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   Chapter 23 NEW DEPARTURES IN AEROSTATION.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 17767

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


After Mr. Coxwell's experiments at Aldershot in 1862 the military balloon, as far as England was concerned, remained in abeyance for nine long years, when the Government appointed a Commission to enquire into its utility, and to conduct further experiments. The members of this committee were Colonel Noble, R.E., Sir F. Abel, Captain Lee, R.E., assisted by Captain Elsdale, R.E., and Captain (now Colonel) Templer. Yet another nine years, however, elapsed before much more was heard of this modernised military engine.

But about the beginning of the eighties the Government had become fully alive to the importance of the subject, and Royal Engineers at Woolwich grew busy with balloon manufacture and experiment. Soon "the sky around London became speckled with balloons." The method of making so-called pure hydrogen by passing steam over red-hot iron was fully tested, and for a time gained favour. The apparatus, weighing some three tons, was calculated to be not beyond the carrying powers of three service waggons, while it was capable of generating enough gas to inflate two balloons in twenty-four hours, a single inflation holding good, under favourable circumstances, for a long period. At the Brighton Volunteer Review of 1880, Captain Templer, with nine men, conducted the operations of a captive reconnoitring balloon. This was inflated at the Lewes gas works, and then towed two and a half miles across a river, a railway, and a line of telegraph wires, after which it was let up to a height of 1,500 feet, whence, it was stated, that so good a view was obtained that "every man was clearly seen." Be it remembered, however, that the country was not the South African veldt, and every man was in the striking English uniform of that date.

Just at this juncture came the Egyptian War, and it will be recalled that in the beginning of that war balloons were conspicuous by their absence. The difficulties of reconnaissance were keenly felt and commented on, and among other statements we find the following in the war intelligence of the Times:-

"As the want of a balloon equipment has been mentioned in letters from Egypt, it may be stated that all the War Department balloons remain in store at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich, but have been recently examined and found perfectly serviceable." An assertion had been made to the effect that the nature of the sand in Egypt would impede the transport of the heavy material necessary for inflation. At last, however, the order came for the despatch of the balloon equipment to the front, and though this arrived long after Tel-el-Kebir, yet it is recorded that the first ascent in real active service in the British Army took place on the 25th of March, 1885, at Suakin, and balloons becoming regarded as an all-important part of the equipment of war, they were sent out in the Bechuanaland Expedition under Sir Charles Warren, the supply of gas being shipped to Cape Town in cylinders.

It was at this period that, according to Mr. Coxwell, Lord Wolseley made ascents at home in a war balloon to form his own personal opinion of their capabilities, and, expressing this opinion to one of his staff, said that had he been able to employ balloons in the earlier stages of the Soudan campaign the affair would not have lasted as many months as it did years. This statement, however, should be read in conjunction with another of the same officer in the "Soldier's Pocket Book," that "in a windy country balloons are useless." In the Boer War the usefulness of the balloon was frequently tested, more particularly during the siege of Ladysmith, when it was deemed of great value in directing the fire of the British artillery, and again in Buller's advance, where the balloon is credited with having located a "death-trap" of the enemy at Spion Kop. Other all-important service was rendered at Magersfontein. The Service balloon principally used was made of goldbeaters' skin, containing about 10,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, which had been produced by the action of sulphuric acid on zinc, and compressed in steel cylinders. A special gas factory was, for the purpose of the campaign, established at Cape Town.

It is here that reference must be made to some of the special work undertaken by Mr. Eric S. Bruce, which dealt with the management of captive balloons under different conditions, and with a system of signalling thus rendered feasible. Mr. Bruce, who, since Major Baden-Powell's retirement from the office, has devoted his best energies as secretary to the advancement of the British Aeronautical Society, was the inventor of the system of electric balloon signalling which he supplied to the British Government, as well as to the Belgian and Italian Governments. This system requires but a very small balloon, made of three or four thicknesses of goldbeaters' skin, measuring from 7 to 10 feet in diameter, and needing only two or three gas cylinders for inflation. Within the balloon, which is sufficiently translucent, are placed several incandescent lamps in metallic circuit, with a source of electricity on the ground. This source of electricity may consist of batteries of moderate size or a portable hand dynamo. In the circuit is placed an apparatus for making and breaking contact rapidly, and by varying the duration of the flashes in the balloon telegraphic messages may be easily transmitted. To overcome the difficulty of unsteadiness, under circumstances of rough weather, in the captive balloon which carried the glow lamps, Mr. Bruce experimented with guy ropes, and gave a most successful exhibition of their efficiency before military experts at Stamford Bridge grounds, though a stiff wind was blowing at the time.

