CHAPTER XVI. SOME FAMOUS FRENCH AERONAUTS.
By this period a revival of aeronautics in the land of its birth had fairly set in. Since the last ascents of Gay Lussac, in 1804, already recorded, there had been a lull in ballooning enterprise in France, and no serious scientific expeditions are recorded until the year 1850, when MM. Baral and Bixio undertook some investigations respecting the upper air, which were to deal with its laws of temperature and humidity, with the proportion of carbonic acid present in it, with solar heat at different altitudes, with radiation and the polarisation of light, and certain other interesting enquiries.
The first ascent, made in June from the Paris Observatory, though a lofty one, was attended with so much danger and confusion as to be barren of results. The departure, owing to stormy weather, was hurried and illordered, so that the velocity in rising was excessive, the net constricted the rapidly-swelling globe, and the volumes of out-rushing gas half-suffocated the voyagers. Then a large rent occurred, which caused an alarmingly rapid fall, and the two philosophers were reduced to the necessity of flinging away all they possessed, their instruments only excepted. The landing, in a vineyard, was happily not attended with disaster, and within a month the same two colleagues attempted a second aerial excursion, again in wet weather.
It would seem as if on this occasion, as on the former one, there was some lack of due management, for the car, suspended at a long distance from the balloon proper, acquired violent oscillations on leaving the ground, and dashing first against a tree, and then against a mast, broke some of the instruments. A little later there occurred a repetition on a minor scale of the aeronauts' previous mishap, for a rent appeared in the silk, though, luckily, so low down in the balloon as to be of small consequence, and eventually an altitude of some 19,000 feet was attained. At one time needles of ice were encountered settling abundantly with a crackling sound upon their notebooks. But the most remarkable observation made during this voyage related to an extraordinary fall of temperature which, as recorded, is without parallel. It took place in a cloud mass, 15,000 feet thick, and amounted to a drop of from 15 degrees to -39 degrees.
In 1867 M. C. Flammarion made a few balloon ascents, ostensibly for scientific research. His account of these, translated by Dr. T. L. Phipson, is edited by Mr. Glaisher, and many of the experiences he relates will be found to contrast with those of others. His physical symptoms alone were remarkable, for on one occasion, at an altitude of apparently little over 10,000 feet, he became unwell being affected with a sensation of drowsiness, palpitation, shortness of breath, and singing in the ears, which, after landing gave place to a "fit of incessant gaping" while he states that in later voyages, at but slightly greater altitudes, his throat and lungs became affected, and he was troubled with presence of blood upon the lips. This draws forth a footnote from Mr. Glaisher, which should be commended to all would-be sky voyagers. It runs thus: - "I have never experienced any of these effects till I had long passed the heights reached by M. Flammarion, and at no elevation was there the presence of blood." However, M. Flammarion adduces, at least, one reassuring fact, which will be read with interest. Once, having, against the entreaties of his friends, ascended with an attack of influenza upon him, he came down to earth again an hour or two afterwards with this troublesome complaint completely cured.
It would seem as if the soil of France supplied the aeronaut with certain phenomena not known in England, one of these apparently being the occasional presence of butterflies hovering round the car when at considerable heights. M. Flammarion mentions more than one occasion when he thus saw them, and found them to be without sense of alarm at the balloon or its passengers. Again, the French observer seems seldom to have detected those opposite airstreams which English balloonists may frequently observe, and have such cause to be wary of. His words, as translated, are: - " t appears to me that two or more currents, flowing in different directions, are very rarely met with as we rise in the air, and when two layers of cloud appear to travel in opposite directions the effect is generally caused by the motion of one layer being more rapid than the other, when the latter appears to be moving in a contrary direction." In continuation of these experiences, he speaks of an occasion when, speeding through the air at the rate of an ordinary express train, he was drawn towards a tempest by a species of attraction.
The French aeronaut's estimate of what constitutes a terrific rate of fall differs somewhat from that of others whose testimony we have been recording. In one descent, falling (without reaching earth, however) a distance of 2,130 feet in two minutes, he describes the earth rising up with frightful rapidity, though, as will be observed, this is not nearly half the speed at which either Mr. Glaisher or Albert Smith and his companions were precipitated on to bare ground. Very many cases which we have cited go to show that the knowledge of the great elasticity of a well-made wicker car may rob a fall otherwise alarming of its terrors, while the practical certainty that a balloon descending headlong will form itself into a natural parachute, if properly managed, reduces enormously the risk attending any mere impact with earth. It will be allowed by all experienced aeronauts that far worse chances lie in some awkward alighting ground, or in the dragging against dangerous obstacles after the balloon has fallen.