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   Chapter 19 THE TRAGEDY OF THE ZENITH—THE NAVIGABLE BALLOON

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 16848

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The mechanical air ship had, by this time, as may be inferred, begun seriously to occupy the attention of both theoretical and practical aeronauts. One of the earliest machines deserving of special mention was designed by M. Giffard, and consisted of an elongated balloon, 104 feet in length and 39 feet in greatest diameter, furnished with a triangular rudder, and a steam engine operating a screw. The fire of the engine, which burned coke, was skilfully protected, and the fuel and water required were taken into calculation as so much ballast to be gradually expended. In this vessel, inflated only with coal gas, and somewhat unmanageable and difficult to balance, the enthusiastic inventor ascended alone from the Hippodrome and executed sundry desired movements, not unsuccessfully. But the trial was not of long duration, and the descent proved both rapid and perilous. Had the trial been made in such a perfect calm as that which prevailed when certain subsequent inventions were tested, it was considered that M. Giffard's vessel would have been as navigable as a boat in the water. This unrivalled mechanician, after having made great advances in the direction of high speed engines of sufficient lightness, proceeded to design a vastly improved dirigible balloon, when his endeavours were frustrated by blindness.

As has been already stated, M. Dupuy de Lome, at the end of the siege of Paris, was engaged in building a navigable balloon, which, owing to the unsettled state of affairs in France, did not receive its trial till two years later. This balloon, which was inflated with pure hydrogen, was of greater capacity than that of M. Giffard, being cigar shaped and measuring 118 feet by 48 feet. It was also provided with an ingenious arrangement consisting of an internal air bag, capable of being either inflated or discharged, for the purpose of keeping the principal envelope always distended, and thus offering the least possible resistance to the wind. The propelling power was the manual labour of eight men working the screw, and the steerage was provided for by a triangular rudder. The trial, which was carried out without mishap, took place in February, 1872, in the Fort of Vincennes, under the personal direction of the inventor, when it was found that the vessel readily obeyed the helm, and was capable of a speed exceeding six miles an hour.

It was not till nine years after this that the next important trial with air ships was made. The brothers Tissandier will then be found taking the lead, and an appalling incident in the aeronautical career of one of these has now to be recorded.

In the spring of 1875, and with the co-operation of French scientific societies, it was determined to make two experimental voyages in a balloon called the "Zenith," one of these to be of long duration, the other of great height. The first of these had been successfully accomplished in a flight of twenty-four hours' duration from Paris to Bordeaux. It was now April the 15th, and the lofty flight was embarked upon by M. Gaston Tissandier, accompanied by MM. Croce-Spinelli and Sivel. Under competent advice, provision for respiration on emergency was provided in three small balloons, filled with a mixture of air and oxygen, and fitted with indiarubber hose pipes, which would allow the mixture, when inhaled, to pass first through a wash bottle containing aromatic fluid. The experiments determined on included an analysis of the proportion of carbonic acid gas at different heights by means of special apparatus; spectroscopic observations, and the readings registered by certain barometers and thermometers. A novel and valuable experiment, also arranged, was that of testing the internal temperature of the balloon as compared with that of the external air.

Ascending at 11.30 a.m. under a warm sun, the balloon had by 1 p.m. reached an altitude of 16,000 feet, when the external air was at freezing point, the gas high in the balloon being 72 degrees, and at the centre 66 degrees. Ere this height had been fully reached, however, the voyagers had begun to breathe oxygen. At 11.57, an hour previously, Spinelli had written in his notebook, "Slight pain in the ears-somewhat oppressed-it is the gas." At 23,000 feet Sivel wrote in his notebook, "I am inhaling oxygen-the effect is excellent," after which he proceeded to urge the balloon higher by a discharge of ballast. The rest of the terrible narrative has now to be taken from the notes of M. Tissandier, and as these constitute one of the most thrilling narratives in aeronautical records we transcribe them nearly in full, as given by Mr. Glaisher:-