It must be perfectly obvious, however, that a captive balloon in a wind is greatly at a disadvantage, and to counteract this, attempts have been made in the direction of a combination between the balloon and a kite. This endeavour has been attended with some measure of success in the German army. Mr. Douglas Archibald, in England, was one of the first to advocate the kite balloon. In 1888 he called attention to the unsatisfactory behaviour of captive balloons in variable winds, dropping with every gust and rising again with a lull. In proof he described an expedient of Major Templer's, where an attempt was being made to operate a photographic camera hoisted by two tandem kites. "The balloon," he writes, "went up majestically, and all seemed very satisfactory until a mile of cable had been run out, and the winder locked." It was then that troubles began which threatened the wreckage of the apparatus, and Mr. Archibald, in consequence, strongly recommended a kite balloon at that time. Twelve years later the same able experimentalist, impressed with the splendid work done by kites alone for meteorological purposes at least, allowed that he was quite content to "let the kite balloon go by."

But the German school of aeronauts were doing bigger things than making trials with kite balloons. The German Society for the Promotion of Aerial Navigation, assisted by the Army Balloon Corps, were busy in 1888, when a series of important ascents were commenced. Under the direction of Dr. Assmann, the energetic president of the aeronautical society above named, captive ascents were arranged in connection with free ascents for meteorological purposes, and it was thus practicable to make simultaneous observations at different levels. These experiments, which were largely taken up on the Continent, led to others of yet higher importance, in which the unmanned balloon took a part. But the Continental annals of this date contain one unhappy record of another nature, the recounting of which will, at least, break the monotony attending mere experimental details.

In October, 1893, Captain Charbonnet, an enthusiastic French aeronaut, resolved on spending his honeymoon, with the full consent of his bride, in a prolonged balloon excursion. The start was to be made from Turin, and, the direction of travel lying across the Alps, it was the hope of the voyagers eventually to reach French territory. The ascent was made in perfect safety, as was also the first descent, at the little village of Piobesi, ten miles away. Here a halt was made for the night, and the next morning, when a fresh start was determined on, two young Italians, Signori Botto and Durando, were taken on board as assistants, for the exploit began to assume an appearance of some gravity, and this the more so when storm clouds began brewing. At an altitude of 10,000 feet cross-currents were encountered, and the course becoming obscured the captain descended to near the earth, where he discovered himself to be in dangerous proximity to gaunt mountain peaks. On observing this, he promptly cast out sand so liberally that the balloon rose to a height approaching 20,000 f

eet, when a rapid descent presently began, and refused to be checked, even with the expenditure of all available ballast.

All the while the earth remained obscured, but, anticipating a fall among the mountains, Captain Charbonnet bade his companions lie down in the car while he endeavoured to catch sight of some landmark; but, quite suddenly, the balloon struck some mountain slope with such force as to throw the captain back into the car with a heavy blow over the eye; then, bounding across a gulley, it struck again and yet again, falling and rebounding between rocky walls, till it settled on a steep and snowy ridge. Darkness was now closing in, and the party, without food or proper shelter, had to pass the night as best they might on the bare spot where they fell, hoping for encouragement with the return of day. But dawn showed them to be on a dangerous peak, 10,000 feet high, whence they must descend by their own unassisted efforts. After a little clambering the captain, who was in a very exhausted state, fell through a hidden crevasse, fracturing his skull sixty feet below. The remaining three struggled on throughout the day, and had to pass a second night on the mountain, this time without covering. On the third day they met with a shepherd, who conducted them with difficulty to the little village of Balme.

This story, by virtue of its romance, finds a place in these pages; but, save for its tragic ending, it hardly stands alone. Ballooning enterprise and adventure were growing every year more and more common on the Continent. In Scandinavia we find the names of Andree, Fraenkal, and Strindberg; in Denmark that of Captain Rambusch. Berlin and Paris had virtually become the chief centres of the development of ballooning as a science. In the former city a chief among aeronauts had arisen in Dr. A. Berson, who, in December, 1894, not only reached 30,000 feet, ascending alone, but at that height sustained himself sufficiently, by inhaling oxygen, to take systematic observations throughout the entire voyage of five hours. The year before, in company with Lieutenant Gross, he barely escaped with his life, owing to tangled ropes getting foul of the valve. Toulet and those who accompanied him lost their lives near Brussels. Later Wolfert and his engineer were killed near Berlin, while Johannsen and Loyal fell into the Sound. Thus ever fresh and more extended enterprise was embarked upon with good fortune and ill. In fact, it had become evident to all that the Continent afforded facilities for the advancement of aerial exploration which could be met with in no other parts of the world, America only excepted. And it was at this period that the expedient of the ballon sonde, or unmanned balloon, was happily thought of. One of these balloons, the "Cirrus," among several trials, rose to a height, self-registered, of 61,000 feet, while a possible greater height has been accorded to it. On one occasion, ascending from Berlin, it fell in Western Russia, on another in Bosnia. Then, in 1896, at the Meteorological Conference at Paris, with Mascart as President, Gustave Hermite, with characteristic ardour, introduced a scheme of national ascents with balloons manned and unmanned, and this scheme was soon put in effect under a commission of famous names-Andree, Assmann, Berson, Besancon, Cailletet, Erk, de Fonvielle, Hergesell, Hermite, Jaubert, Pomotzew (of St. Petersburg), and Rotch (of Boston, Mass.).

