CHAPTER XXIII. NEW DEPARTURES IN AEROSTATION.

After Mr. Coxwell's experiments at Aldershot in 1862 the military balloon, as far as England was concerned, remained in abeyance for nine long years, when the Government appointed a Commission to enquire into its utility, and to conduct further experiments. The members of this committee were Colonel Noble, R.E., Sir F. Abel, Captain Lee, R.E., assisted by Captain Elsdale, R.E., and Captain (now Colonel) Templer. Yet another nine years, however, elapsed before much more was heard of this modernised military engine.

But about the beginning of the eighties the Government had become fully alive to the importance of the subject, and Royal Engineers at Woolwich grew busy with balloon manufacture and experiment. Soon "the sky around London became speckled with balloons." The method of making so-called pure hydrogen by passing steam over red-hot iron was fully tested, and for a time gained favour. The apparatus, weighing some three tons, was calculated to be not beyond the carrying powers of three service waggons, while it was capable of generating enough gas to inflate two balloons in twenty-four hours, a single inflation holding good, under favourable circumstances, for a long period. At the Brighton Volunteer Review of 1880, Captain Templer, with nine men, conducted the operations of a captive reconnoitring balloon. This was inflated at the Lewes gas works, and then towed two and a half miles across a river, a railway, and a line of telegraph wires, after which it was let up to a height of 1,500 feet, whence, it was stated, that so good a view was obtained that "every man was clearly seen." Be it remembered, however, that the country was not the South African veldt, and every man was in the striking English uniform of that date.

Just at this juncture came the Egyptian War, and it will be recalled that in the beginning of that war balloons were conspicuous by their absence. The difficulties of reconnaissance were keenly felt and commented on, and among other statements we find the following in the war intelligence of the Times: -

"As the want of a balloon equipment has been mentioned in letters from Egypt, it may be stated that all the War Department balloons remain in store at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich, but have been recently examined and found perfectly serviceable." An assertion had been made to the effect that the nature of the sand in Egypt would impede the transport of the heavy material necessary for inflation. At last, however, the order came for the despatch of the balloon equipment to the front, and though this arrived long after Tel-el-Kebir, yet it is recorded that the first ascent in real active service in the British Army took place on the 25th of March, 1885, at Suakin, and balloons becoming regarded as an all-important part of the equipment of war, they were sent out in the Bechuanaland Expedition under Sir Charles Warren, the supply of gas being shipped to Cape Town in cylinders.

It was at this period that, according to Mr. Coxwell, Lord Wolseley made ascents at home in a war balloon to form his own personal opinion of their capabilities, and, expressing this opinion to one of his staff, said that had he been able to employ balloons in the earlier stages of the Soudan campaign the affair would not have lasted as many months as it did years. This statement, however, should be read in conjunction with another of the same officer in the "Soldier's Pocket Book," that "in a windy country balloons are useless." In the Boer War the usefulness of the balloon was frequently tested, more particularly during the siege of Ladysmith, when it was deemed of great value in directing the fire of the British artillery, and again in Buller's advance, where the balloon is credited with having located a "death-trap" of the enemy at Spion Kop. Other all-important service was rendered at Magersfontein. The Service balloon principally used was made of goldbeaters' skin, containing about 10,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, which had been produced by the action of sulphuric acid on zinc, and compressed in steel cylinders. A special gas factory was, for the purpose of the campaign, established at Cape Town.

It is here that reference must be made to some of the special work undertaken by Mr. Eric S. Bruce, which dealt with the management of captive balloons under different conditions, and with a system of signalling thus rendered feasible. Mr. Bruce, who, since Major Baden-Powell's retirement from the office, has devoted his best energies as secretary to the advancement of the British Aeronautical Society, was the inventor of the system of electric balloon signalling which he supplied to the British Government, as well as to the Belgian and Italian Governments. This system requires but a very small balloon, made of three or four thicknesses of goldbeaters' skin, measuring from 7 to 10 feet in diameter, and needing only two or three gas cylinders for inflation. Within the balloon, which is sufficiently translucent, are placed several incandescent lamps in metallic circuit, with a source of electricity on the ground. This source of electricity may consist of batteries of moderate size or a portable hand dynamo. In the circuit is placed an apparatus for making and breaking contact rapidly, and by varying the duration of the flashes in the balloon telegraphic messages may be easily transmitted. To overcome the difficulty of unsteadiness, under circumstances of rough weather, in the captive balloon which carried the glow lamps, Mr. Bruce experimented with guy ropes, and gave a most successful exhibition of their efficiency before military experts at Stamford Bridge grounds, though a stiff wind was blowing at the time.