CHAPTER XII. HENRY COXWELL AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES.
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.