CHAPTER XXVIII. THE CONSTITUTION OF THE AIR.
The writer has experimented in the upper regions with a special form of air thermometer of great sensibility, designed to respond rapidly to slight variations of temperature. Testing this instrument on one occasion in a room of equable warmth, and without draughts, he was puzzled by seeing the index in a capillary tube suddenly mounting rapidly, due to some cause which was not apparent, till it was noticed that the parlour cat, attracted by the proceedings, had approached near the apparatus. The behaviour of this instrument when slung in the clear some distance over the side of the balloon car, and carefully watched, suggests by its fitful, sudden, and rapid changes that warmer currents are often making their way in such slender wandering rills as have been already pictured as permeating the broader air streams. During night hours conditions are reversed. The warmer air radiated off the earth through the day has then ascended. It will be found at different heights, lying in pools or strata, possibly resembling in form, could they be seen, masses of visible cloud.
The writer has gathered from night voyages instructive and suggestive facts with reference to the ascent of air streams, due to differences of temperature, particularly over London and the suburbs, and it is conceivable that in such ascending streams may lie a means of dealing successfully with visitations of smoke and fog.
One lesson taught by balloon travel has been that fog or haze will come or go in obedience to temperature variations at low levels. Thus thick haze has lain over London, more particularly over the lower parts, at sundown. Then through night hours, as the temperature of the lower air has become equalised, the haze has completely disappeared, but only to reassert itself at dawn.
A description of the very impressive experience of a night sail over London has been reserved, but should not be altogether omitted. Glaisher, writing of the spectacle as he observed it nearly forty years ago, describes London seen at night from a balloon at a distance as resembling a vast conflagration. When actually over the town, a main thoroughfare like the Commercial Road shone up like a line of brilliant fire; but, travelling westward, Oxford Street presented an appearance which puzzled him. "Here the two thickly studded rows of brilliant lights were seen on either side of the street, with a narrow, dark space between, and this dark space was bounded, as it were, on both sides by a bright fringe like frosted silver." Presently he discovered that this rich effect was caused by the bright illumination of the shop lights on the pavements."
London, as seen from a balloon on a clear moonlight night in August a year ago (1901), wore a somewhat altered appearance. There were the fairy lamps tracing out the streets, which, though dark centred, wore their silver lining; but in irregular patches a whiter light from electric arc lamps broadened and brightened and shone out like some pyrotechnic display above the black housetops. Through the vast town ran a blank, black channel, the river, winding on into distance, crossed here and there by bridges showing as bright bands, and with bright spots occasionally to mark where lay the river craft. But what was most striking was the silence. Though the noise of London traffic as heard from a balloon has diminished of late years owing to the better paving, yet in day hours the roar of the streets is heard up to a great height as a hard, harsh, grinding din. But at night, after the last 'bus has ceased to ply, and before the market carts begin lumbering in, the balloonist, as he sails over the town, might imagine that he was traversing a City of the Dead.
It is at such times that a shout through a speaking trumpet has a most startling effect, and more particularly a blast on a horn. In this case after an interval of some seconds a wild note will be flung back from the house-tops below, answered and re-answered on all sides as it echoes from roof to roof - a wild, weird uproar that awakes suddenly, and then dies out slowly far away.
Experiments with echoes from a balloon have proved instructive. If, when riding at a height, say, of 2,000 feet, a charge of gun-cotton be fired electrically 100 feet below the car, the report, though really as loud as a cannon, sounds no more than a mere pistol shot, possibly partly owing to the greater rarity of the air, but chiefly because the sound, having no background to reflect it, simply spends itself in the air. Then, always and under all conditions of atmosphere soever, there ensues absolute silence until the time for the echo back from earth has fully elapsed, when a deafening outburst of thunder rises from below, rolling on often for more than half a minute. Two noteworthy facts, at least, the writer has established from a very large number of trials: first, that the theory of aerial echoes thrown back from empty space, which physicists have held to exist constantly, and to be part of the cause of thunder, will have to be abandoned; and, secondly, that from some cause yet to be fully explained the echo back from the earth is always behind its time.