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   Chapter 24 ANDREE AND HIS VOYAGES

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 17004

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Among many suggestions, alike important and original, due to Major Baden-Powell, and coming within the field of aeronautics, is one having reference to the use of balloons for geographical research generally and more particularly for the exploration of Egypt, which, in his opinion, is a country possessing many most desirable qualifications on the score of prevailing winds, of suitable base, and of ground adapted for such steering as may be effected with a trail rope. At the Bristol meeting of the British Association the Major thus propounded his method: "I should suggest several balloons, one of about 60,000 cubic feet, and, say, six smaller ones of about 7,000 cubic feet; then, if one gets torn or damaged, the others might remain intact. After a time, when gas is lost, one of the smaller ones could be emptied into the others, and the exhausted envelope discharged as ballast; the smaller balloons would be easier to transport by porters than one big one, and they could be more easily secured on the earth during contrary winds. Over the main balloon a light awning might be rigged to neutralise, as far as possible, the changes of temperature. A lightning conductor to the top of the balloon might be desirable. A large sail would be arranged, and a bifurcated guide rope attached to the end of a horizontal pole would form an efficient means of steering. The car would be boat-shaped and waterproof, so that it could be used for a return journey down a river. Water tanks would be fitted."

The reasonableness of such a scheme is beyond question, even without the working calculations with which it is accompanied; but, ere these words were spoken, one of the most daring explorers that the world has known had begun to put in practice a yet bolder and rasher scheme of his own. The idea of reaching the North Pole by means of balloons appears to have been entertained many years ago. In a curious work, published in Paris in 1863 by Delaville Dedreux, there is a suggestion for reaching the North Pole by an aerostat which should be launched from the nearest accessible point, the calculation being that the distance from such a starting place to the Pole and back again would be only some 1,200 miles, which could be covered in two days, supposing only that there could be found a moderate and favourable wind in each direction. Mr. C. G. Spencer also wrote on the subject, and subsequently Commander Cheyne proposed a method of reaching the Pole by means of triple balloons. A similar scheme was advocated in yet more serious earnest by M. Hermite in the early eighties.

Some ten years later than this M. S. A. Andree, having obtained sufficient assistance, took up the idea with the determined intention of pushing it to a practical issue. He had already won his spurs as an aeronaut, as may be briefly told. In October, 1893, when making an ascent for scientific purposes, his balloon got carried out over the Baltic. It may have been the strength of the wind that had taken him by surprise; but, there being now no remedy, it was clearly the speed and persistence of the wind that alone could save him. If a chance vessel could not, or would not, "stand by," he must make the coast of Finland or fall in the sea, and several times the fall in the sea seemed imminent as his balloon commenced dropping. This threatened danger induced him to cast away his anchor, after which the verge of the Finland shore was nearly reached, when a change of wind began to carry him along the rocky coast, just as night was setting in.

Recognising his extreme danger, Andree stood on the edge of the car, with a bag of ballast ready for emergencies. He actually passed over an island, on which was a building with a light; but failed to effect a landing, and so fell in the sea on the farther side; but, the balloon presently righting itself, Andree, now greatly exhausted, made his last effort, and as he rose over the next cliff jumped for his life. It was past 7 p.m. when he found himself once again on firm ground, but with a sprained leg and with no one within call. Seeking what shelter he could, he lived out the long night, and, being now scarce able to stand, took off his clothes and waved them for a signal. This signal was not seen, yet shortly a boat put off from an island-the same that he had passed the evening before-and rowed towards him. The boatman overnight had seen a strange sail sweeping over land and sea, and he had come in quest of it, bringing timely succour to the castaway.

Briefly stated, Andree's grand scheme was to convey a suitable balloon, with means for inflating it, as also all necessary equipment, as far towards the Pole as a ship could proceed, and thence, waiting for a favourable wind, to sail by sky until the region of the Pole should be crossed, and some inhabited country reached beyond. The balloon was to be kept near the earth, and steered, as far as this might be practicable, by means of a trail rope. The balloon, which had a capacity of nearly 162,000 cubic feet, was made in Paris, and was provided with a rudder sail and an arrangement whereby the hang of the trail rope could be readily shifted to different positions on the ring. Further, to obviate unnecessary diffusion and loss of gas at the mouth, the balloon was fitted with a lower valve, which would only open at a moderate pressure, namely, that of four inches of water.

All preparations were completed by the summer of 1896, and on June 7th the party embarked at Gothenburg with all necessaries on board, arriving at Spitzbergen on June 21st. Andree, who was to be accompanied on his aerial voyage by two companions, M. Nils Strindberg and Dr. Ekholm, spent some time in selecting a spot that would seem suitable for their momentous start, and this was finally found on Dane's Island, where their cargo was accordingly landed.

