Falling upwards, p.19
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       Falling Upwards, p.19

           Richard Holmes

  ‘Since leaving Zanzibar half our pack animals would have died of fatigue. We should be looking like ghosts and feeling desperate. We should have had constant struggles with our guides and porters, and no protection against their savagery. We would have suffered the humid, unbearable, disabling heat by day; and often intolerable cold by night. We would have been bitten by insects with mandibles capable of piercing the thickest canvas and driving men mad. Not to mention the wild animals and savage tribes …’ ‘I’m in no hurry to try it,’ remarked Joe.54

  There is a premonition of future imperial romances, and the Lost World genre, especially of the British Boy’s Own type – Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887) are both set in Africa. But Verne’s sense of authentic reportage remains strong. The novel closes on a deliberately dry, factual note: ‘The chief result of Dr Fergusson’s balloon expedition was to confirm in the most precise manner the geographical facts and surveys reported by Bath, Burton, Speke and others … Thanks to the present expeditions undertaken by Speke and Grant, we may before long be able to check in their turn the discoveries made by Dr Fergusson in that vast area lying between the 14th and 33rd meridians.’55 Verne cannot quite forbear to add another, more mischievous statistic: that a special edition of the London Daily Telegraph covering the balloon story ‘sold out 977,000 copies’ on the day of publication.

  In consequence, one of the most striking things about the novel’s enthusiastic reception was that many reviewers thought it might actually be a true story. With widespread knowledge of balloon adventures like those of Green, Godard and Nadar, an aerial safari over darkest Africa did not seem intrinsically unlikely. Verne might be writing non-fiction. The reviewer in the new Paris daily Le Figaro played elegantly with this idea: ‘Is Dr Fergusson’s journey a reality or is it not? All we can say is that it is as bewitching as a novel and as instructive as a book of science. Never have the serious discoveries of celebrated travellers been summed up as well.’fn25


  The idea that an ‘astonishing voyage’ might be instructive, or frankly educational, was already in the air by the 1860s. Hetzel considered Verne’s readership was primarily mass-market and adult, but this profile would soon alter. The later editions of Les Voyages Extraordinaires were more and more lavishly illustrated, which indicates that they were intended for an increasingly youthful audience. This was particularly true of Cinque semaines en ballon, which joined a flourishing new genre of educational children’s books, using the balloon as a pedagogic device. These had begun appearing, both in France and England, in the 1850s. The balloon, with its bird’s-eye or ‘panoptic’ view, its 360-degree tour d’horizon, and its ability to take its passengers across a huge variety of landscapes, became an instrument of, or even a metaphor for, encyclopaedic knowledge. In the right hands, Education itself could be presented as a kind of magic balloon journey.

  One of the earliest attempts to do so was an American illustrated geography book, The Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and his Young Friends (1857). This was written by the prolific children’s author Peter Parley, as part of a series of educational adventures promoted by the Boston magazine The Robert Merry Museum. ‘Peter Parley’ was in fact the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860), who liked to be known as ‘the Pied Piper in Print’. He claimed to be the author or editor of 170 volumes, with total sales of seven million copies. His series, beginning as far back as 1827, embraced geography, biography, history, science and miscellaneous tales. In 1851 Goodrich – or Parley – became American consul in Paris, and adapted many of his books for French children, a development that did not escape Hetzel.

  The Balloon Travels, written towards the end of Goodrich’s career, was a kind of farewell to his young readers. It recounts a stately geographical sightseeing tour around the countries of Europe, each site illustrated by an aerial engraving. The frontispiece shows the balloon hanging dramatically over the famous Giant’s Causeway, an extraordinary outcrop of basalt rock columns on the coast of County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. The young travellers learn that its legends connect it to Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, and this kind of ‘aerial perspective’ gives them a new view of both history and geology.

  In 1869 came a much racier French book, Jean Bruno’s Les Aventures de Paul enlevé par un ballon – ‘The Adventures of Paul Kidnapped by a Balloon’. It was also remarkable both for its twelve beautiful illustrations (the originals in watercolour) and its naïve imperial attitudes. Paul’s epic flight begins by chance one summer in southern France. He accidentally falls into the basket of a giant French balloon, the Leviathan, while its three adult aeronauts are on the ground, attempting to anchor it. In a dramatic picture, we see the balloon caught by a gust of wind, the aeronauts sent sprawling, the anchor ropes snapping free, and Paul sailing away over a hillside. Soon the balloon crosses the Mediterranean, and takes him over Algeria and North Africa.

  Paul is subsequently swept helter-skelter right across the varied landscapes of Africa. He watches fascinated as its jungles and deserts and savannahs pass beneath him. He encounters storms, wild animals, and wilder tribesmen. Some greet him with friendly waves, others shout and threaten him with spears. One picture shows enraged natives hurling weapons at the balloon overhead, with the caption ‘Paul could judge from this specimen of their behaviour what kind of greeting he could expect if he landed.’

