The first ascent was made on the 4th of October, 1853, from the Champ de Mars, and no fewer than fifteen living souls were launched together into the sky. Of these Nadar was captain, with the brothers Godard lieutenants. There was the Prince de Sayn-Wittgenstein; there was the Count de St. Martin; above all, there was a lady, the Princess de la Tour d'Auvergne. The balloon came to earth at 9 o'clock at night near Meaux, and, considering all the provision which had been made to guard against rough landing, it can hardly be said that the descent was a happy one. It appears that the car dragged on its side for nearly a mile, and the passengers, far from finding security in the seclusion of the inner chambers, were glad to clamber out above and cling, as best they might, to the ropes.

Many of the party were bruised more or less severely, though no one was seriously injured, and it was reported that such fragile articles as crockery, cakes, confectionery, and wine bottles to the number of no less than thirty-seven, were afterwards discovered to be intact, and received due attention. It is further stated that the descent was decided on contrary to the wishes of the captain, but in deference to the judgment of the experienced MM. Godard, it being apparently their conviction that the balloon was heading out to sea, whereas, in reality, they were going due east, "with no sea at all before them nearer than the Caspian."

This was certainly an unpropitious trial trip for the vessel that had so ambitiously sought dominion over the air, and the next trial, which was embarked upon a fortnight later, Sunday, October 18th, was hardly less unfortunate. Again the ascent was from the Champ de Mars, and the send-off lacked nothing in the way of splendour and circumstance. The Emperor was present, for two hours an interested observer of the proceedings; the King of Greece also attended, and even entered the car, while another famous spectator was the popular Meyerbeer. "The Giant" first gave a preliminary demonstration of his power by taking up, for a cable's length, a living freight of some thirty individuals, and then, at 5.10 p.m., started on its second free voyage, with nine souls on board, among them again being a lady, in the person of Madame Nadar. For nearly twenty-four hours no tidings of the voyage were forthcoming, when a telegram was received stating that the balloon had passed over Compiegne, more than seventy miles from Paris, at 8.30 on the previous evening, and that Nadar had dropped the simple message, "All goes well!" A later telegram the same evening stated that the balloon had at midnight on Sunday passed the Belgian frontier over Erquelines, where the Custom House officials had challenged the travellers without receiving an answer.

But eight-and-forty hours since the start went by without further news, and excitement in Paris grew intense. When the news came at last it was from Bremen, to say that Nadar's balloon had descended at Eystrup, Hanover, with five of the passengers injured, three seriously. These three were M. Nadar, his wife, and M. St. Felix. M. Nadar, in communicating this intelligence, added, "We owe our lives to the courage of Jules Godard." The following signed testimony of M. Louis Godard is forthcoming, and as it refers to an occasion which is among the most thrilling in aerial adventure, it may well be given without abridgment. It is here transcribed almost literatim from Mr. H. Turner's valuable work, "Astra Castra."

"The Giant," after passing Lisle, proceeded in the direction of Belgium, where a fresh current, coming from the Channel, drove it over the marshes of Holland. It was there that M. Louis Godard proposed to descend to await the break of day, in order to recognise the situation and again to depart. It was one in the morning, the night was dark, but the weather calm. Unfortunately, this advice, supported by long experience, was not listened to. "The Giant" went on its way, and then Louis Godard no longer considered himself responsible for the consequences of the voyage.

The balloon coasted the Zuyder Zee, and then entered Hanover. The sun began to appear, drying the netting and sides of the balloon, wet from its passage through the clouds, and produced a dilatation which elevated the aeronauts to 15,000 feet. At eight o'clock the wind, blowing suddenly from the west, drove the balloon in a right line towards the North Sea. It was necessary, at all hazards, to effect a descent. This was a perilous affair, as the wind was blowing with extreme violence. The brothers Godard assisted, by M. Gabriel, opened the valve and got out the anchors; but, unfortunately, the horizontal progress of the balloon augmented from second to second. The first obstacle which the anchors encountered was a tree; it was instantly uprooted, and dragged along to a second obstacle, a house, whose roof was carried off. At this moment the two cables of the anchors were broken without the voyagers being aware of it. Foreseeing the successive shocks that were about to ensue-the moment was critical-the least forgetfulness might cause death. To add to the difficulty, the balloon's inclined position did not permit of operating t

he valve, except on the hoop.