"At 23,000 feet we were standing up in the car. Sivel, who had given up for a moment, is re-invigorated. Croce-Spinelli is motionless in front of me.... I felt stupefied and frozen. I wished to put on my fur gloves, but, without being conscious of it, the action of taking them from my pocket necessitated an effort that I could no longer make.... I copy, verbatim, the following lines which were written by me, although I have no very distinct remembrance of doing so. They are traced in a hardly legible manner by a hand trembling with cold: 'My hands are frozen. I am all right. We are all all right. Fog in the horizon, with little rounded cirrus. We are ascending. Croce pants; he inhales oxygen. Sivel closes his eyes. Croce also closes his eyes.... Sivel throws out ballast'-these last words are hardly readable. Sivel seized his knife and cut successively three cords, and the three bags emptied themselves and we ascended rapidly. The last remembrance of this ascent which remains clear to me relates to a moment earlier. Croce-Spinelli was seated, holding in one hand a wash bottle of oxygen gas. His head was slightly inclined and he seemed oppressed. I had still strength to tap the aneroid barometer to facilitate the movement of the needle. Sivel had just raised his hand towards the sky. As for myself, I remained perfectly still, without suspecting that I had, perhaps, already lost the power of moving. About the height of 25,000 feet the condition of stupefaction which ensues is extraordinary. The mind and body weaken by degrees, and imperceptibly, without consciousness of it. No suffering is then experienced; on the contrary, an inner joy is felt like an irradiation from the surrounding flood of light. One becomes indifferent. One thinks no more of the perilous position or of danger. One ascends, and is happy to ascend. The vertigo of the upper regions is not an idle word; but, so far as I can judge from my personal impression, vertigo appears at the last moment; it immediately precedes annihilation, sudden, unexpected, and irresistible.

"When Sivel cut away the bags of ballast at the height of about 24,000 feet, I seemed to remember that he was sitting at the bottom of the car, and nearly in the same position as Croce-Spinelli. For my part, I was in the angle of the car, thanks to which support I was able to hold up; but I soon felt too weak even to turn my head to look at my companions. Soon I wished to take hold of the tube of oxygen, but it was impossible to raise my arm. My mind, nevertheless, was quite clear. I wished to explain, 'We are 8,000 metres high'; but my tongue was, as it were, paralysed. All at once I closed my eyes, and, sinking down inert, became insensible. This was about 1.30 p.m. At 2.8 p.m. I awoke for a moment, and found the balloon rapidly descending. I was able to cut away a bag of ballast to check the speed and write in my notebook the following lines, which I copy:

"'We are descending. Temperature, 3 degrees. I throw out ballast. Barometer, 12.4 inches. We are descending. Sivel and Croce still in a fainting state at the bottom of the car. Descending very rapidly.'

"Hardly had I written these lines when a kind of trembling seized me, and I fell back weakened again. There was a violent wind from below, upwards, denoting a very rapid descent. After some minutes I felt myself shaken by the arm, and I recognised Croce, who had revived. 'Throw out ballast,' he said to me, 'we are descending '; but I could hardly open my eyes, and did not see whether Sivel was awake. I called to mind that Croce unfastened the aspirator, which he then threw overboard, and then he threw out ballast, rugs, etc.

"All this is an extremely confused remembrance, quickly extinguished, for again I fel

l back inert more completely than before, and it seemed to me that I was dying. What happened? It is certain that the balloon, relieved of a great weight of ballast, at once ascended to the higher regions.

"At 3.30 p.m. I opened my eyes again. I felt dreadfully giddy and oppressed, but gradually came to myself. The balloon was descending with frightful speed and making great oscillations. I crept along on my knees, and I pulled Sivel and Croce by the arm. 'Sivel! Croce!' I exclaimed, 'Wake up!' My two companions were huddled up motionless in the car, covered by their cloaks. I collected all my strength, and endeavoured to raise them up. Sivel's face was black, his eyes dull, and his mouth was open and full of blood. Croce's eyes were half closed and his mouth was bloody.

"To relate what happened afterwards is quite impossible. I felt a frightful wind; we were still 9,700 feet high. There remained in the car two bags of ballast, which I threw out. I was drawing near the earth. I looked for my knife to cut the small rope which held the anchor, but could not find it. I was like a madman, and continued to call 'Sivel! Sivel!' By good fortune I was able to put my hand upon my knife and detach the anchor at the right moment. The shock on coming to the ground was dreadful. The balloon seemed as if it were being flattened. I thought it was going to remain where it had fallen, but the wind was high, and it was dragged across fields, the anchor not catching. The bodies of my unfortunate friends were shaken about in the car, and I thought every moment they would be jerked out. At length, however, I seized the valve line, and the gas soon escaped from the balloon, which lodged against a tree. It was then four o'clock. On stepping out, I was seized with a feverish attack, and sank down and thought for a moment that I was going to join my friends in the next world; but I came to. I found the bodies of my friends cold and stiff. I had them put under shelter in an adjacent barn. The descent of the 'Zenith' took place in the plains 155 miles from Paris as the crow flies. The greatest height attained in this ascent is estimated at 28,000 feet."

It was in 1884 that the brothers Tissandier commenced experiments with a screw-propelled air ship resembling in shape those constructed by Giffard and Dupuy de Lome, but smaller, measuring only 91 feet by 30 feet, and operated by an electric motor placed in circuit with a powerful battery of bichromate cells. Two trials were made with this vessel in October, 1883, and again in the following September, when it proved itself capable of holding its course in calm air and of being readily controlled by the rudder.