The first operation was the erection of a wooden shed, the materials for which they had brought with them, as a protection from the wind. It was a work which entailed some loss of time, after which the gas apparatus had to be got into order, so that, in spite of all efforts, it was the 27th of July before the balloon was inflated and in readiness.

A member of an advance party of an eclipse expedition arriving in Spitzbergen at this period, and paying a visit to Andree for the purpose of taking him letters, wrote:-"We watched him deal out the letters to his men. They are all volunteers and include seven sea captains, a lawyer, and other people some forty in all. Andree chaffed each man to whom he gave a letter, and all were as merry as crickets over the business.... We spent our time in watching preparations. The vaseline (for soaking the guide ropes) caught fire to-day, but, luckily no rope was in the pot."

But the wind as yet was contrary, and day after day passed without any shift to a favourable quarter, until the captain of the ship which had conveyed them was compelled to bring matters to an issue by saying that they must return home without delay if he was to avoid getting frozen in for the winter. The balloon had now remained inflated for twenty-one days, and Dr. Ekholm, calculating that the leakage of gas amounted to nearly 1 per cent. per day, became distrustful of the capability of such a vessel to cope with such a voyage as had been aimed at. The party had now no choice but to return home with their balloon, leaving, however, the shed and gas-generating apparatus for another occasion.

This occasion came the following summer, when the dauntless explorers returned to their task, leaving Gothenburg on May 28th, 1897, in a vessel lent by the King of Sweden, and reaching Dane's Island on the 30th of the same month. Dr. Ekholm had retired from the enterprise, but in his place were two volunteers, Messrs. Frankel and Svedenborg, the latter as "odd man," to fill the place of any of the other three who might be prevented from making the final venture.

It was found that the shed had suffered during the winter, and some time was spent in making the repairs and needful preparation, so that the month of June was half over before all was in readiness for the inflation. This operation was then accomplished in four days, and by midnight of June 22nd the balloon was at her moorings, full and in readiness; but, as in the previous year, the wind was contrary, and remained so for nearly three weeks. This, of course, was a less serious matter, inasmuch as the voyagers were a month earli

er with their preparation, but so long a delay must needs have told prejudicially against the buoyancy of the balloon, and Andree is hardly to be blamed for having, in the end, committed himself to a wind that was not wholly favourable.

The wind, if entirely from the right direction, should have been due south, but on July 11th it had veered to a direction somewhat west of south, and Andree, tolerating no further delay, seized this as his best opportunity, and with a wind "whistling through the woodwork of the shed and flapping the canvas," accompanied by Frankel and Svedenborg, started on his ill-fated voyage.

A telegram which Andree wrote for the Press at that epoch ran thus:- "At this moment, 2.30 p.m., we are ready to start. We shall probably be driven in a north-north-easterly direction."

On July 22nd a carrier pigeon was recovered by the fishing boat Alken between North Cape, Spitzbergen, and Seven Islands, bearing a message, "July 13th, 12.30 p.m., 82 degrees 2 minutes north lat., 15 degrees 5 minutes east long. Good journey eastward. All goes well on board. Andree."

Not till August 31st was there picked up in the Arctic zone a buoy, which is preserved in the Museum of Stockholm. It bears the message, "Buoy No. 4. First to be thrown out. 11th July, 10 p.m., Greenwich mean time. All well up till now. We are pursuing our course at an altitude of about 250 metres Direction at first northerly 10 degrees east; later; northerly 45 degrees east. Four carrier pigeons were despatched at 5.40 p.m. They flew westwards. We are now above the ice, which is very cut up in all directions. Weather splendid. In excellent spirits.-Andree, Svedenborg, Frankel. (Postscript later on.) Above the clouds, 7.45, Greenwich mean time."

According to Reuter, the Anthropological and Geological Society at Stockholm received the following telegram from a ship owner at Mandal:-"Captain Hueland, of the steamship Vaagen who arrived there on Monday morning, reports that when off Kola Fjord, Iceland, in 65 degrees 34 minutes north lat., 21 degrees 28 minutes west long., on May 14th he found a drifting buoy, marked 'No. 7.' Inside the buoy was a capsule marked 'Andree's Polar Expedition,' containing a slip of paper, on which was given the following: 'Drifting Buoy No. 7. This buoy was thrown out from Andree's balloon on July 11th 1897, 10.55 p.m., Greenwich mean time, 82 degrees north lat., 25 degrees east lon. We are at an altitude of 600 metres. All well.-Andree, Svedenborg, Frankel.'"