In November, 1896, five manned balloons and three unmanned ascended simultaneously from France, Germany, and Russia. The next year saw, with the enterprise of these nations, the co-operation of Austria and Belgium. Messrs. Hermite and Besancon, both French aeronauts, were the first to make practical trial of the method of sounding the upper air by unmanned balloons, and, as a preliminary attempt, dismissed from Paris a number of small balloons, a large proportion of which were recovered, having returned to earth after less than 100 miles' flight. Larger paper balloons were now constructed, capable of carrying simple self-recording instruments, also postcards, which became detached at regular intervals by the burning away of slow match, and thus indicated the path of the balloon. The next attempt was more ambitious, made with a goldbeaters' skin balloon containing 4,000 cubic feet of gas, and carrying automatic instruments of precision. This balloon fell in the Department of the Yonne, and was returned to Paris with the instruments, which remained uninjured, and which indicated that an altitude of 49,000 feet had been reached, and a minimum temperature of -60 degrees encountered. Yet larger balloons of the same nature were then experimented with in Germany, as well as France.

A lack of public support has crippled the attempts of experimentalists in this country, but abroad this method of aerial exploration continues to gain favour.

Distinct from, and supplementing, the records obtained by free balloons, manned or unmanned, are those to be gathered from an aerostat moored to earth. It is here that the captive balloon has done good service to meteorology, as we have shown, but still more so has the high-flying kite. It must long have been recognised that instruments placed on or near the ground are insufficient for meteorological purposes, and, as far back as 1749, we find Dr. Wilson, of Glasgow, employing kites to determine the upper currents, and to carry thermometers into higher strata of the air. Franklin's kite and its application is matter of history. Many since that period made experiments more or less in earnest to obtain atmospheric observations by means of kites, but probably the first in England, at least to obtain satisfactory results, was Mr. Douglas Archibald, who, during the eighties, was successful in obtaining valuable wind measurements, as also other results, including aerial photographs, at varying altitudes up to 1,000 or 1,200 feet. From that period the records of serious and systematic kite flying must be sought in America. Mr. W. A. Eddy was one of the pioneers, and a very serviceable tailless kite, in which the cross-bar is bowed away from the wind, is his invention, and has been much in use. Mr. Eddy established his kite at Blue Hill-the now famous kite observatory-and succeeded in lifting self-recording meteorological instruments to considerable heights. The superiority of readings thus obtained is obvious from the fact that fresh air-streams are constantly playing on the instruments.

A year or two later a totally dissimilar kite was introduced by Mr. Lawrence Hargrave, of Sydney, Australia. This invention, which has proved of the greatest utility and efficiency, would, from its appearance, upset all conventional ideas of what a kite should be, resembling in its simplest form a mere box, minus the back and front. Nevertheless, these kites, in their present form, have carried instruments to heights of upwards of two miles, the restraining line being fine steel piano wire.

But another and most efficient kite, admirably adapted for many most important purposes, is that invented by Major Baden-Powell. The main objects originally aimed at in the construction of this kite related to military operations, such as signalling, photography, and the raising of a man to an elevation for observational purposes. In the opinion of the inventor, who is a practiced aeronaut, a wind of over thirty miles an hour renders a captive balloon useless, while a kite under such conditions should be capable of taking its place in the field. Describing his early experiments, Major, then Captain, Baden-Powell, stated that in 1894, after a number of failures, he succeeded with a hexagonal structure of cambric, stretched on a bamboo framework 36 feet high, in lifting a man-not far, but far enough to prove that his theories were right. Later on, substituting a number of small kites for one big one, he was, on several occasions, raised to a height of 100 feet, and had sent up sand bags, weighing 9 stone, to 300 feet, at which height they remained suspended nearly a whole day.

This form of kite, which has been further developed, has been used in the South African campaign in connection with wireless telegraphy for the taking of photographs at great heights, notably at Modder River, and for other purposes.

It has been claimed that the first well-authenticated occasion of a man being raised by a kite was when at Pirbright Camp a Baden-Powell kite, 30 feet high, flown by two lines, from which a basket was suspended, took a man up to a height of 10 feet. It is only fair, however, to state that it is related that more than fifty years ago a lady was lifted some hundred feet by a great kite constructed by one George Pocock, whose machine was designed for an observatory in war, and also for drawing carriages along highways.

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