CHAPTER XIX. THE TRAGEDY OF THE ZENITH." - THE NAVIGABLE BALLOON

The mechanical air ship had, by this time, as may be inferred, begun seriously to occupy the attention of both theoretical and practical aeronauts. One of the earliest machines deserving of special mention was designed by M. Giffard, and consisted of an elongated balloon, 104 feet in length and 39 feet in greatest diameter, furnished with a triangular rudder, and a steam engine operating a screw. The fire of the engine, which burned coke, was skilfully protected, and the fuel and water required were taken into calculation as so much ballast to be gradually expended. In this vessel, inflated only with coal gas, and somewhat unmanageable and difficult to balance, the enthusiastic inventor ascended alone from the Hippodrome and executed sundry desired movements, not unsuccessfully. But the trial was not of long duration, and the descent proved both rapid and perilous. Had the trial been made in such a perfect calm as that which prevailed when certain subsequent inventions were tested, it was considered that M. Giffard's vessel would have been as navigable as a boat in the water. This unrivalled mechanician, after having made great advances in the direction of high speed engines of sufficient lightness, proceeded to design a vastly improved dirigible balloon, when his endeavours were frustrated by blindness.

As has been already stated, M. Dupuy de Lome, at the end of the siege of Paris, was engaged in building a navigable balloon, which, owing to the unsettled state of affairs in France, did not receive its trial till two years later. This balloon, which was inflated with pure hydrogen, was of greater capacity than that of M. Giffard, being cigar shaped and measuring 118 feet by 48 feet. It was also provided with an ingenious arrangement consisting of an internal air bag, capable of being either inflated or discharged, for the purpose of keeping the principal envelope always distended, and thus offering the least possible resistance to the wind. The propelling power was the manual labour of eight men working the screw, and the steerage was provided for by a triangular rudder. The trial, which was carried out without mishap, took place in February, 1872, in the Fort of Vincennes, under the personal direction of the inventor, when it was found that the vessel readily obeyed the helm, and was capable of a speed exceeding six miles an hour.

It was not till nine years after this that the next important trial with air ships was made. The brothers Tissandier will then be found taking the lead, and an appalling incident in the aeronautical career of one of these has now to be recorded.

In the spring of 1875, and with the co-operation of French scientific societies, it was determined to make two experimental voyages in a balloon called the "Zenith," one of these to be of long duration, the other of great height. The first of these had been successfully accomplished in a flight of twenty-four hours' duration from Paris to Bordeaux. It was now April the 15th, and the lofty flight was embarked upon by M. Gaston Tissandier, accompanied by MM. Croce-Spinelli and Sivel. Under competent advice, provision for respiration on emergency was provided in three small balloons, filled with a mixture of air and oxygen, and fitted with indiarubber hose pipes, which would allow the mixture, when inhaled, to pass first through a wash bottle containing aromatic fluid. The experiments determined on included an analysis of the proportion of carbonic acid gas at different heights by means of special apparatus; spectroscopic observations, and the readings registered by certain barometers and thermometers. A novel and valuable experiment, also arranged, was that of testing the internal temperature of the balloon as compared with that of the external air.

Ascending at 11.30 a.m. under a warm sun, the balloon had by 1 p.m. reached an altitude of 16,000 feet, when the external air was at freezing point, the gas high in the balloon being 72 degrees, and at the centre 66 degrees. Ere this height had been fully reached, however, the voyagers had begun to breathe oxygen. At 11.57, an hour previously, Spinelli had written in his notebook, "Slight pain in the ears - somewhat oppressed - it is the gas." At 23,000 feet Sivel wrote in his notebook, "I am inhaling oxygen - the effect is excellent," after which he proceeded to urge the balloon higher by a discharge of ballast. The rest of the terrible narrative has now to be taken from the notes of M. Tissandier, and as these constitute one of the most thrilling narratives in aeronautical records we transcribe them nearly in full, as given by Mr. Glaisher: -