At the request of his brother, Jules Godard attempted the difficult work of climbing to this hoop, and, in spite of his known agility, he was obliged several times to renew the effort. Alone, and not being able to detach the cord, M. Louis Godard begged M. Yon to join his brother on the hoop. The two made themselves masters of the rope, which they passed to Louis Godard. The latter secured it firmly, in spite of the shocks he received. A violent impact shook the car and M. de St. Felix became entangled under the car as it was ploughing the ground. It was impossible to render him any assistance; notwithstanding, Jules Godard, stimulated by his brother, leapt out to attempt mooring the balloon to the trees by means of the ropes. M. Montgolfier, entangled in the same manner, was re-seated in time and saved by Louis Godard.

At this moment others leapt out and escaped with a few contusions. The car, dragged along by the balloon, broke trees more than half a yard in diameter and overthrew everything that opposed it.

Louis Godard made M. Yon leap out of the car to assist Madame Nadar; but a terrible shock threw out MM. Nadar, Louis Godard, and Montgolfier, the two first against the ground, the third into the water. Madame Nadar, in spite of the efforts of the voyagers, remained the last, and found herself squeezed between the ground and the car, which had fallen upon her. More than twenty minutes elapsed before it was possible to disentangle her, in spite of the most vigorous efforts on the part of everyone. It was at this moment the balloon burst and, like a furious monster, destroyed everything around it. Immediately afterwards they ran to the assistance of M. de St. Felix, who had been left behind, and whose face was one ghastly wound, and covered with blood and mire. He had an arm broken, his chest grazed and bruised.

After this accident, though a creditable future lay in store for "The Giant," its monstrous and unwieldy car was condemned, and presently removed to the Crystal Palace, where it was daily visited by large crowds.

It is impossible to dismiss this brief sketch of French balloonists of this period without paying some due tribute to M. Depuis Delcourt, equally well known in the literary and scientific world, and regarded in his own country as a father among aeronauts. Born in 1802, his recollection went back to the time of Montgolfier and Charles, to the feats of Garnerin, and the death of Madame Blanchard. He established the Aerostatic and Meteorological Society of France, and was the author of many works, as well as of a journal dealing with aerial navigation. He closed a life devoted to the pursuit and advancement of aerostation in April, 1864.

Before very long, events began shaping themselves in the political world which were destined to bring the balloon in France into yet greater prominence. But we should mention that already its capabilities in time of war to meet the requirements of military operations had been scientifically and systematically tested, and of these trials it will be necessary to speak without further delay.

Reference has already been made in these pages to a valuable article contributed in 1862 by Lieutenant G. Grover, R.E., to the Royal Engineers' papers. From this report it would appear that the balloon, as a means of reconnoitring, was employed with somewhat uncertain success at the battle of Solferino, the brothers Godard being engaged as aeronauts. The balloon used was a Montgolfier, or fire balloon, and, in spite of its ready inflation, MM. Godard considered it, from the difficulty of maintaining within it the necessary degree of buoyancy, far inferior to the gas inflated balloon. On the other hand, the Austrian Engineer Committee were of a contrary opinion. It would seem that no very definite conclusions had been arrived at with respect to the use and value of the military balloon up to the time of the commencement of the American War in 1862.

