CHAPTER V. The Father of British Aeronauts

No account of the early history of English aeronautics could possibly be complete unless it included a description of the Nassau balloon, which was inflated by coal-gas, from the suggestion of Mr. Charles Green, who was one of Britain's most famous aeronauts. Because of his institution of the modern method of using coal-gas in a balloon, Mr. Green is generally spoken of as the Father of British Aeronautics. During the close of the eighteenth and the opening years of the nineteenth century there had been numerous ascents in Charlier balloons, both in Britain and on the Continent. It had already been discovered that hydrogen gas was highly dangerous and also expensive, and Mr. Green proposed to try the experiment of inflating a balloon with ordinary coal-gas, which had now become fairly common in most large towns, and was much less costly than hydrogen.

Critics of the new scheme assured the promoters that coal-gas would be of little use for a balloon, averring that it had comparatively little lifting power, and aeronauts could never expect to rise to any great altitude in such a balloon. But Green firmly believed that his theory was practical, and he put it to the test. The initial experiments quite convinced him that he was right. Under his superintendence a fine balloon about 80 feet high, built of silk, was made in South London, and the car was constructed to hold from fifteen to twenty passengers. When the craft was completed it was proposed to send it to Paris for exhibition purposes, and the inventor, with two friends, Messrs. Holland and Mason, decided to take it over the Channel by air. It is said that provisions were taken in sufficient quantities to last a fortnight, and over a ton of ballast was shipped.

The journey commenced in November, 1836, late in the afternoon, as the aeronauts had planned to cross the sea by night. A fairly strong north-west wind quickly bore them to the coast, and in less than an hour they found themselves over the lights of Calais. On and on they went, now and then entirely lost to Earth through being enveloped in dense fog; hour after hour went by, until at length dawn revealed a densely-wooded tract of country with which they were entirely unfamiliar. They decided to land, and they were greatly surprised to find that they had reached Weilburg, in Nassau, Germany. The whole journey of 500 miles had been made in eighteen hours.

Probably no British aeronaut has made more daring and exciting ascents than Mr. Green - unless it be a member of the famous Spencer family, of whom we speak in another chapter. It is said that Mr. Green went aloft over a thousand times, and in later years he was accompanied by various passengers who were making ascents for scientific purposes. His skill was so great that though he had numerous hairbreadth escapes he seldom suffered much bodily harm. He lived to the ripe old age of eighty-five.