But, ere this, a number of somewhat similar experiments, on behalf of the French Government, had been entered upon by Captains Renard and Krebs at Chalais-Meudon. Their balloon may be described as fish-shaped, 165 feet long, and 27.5 feet in principal diameter. It was operated by an electric motor, which was capable of driving a screw of large dimensions at forty-eight revolutions per minute. At its first trial, in August, 1884, in dead calm, it attained a velocity of over twelve miles per hour, travelling some two and a half miles in a forward direction, when, by application of the rudder and judicious management, it was manoeuvred homewards, and practically brought to earth at the point of departure.

A more important trial was made on the 12th of the following month, and was witnessed by M. Tissandier, according to whom the aerostat conveying the inventors ascended gently and steadily, drifting with an appreciable breeze until the screw was set in motion and the helm put down, when the vessel was brought round to the wind and held its own until the motor, by an accident, ceased working. A little later the same air ship met with more signal success. On one occasion, starting from Chalais-Meudon, it took a direct course to the N.E., crossing the railway and the Seine, where the aeronauts, stopping the screw, ascertained the velocity of the wind to be approximately five miles an hour. The screw being again put in motion, the balloon was steered to the right, and, following a path parallel to its first, returned to its point of departure. Starting again the same afternoon, it was caused to perform a variety of aerial evolutions, and after thirty-five minutes returned once more to its starting place.

A tabular comparison of the four navigable balloons which we have now described has been given as follows:-

Date. Name. Motor. Vel. p. Sec.

1852 M. Henri Giffard Steam engine 13.12 ft.

1872 M. Dupuy de Lome Muscular force 9.18 ft.

1883 MM. Tissandier Electric motor 9.84 ft.

1884 MM. Renard & Krebs Electric motor 18.04 ft.

About this period, that is in 1883, and really prior to the Meudon experiments, there were other attempts at aerial locomotion not to be altogether passed over, which were made also in France, but financed by English money. The experiments were performed by Mr. F. A. Gower, who, writing to Professor Tyndall, claims to have succeeded in "driving a large balloon fairly against the wind by steam power." A melancholy interest will always belong to these trials from the fact that Mr. Gower was subsequently blown out to sea with his balloon, leaving no trace behind.

At this stage it will be well to glance at some of the more important theories which were being mooted as to the possibility of aerial locomotion properly so called. Broadly, there were two rival schools at this time. We will call them the "lighter-than-air-ites" and the "heavier-than-air-ites," respectively. The former were the advocates of the air vessel of which the balloon is a type. The latter school maintained that, as birds are heavier than air, so the air locomotive of the future would be a machine itself heavier than air, but capable of being navigated by a motor yet to be discovered, which would develop proportionate power. Sir H. Maxim's words may be aptly quoted here. "In all Nature," he says, "we do not find a single balloon. All Nature's flying machines are heavier than the air, and depend altogether upon the development of dynamic energy."

The faculty of soaring, possessed by many birds, of which the albatross may be considered a type, led to numerous speculations as to what would constitute the ideal principle of the air motor. Sir G. Cayley, as far back as 1809, wrote a classical article on this subject, without, however, adding much to its elucidation. Others after his time conceived that the bird, by sheer habit and practice, could perform, as it were, a trick in balancing by making use of the complex air streams varying in speed and direction that were supposed to intermingle above.

Mr. R. A. Proctor discusses the matter with his usual clear-sightedness. He premises that the bird may, in actual fact, only poise itself for some ten minutes-an interval which many will consider far too small-without flap of the wings, and, while contending that the problem must be simply a mechanical one, is ready to admit that "the sustaining power of the air on bodies of a particular form travelling swiftly through it may be much greater or very different in character from what is supposed." In his opinion, it is a fact that a flat body travelling swiftly and horizontally will sink towards the ground much more slowly than a similar body moving similarly but with less speed. In proof of this he gives the homely illustration of a flat stone caused to make "ducks and drakes." Thus he contends that the bird accomplishes its floating feat simply by occasional powerful propulsive efforts, combined with perfect balance. From which he deduces the corollary that "if ever the art of flying, or rather of making flying machines, is attained by man, it will be by combining rapid motion with the power of perfect balancing."

It will now appear as a natural and certain consequence that a feature to be introduced by experimentalists into flying machines should be the "Aeroplane," or, in other words, a plane which, at a desired angle, should be driven at speed through the air. Most notable attempts with this expedient were now shortly made by Hiram Maxim, Langley, and others.

But, contemporaneously with these attempts, certain feats with the rival aerostat-the balloon-were accomplished, which will be most fittingly told in this place.

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