It was now that the practice of ballooning became a recognised department of military manoeuvres, and a valuable report appears in the above-mentioned papers from the pen of Captain F. Beaumont, R.E. According to this officer, the Americans made trial of two different balloons, both hydrogen inflated, one having a capacity of about 13,000 cubic feet, and the other about twice as large. It was this latter that the Americans used almost exclusively, it being found to afford more steadiness and safety, and to be the means, sometimes desirable, of taking up more than two persons. The difficulty of sufficient gas supply seems to have been well met. Two generators sufficed, these being "nothing more than large tanks of wood, acid-proof inside, and of sufficient strength to resist the expansive action of the gas; they were provided with suitable stopcocks for regulating the admission of the gas, and with manhole covers for introducing the necessary materials." The gas, as evolved, being made to pass successively through two vessels containing lime water, was delivered cool and purified into the balloon, and as the sulphuric acid needed for the process was found sufficiently cheap, and scrap iron also required was readily come by, it would seem that practical difficulties in the field were reduced to a minimum.

According to Captain Beaumont, the difficulties which might have been expected from windy weather were not considerable, and twenty-five or thirty men sufficed to convey the balloon easily, when inflated, over all obstacles. The transport of the bulk of the rest of the apparatus does not read, on paper, a very serious matter. The two generators required four horses each, and the acid and balloon carts as many more. Arrived on the scene of action, the drill itself was a simple matter. A squad of thirty men under an officer sufficed to get the balloon into position, and to arrange the ballast so that, with all in, there was a lifting power of some thirty pounds. Then, at the word of command, the men together drop the car, and seize the three guy ropes, of which one is made to pass through a snatch block firmly secured. The guy ropes are then payed out according to the directions of the aeronaut, as conveyed through the officer.

The balloon accompanied the army's advance where its services could be turned to the greatest advantage. It was employed in making continual ascents, and furnishing daily reports to General M'Clellan, and it was supposed that by constant observation the aeronaut could, at a glance, assure himself that no change had taken place in the occupation of the country. Captain Beaumont, speaking, be it remembered, of the military operations and manoeuvres then in vogue, declared that earthworks could be seen even at the distance of eight miles, though their character could not be distinctly stated. Wooded country was unfitted for balloon reconnaissance, and only in a plain could any considerable body of troops be made known. Then follows such a description as one would be expecting to find:-

"During the battle of Hanover Court House, which was the first engagement of importance before Richmond, I happened to be close to the balloon when the heavy firing began. The wind was rather high; but I was anxious to see, if possible, what was going on, and I went up with the father of the aeronaut. The balloon was, however, short of gas, and as the wind was high we were obliged to come down. I then went up by myself, the diminished weight giving increased steadiness; but it was not considered safe to go more than 500 feet, on account of the unsettled state of the weather. The balloon was very unsteady, so much so that it was difficult to fix my sight on any particular object. At that distance I could see nothing of the fight."

Following this is another significant sentence:-

"In the case of a siege, I am inclined to think that a balloon reconnaissance would be of less value than in almost any other case where a reconnaissance can be required; but, even here, if useless, it is, at any rate, also harmless. I once saw the fire of artillery directed from the balloon; this became necessary, as it was only in this way that the picket which it was desired to dislodge could be seen. However, I cannot say that I thought the fire of artillery was of much effect against the unseen object; not that this was the fault of the balloon, for had it not told the artillerists which way the shots were falling their fire would have been more useless still."

It will be observed that at this time photography had not been adopted as an adjunct to military ballooning.

Full details have been given in this chapter of the monster balloon constructed by M. Nadar; but in 1864 Eugene Godard built one larger yet of the Montgolfier type. Its capacity was nearly half a million cubic feet, while the stove which inflated it stood 18 feet high, and weighed nearly 1,000 pounds. Two free ascents were made without mishap from Cremorne Gardens. Five years later Ashburnham Park was the scene of captive ascents made with another mammoth balloon, containing no less than 350,000 cubic feet of pure hydrogen, and capable of lifting 11 tons. It was built at a cost of 28,000 francs by M. Giffard, the well-known engineer and inventor of the injector for feeding steam engines.

These aerial leviathans do not appear to have been, in any true sense successful.

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