CHAPTER XIV. THE HIGHEST ASCENT ON RECORD.
"Our descent began a little after 11 a.m., Mr. Coxwell experiencing considerable uneasiness at our too close vicinity to the Wash. We came down quickly from a height of 16,300 feet to one of 12,400 feet in one minute; at this elevation we entered into a dense cloud which proved to be no less than 8,000 feet in thickness and whilst passing through this the balloon was invisible from the car. From the rapidity of the descent the balloon assumed the shape of a parachute, and though Mr. Coxwell had reserved a large amount of ballast, which he discharged as quickly as possible, we collected so much weight by the condensation of the immense amount of vapour through which we passed that, notwithstanding all his exertions, we came to the earth with a very considerable shock, which broke nearly all the instruments.... The descent took place at Langham, near Oakham."
Just a month later Mr. Glaisher, bent on a yet loftier climb, made his second ascent, again under Mr. Coxwell's guidance, and again from Wolverhampton. Besides attending to his instruments he found leisure to make other chance notes by the way. He was particularly struck by the beauty of masses of cloud, which, by the time 12,000 feet were reached, were far below, "presenting at times mountain scenes of endless variety and grandeur, while fine dome-like clouds dazzled and charmed the eye with alternations and brilliant effects of light and shade."
When a height of about 20,000 feet had been reached thunder was heard twice over, coming from below, though no clouds could be seen. A height of 4,000 feet more was attained, and shortly after this Mr. Glaisher speaks of feeling unwell. It was difficult to obtain a deposit of dew on the hygrometer, and the working of the aspirator became troublesome. While in this region a sound like that of loud thunder came from the sky. Observations were practically completed at this point, and a speedy and safe return to earth was effected, the landing being at Solihull, seven miles from Birmingham.
It was on the 5th of September following that the same two colleagues carried out an exploit which will always stand alone in the history of aeronautics, namely, that of ascending to an altitude which, based on the best estimate they were able to make, they calculated to be no less than seven miles. Whatever error may have unavoidably come into the actual estimate, which is to some extent conjectural, is in reality a small matter, not the least affecting the fact that the feat in itself will probably remain without a parallel of its kind. In these days, when aeronauts attempt to reach an exceptionally lofty altitude, they invariably provide themselves with a cylinder of oxygen gas to meet the special emergencies of the situation, so that when regions of such attenuated air are reached that the action of heart and lungs becomes seriously affected, it is still within their power to inhale the life-giving gas which affords the greatest available restorative to their energies. Forty years ago, however, cylinders of compressed oxygen gas were not available, and on this account alone we may state without hesitation that the enterprise which follows stands unparalleled at the present hour.
The filling station at Wolverhampton was quitted at 1.3 p.m., the temperature of the air being 59 degrees on the ground, and falling to 41 degrees at an altitude of 5,000 feet, directly after which a dense cloud was entered, which brought the temperature down to 36 degrees. At this elevation the report of a gun was heard. Here Mr. Glaisher attempted (probably for the first time in history) to take a cloud-scape photograph, the illumination being brilliant, and the plates with which he was furnished being considered extremely sensitive. The attempt, however, was unsuccessful. The height of two miles was reached in 19 minutes, and here the temperature was at freezing point. In six minutes later three miles was reached, and the thermometer was down to 18 degrees. In another twelve minutes four miles was attained, with the thermometer recording 8 degrees, and by further discharge of sand the fifth aerial milestone was passed at 1.50 p.m., i.e. in 47 minutes from the start, with the thermometer 2 degrees below zero.
Mr. Glaisher relates that up to this point he had taken observations with comfort, and experienced no trouble in respiration, whilst Mr. Coxwell, in consequence of the exertions he had to make, was breathing with difficulty. More sand was now thrown out, and as the balloon rose higher Mr. Glaisher states that he found some difficulty in seeing clearly. But from this point his experiences should be gathered from his own words: -