CHAPTER XIII. SOME NOTEWORTHY ASCENTS.
It was the year 1862, and the scientific world in England determined once again on attempting observational work in connection with balloons. There had been a meeting of the British Association at Wolverhampton, and, under their auspices, and with the professional services of Thomas Lythgoe, Mr. Creswick, of Greenwich Observatory, was commissioned to make a lofty scientific ascent with a Cremorne balloon. The attempt, however, was unsatisfactory; and the balloon being condemned, an application was made to Mr. Coxwell to provide a suitable craft, and to undertake its management. The principals of the working committee were Colonel Sykes, M.P., Dr. Lee, and Mr. James Glaisher, F.R.S., and a short conference between these gentlemen and the experienced aeronaut soon made it clear that a mammoth balloon far larger than any in existence was needed for the work in hand. But here a fatal obstacle presented itself in lack of funds, for it transpired that the grant voted was only to be devoted to trial ascents.
It was then that Mr. Coxwell, with characteristic enterprise, undertook, at his own cost, to build a suitable balloon, and, moreover, to have it ready by Midsummer Day. It was a bold, as well as a generous, offer; for it was now March, and, according to Mr. Coxwell's statement, if silk were employed, the preparation and manufacture would occupy six months and cost not less than L2,000. The fabric chosen was a sort of American cloth, and by unremitting efforts the task was performed to time, and the balloon forwarded to Wolverhampton, its dimensions being 55 feet in diameter, 80 feet in height from the ground, with a capacity of 93,000 cubic feet. But the best feature in connection with it was the fact that Mr. Glaisher himself was to make the ascents as scientific observer.
No time was lost in getting to work, but twice over the chosen days were unsuitable, and it was not till July 17th that the two colleagues, of whom so much is to be told, got away at 9.30 a.m. with their balloon only two-thirds full, to allow of expansion to take place in such a lofty ascent as was contemplated. And, when it is considered that an altitude of five miles was reached, it will be granted that the scientific gentleman who was making his maiden ascent that day showed remarkable endurance and tenacity of purpose - the all-important essential for the onerous and trying work before him. At 9.56 the balloon had disappeared from sight, climbing far into the sky in the E.N.E. The story of the voyage we must leave in Mr. Glaisher's hands. Certain events, however, associated with other aeronauts, which had already happened, and which should be considered in connection with the new drama now to be introduced, may fittingly here meet with brief mention.
The trouble arising from the coasting across country of a fallen and still half-inflated balloon has already been sufficiently illustrated, and needs little further discussion. It is common enough to see a balloon, when full and round, struggling restively under a moderate breeze with a score of men, and dragging them, and near a ton of sand-bags as well, about the starting ground. But, as has already been pointed out, the power of the wind on the globe is vastly increased when the silk becomes slack and forms a hollow to hold the wind, like a bellying sail. Various means to deal with this difficulty have been devised, one of these being an emergency, or ripping valve, in addition to the ordinary valve, consisting of an arrangement for tearing a large opening in the upper part of one of the gores, so that on reaching earth the balloon may be immediately crippled and emptied of so large a quantity of gas as to render dragging impossible. Such a method is not altogether without drawbacks, one of these being the confusion liable to arise from there being more than one valve line to reckon with. To obviate this, it has been suggested that the emergency line should be of a distinctive colour.
But an experiment with a safeguard to somewhat of this nature was attended with fatal consequence in the year 1824. A Mr. Harris, a lieutenant in the British Navy, ascended from the Eagle Tavern, City Road, with a balloon fitted with a contrivance of his own invention, consisting of a large hinged upper valve, having within it a smaller valve of the same description, the idea being that, should the operation of the smaller outlet not suffice for any occasion, then the shutter of the larger opening might be resorted to, to effect a more liberal discharge of gas.