Commenting on the first message, Mr. Percival Spencer says:-"I cannot place reliance upon the accuracy of either the date or else the lat. and long. given, as I am confident that the balloon would have travelled a greater distance in two days." It should be noted that Dane's Island lies in 79 degrees 30 minutes north lat. and 10 degrees 10 minutes east long.

Mr. Spencer's opinion, carefully considered and expressed eighteen months afterwards, will be read with real interest:-

"The distance from Dane's Island to the Pole is about 750 miles, and to Alaska on the other side about 1,500 miles. The course of the balloon, however, was not direct to the Pole, but towards Franz Josef Land (about 600 miles) and to the Siberian coast (another 800 miles). Judging from the description of the wind at the start, and comparing it with my own ballooning experience, I estimate its speed as 40 miles per hour, and it will, therefore, be evident that a distance of 2,000 miles would be covered in 50 hours, that is two days and two hours after the start. I regard all theories as to the balloon being capable of remaining in the air for a month as illusory. No free balloon has ever remained aloft for more than 36 hours, but with the favourable conditions at the northern regions (where the sun does not set and where the temperature remains equable) a balloon might remain in the air for double the length of time which I consider ample for the purpose of Polar exploration."

A record of the direction of the wind was made after Andree's departure, and proved that there was a fluctuation in direction from S.W. to N.W., indicating that the voyagers may have been borne across towards Siberia. This, however, can be but surmise. All aeronauts of experience know that it is an exceedingly difficult manoeuvre to keep a trail rope dragging on the ground if it is desirable to prevent contact with the earth on the one hand, or on the other to avoid loss of gas. A slight increase of temperature or drying off of condensed moisture may-indeed, is sure to after a while-lift the rope off the ground, in which case the balloon, rising into upper levels, may be borne away on currents which may be of almost any direction, and of which the observer below may know nothing. As to the actual divergence from the wind's direction which a trail rope and side sail might be hoped to effect, it may be confidently stated that, notwithstanding some wonderful accounts that have gone abroad, it must not be relied on as commonly amounting to much more than one or, at the most, two points.

Although it is to be feared that trustworthy information as to the ultimate destination of Andree's balloon may never be gained, yet we may safely state that his ever famous, though regrettable, voyage was the longest in duration ever attained. At the end of 48 hours his vessel would seem to have been still well up and going strong. The only other previous voyage that had in duration of travel approached this record was that made by M. Mallet, in 1892, and maintained for 36 hours. Next we may mention that of M. Herve, in 1886, occupying 24 1/2 hours, which feat, however, was almost equal led by the great Leipzig balloon in 1897, which, with eight people in the car, remained up for 24 1/4 hours, and did not touch earth till 1,032 miles had been traversed.

The fabric of Andree's balloon may not be considered to have been the best for such an exceptional purpose. Dismissing considerations of cost, goldbeaters' skin would doubtless have been more suitable. The military balloons at Aldershot are made of this, and one such balloon has been known to remain inflated for three months with very little loss. It is conceivable, therefore, that the chances of the voyagers, whose ultimate safety depended so largely upon the staying power of their aerial vessel, might have been considerably increased.

One other expedient, wholly impracticable, but often seriously discussed, may be briefly referred to, namely, the idea of taking up apparatus for pumping gas into metal receivers as the voyage proceeds, in order to raise or lower a balloon, and in this way to prolong its life. Mr. Wenham has investigated the point with his usual painstaking care, and reduced its absurdity to a simple calculation, which should serve to banish for good such a mere extravagant theory.

Suppose, he says, the gas were compressed to one-twentieth part of its bulk, which would mean a pressure within its receiver of 300 lbs. per square inch, and that each receiver had a capacity of 1 cubic foot, while for safety sake it was made of steel plates one-twentieth of an inch thick, then each receiver would weigh 10 lbs., and to liberate 1,000 feet clearly a weight of 500 lbs. would have to be taken up. Now, when it is considered that 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen will only lift 72 lbs., the scheme begins to look hope less enough. But when the question of the pumping apparatus, to be worked by hand, is contemplated the difficulties introduced become yet more insuperable. The only feasible suggestion with respect the use of compressed gas is that of taking on board charged cylinders under high pressure, which, after being discharged to supply the leakage of the balloon could, in an uninhabited country, be cast out as ballast last. It will need no pointing out, however, that such an idea would be practically as futile as another which has gravely been recommended, namely, that of heating the gas of the balloon by a Davy lamp, so as to increase its buoyancy at will. Major Baden-Powell has aptly described this as resembling "an attempt to warm a large hall with a small spirit lamp."

In any future attempt to reach the Pole by balloon it is not unreasonable to suppose that wireless telegraphy will be put in practice to maintain communication with the base. The writer's personal experience of the possibilities afforded by this mode of communication, yet in its infancy, will be given.

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