CHAPTER III. The First Man to Ascend in a Balloon

The safe descent of the three animals, which has already been related, showed the way for man to venture up in a balloon. In our time we marvel at the daring of modern airmen, who ascend to giddy heights, and, as it were, engage in mortal combat with the demons of the air. But, courageous though these deeds are, they are not more so than those of the pioneers of ballooning.

In the eighteenth century nothing was known definitely of the conditions of the upper regions of the air, where, indeed, no human being had ever been; and though the frail Montgolfier balloons had ascended and descended with no outward happenings, yet none could tell what might be the risk to life in committing oneself to an ascent. There was, too, very special danger in making an ascent in a hot-air balloon. Underneath the huge envelope was suspended a brazier, so that the fabric of the balloon was in great danger of catching fire.

It was at first suggested that two French criminals under sentence of death should be sent up, and, if they made a safe descent, then the way would be open for other aeronauts to venture aloft. But everyone interested in aeronautics in those days saw that the man who first traversed the unexplored regions of the air would be held in high honour, and it seemed hardly right that this honour should fall to criminals. At any rate this was the view of M. Pilatre de Rozier, a French gentleman, and he determined himself to make the pioneer ascent.

De Rozier had no false notion of the risks he was prepared to run, and he superintended with the greatest care the construction of his balloon. It was of enormous size, with a cage slung underneath the brazier for heating the air. Befors making his free ascent De Rozier made a trial ascent with the balloon held captive by a long rope.

At length, in November, 1783, accompanied by the Marquis d'Arlandes as a passenger, he determined to venture. The experiment aroused immense excitement all over France, and a large concourse of people were gathered together on the outskirts of Paris to witness the risky feat. The balloon made a perfect ascent, and quickly reached a height of about half a mile above sea-level. A strong current of air in the upper regions caused the balloon to take an opposite direction from that intended, and the aeronauts drifted right over Paris. It would have gone hard with them if they had been forced to descend in the city, but the craft was driven by the wind to some distance beyond the suburbs and they alighted quite safely about six miles from their starting-point, after having been up in the air for about half an hour.

Their voyage, however, had by no means been free from anxiety. We are told that the fabric of the balloon repeatedly caught fire, which it took the aeronauts all their time to extinguish. At times, too, they came down perilously near to the Seine, or to the housetops of Paris, but after the most exciting half-hour of their lives they found themselves once more on Mother Earth.

Here we must make a slight digression and speak of the invention of the hydrogen, or gas, balloon. In a previous chapter we read of the discovery of hydrogen gas by Henry Cavendish, and the subsequent experiments with this gas by Dr. Black, of Glasgow. It was soon decided to try to inflate a balloon with this "inflammable air" - as the newly-discovered gas was called - and with this end in view a large public subscription was raised in France to meet the heavy expenses entailed in the venture. The work was entrusted to a French scientist, Professor Charles, and two brothers named Robert.

It was quickly seen that paper, such as was used by the Montgolfiers, was of little use in the construction of a gas balloon, for the gas escaped. Accordingly the fabric was made of silk and varnished with a solution of india-rubber and turpentine. The first hydrogen balloon was only about 13 feet in diameter, for in those early days the method of preparing hydrogen was very laborious and costly, and the constructors thought it advisable not to spend too much money over the initial experiments, in case they should be a failure.

In August, 1783 - an eventful year in the history of aeronautics - the first gas-inflated balloon was sent up, of course unaccompanied by a passenger. It shot up high in the air much more rapidly than Montgolfier's hot-air balloon had done, and was soon beyond the clouds. After a voyage of nearly an hour's duration it descended in a field some 15 miles away. We are told that some peasants at work near by fled in the greatest alarm at this strange monster which settled in their midst. An old print shows them cautiously approaching the balloon as it lay heaving on the ground, stabbing it with pitchforks, and beating it with flails and sticks. The story goes that one of the alarmed farmers poured a charge of shot into it with his gun, no doubt thinking that he had effectually silenced the panting demon contained therein. To prevent such unseemly occurrences in the future the French Government found it necessary to warn the people by proclamation that balloons were perfectly harmless objects, and that the experiments would be repeated.

We now have two aerial craft competing for popular favour: the Montgolfier hot-air balloon and the "Charlier" or gas-inflated balloon. About four months after the first trial trip of the latter the inventors decided to ascend in a specially-constructed hydrogen-inflated craft. This balloon, which was 27 feet in diameter, contained nearly all the features of the modern balloon. Thus there was a valve at the top by means of which the gas could be let out as desired; a cord net covered the whole fabric, and from the loop which it formed below the neck of the balloon a car was suspended; and in the car there was a quantity of ballast which could be cast overboard when necessary.