  Such imperial balloon adventures remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. When Mark Twain brought Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer over to visit Europe in 1894, a chaotic journey in an airship forms the main thread of Tom Sawyer Abroad, and appears on the striking scarlet cover design. In fact this seems like Twain’s deliberate parody of Verne, as the balloon is piloted by a lunatic professor who insists on taking them to Africa: ‘He said he would sail his balloon around the globe, just to show what he could do.’ This vogue for imperial balloon voyages, launched by Verne, only concluded seventy years later with Jean de Brunhoff’s unforgettable Le Voyage de Babar (1932). In a gentle reproach to Verne, Brunhoff cleverly reverses the imperial perspective from the balloon basket. These native balloonists start from their home in Africa, and fly off to explore the wild boulevards of France. They are two charming and aristocratic jungle elephants (the young King Babar and his bride Celeste), who sail away in a bright-yellow balloon to spend their honeymoon shopping in Paris. This is a truly astonishing voyage.fn26


  Vertical Explorations


  In October 1864 the Scottish literary magazine Blackwood’s published a satirical article on superfluous Victorian hobbies, especially extreme sports and the fashion for futile risk-taking. It was particularly fierce on the desire to rise above one’s station. Having expended its ire on the contemporary cult of mountain-climbing, it concluded briskly: ‘Next to the climbers of the Alpine Club, in order of utter uselessness are the people who go up in balloons, and who come down to tell us of the temperature, the air-currents, the shape of the clouds, and amount of atmospheric pressure in a region where nobody wants to go, nor has the slightest interest to hear about.’1

  In fact this was an excellent summary of the remarkable revival of scientific ballooning in England during the 1860s. Since the Royal Society’s sceptical investigation of the subject in the 1780s, and Gay-Lussac’s two daring high-altitude ascents from Paris in 1804, there had been virtually no specifically scientific ballooning anywhere in Europe or America. The emphasis had been firmly on the long-distance journey, the horizontal exploration. The vertical voyage, with the specific aim of studying the upper atmosphere, or high weather formation, had languished. Neither Charles Green, nor John Wise, nor Nadar, for instance, had any such interests.

  It was true that two French scientists had announced in June 1850 that they intended to fulfil the prescription for investigative ballooning, as set out by the great François Arago. Jean Barral was a professor of chemistry, and Jacques Bixio described himself as an ‘agricultural journalist’.
Amazingly, with no previous aeronautical experience whatsoever, they somehow obtained funding from the Académie des Sciences, a suite of barometrical instruments, and public support from Arago himself. In fact their real intention was less scientific than patriotic: to challenge the international altitude record, which was still casually held by the British, since Charles Green had nonchalantly ascended to twenty-one thousand feet above Lewes in the Nassau in 1838, while testing a new aneroid barometer for a friend.2 Barral and Bixio proclaimed that their target was ten thousand metres (approximately thirty-one thousand feet), an altitude at which, though they did not know it, they would reliably die of asphyxiation.

  With great ceremony they installed their balloon and a powerful hydrogen generator on the sacred front lawn of Arago’s Paris Observatoire. Watched by a crowd of savants, they inflated the envelope, ‘placed themselves in the car without testing the ascending power of the balloon, and darted off into the air like an arrow’. They promptly rose to twenty-three thousand feet, thereby taking the record from Green. But their balloon was over-inflated, and before they could make any further instrumental readings, it bulged down through its netting and pressed them flat on the floor of the basket, ‘which unfortunately was suspended by cords much too short’, effectively trapping them. They panicked, believing the balloon would go on ascending till it exploded, and in attempting to open the valve line, tore a bottom panel from the swollen fabric. Overcome by the escaping gas, they both passed out, and awoke some time later lying peacefully in a vineyard on the edge of the champagne region in Lorraine. They were forced to admit that they had brought back absolutely no new scientific data for Arago, only some very good wine.3

  In England the art of ballooning, without the example of Nadar or the Godard brothers, had also fallen into a certain disrepute. Since the successes of Charles Green, the glamorous firework ascents from Vauxhall and the Cremorne Gardens, and the giant captive balloons brought to London by Henri Giffard, English aerostation had gained a certain end-of-the-pier seediness, increasingly regarded as the province of showmen, ‘artistes’ and publicists. It was the subject of smoking-room jokes, witty cartoons in the newly founded Punch, and a number of rowdy music-hall songs:

  Up in a balloon, up in a balloon,

  All among the little stars

  Sailing round the moon!

  It’s something very jolly

  To be up in a balloon.4

  The idea that ballooning had dwindled to something ‘jolly’ was indeed a descent.

  Green himself was firmly in retirement, having ‘dropped his grapnel’ at Aerial Villa. But he was now regarded, throughout the ballooning world of Europe, as something of an aeronautical prophet. So the French journalist Wilfrid de Fonvielle, after his experiences with Nadar’s creaking Géant, made a pilgrimage to pay his respects to the man who described himself as ‘an Ancient Mariner of the Upper Atmosphere’.

  Fonvielle, now aged forty-four, was in search of inspiration. He had recently returned from a period of political exile in Algeria, where he had been banished for his extreme republican views. An anglophile, his political idealism was now directed into ballooning. He evidently expected the prophet’s Aerial Villa to be a splendid residence, perched on some superb, wind-blown hilltop overlooking the famous Hampstead Heath. Instead he found a ‘small, snug suburban cottage’ pleasantly tucked in among a little grove of trees and houses on the gentle wooded slopes of Upper Holloway. Silver-haired and sprightly, the old aeronaut received him ceremoniously, opened a bottle of fine French wine, and brought out a bulging portfolio of balloon articles, letters, pictures and memorabilia.5

  Green was obviously delighted by his French visitor, who spoke good English and told him jokes about Nadar’s ballooning. In response he reminisced freely – not to say garrulously – till a late hour. His one major regret was that he never succeeded in crossing the Atlantic as he had long wished to. Otherwise he was proud of his achievements: ‘I have made more than six hundred aerial excursions. I have crossed the English Channel three times; and I have had as many as seven hundred persons in the car of my balloon at different times, among whom I could mention some very distinguished names, and one hundred and twenty ladies.’

  To Fonvielle’s amusement, Green laid great and solemn emphasis on the importance of women to the future of ballooning: ‘The ladies have always shown great courage in this respect. If you wish balloons to become popular in France, – believe in the experience of an old man, an Ancient Mariner of the Upper Atmosphere – begin by taking women in your balloons. Men will be sure to follow.’6

  Green then took Fonvielle to the end of a narrow court behind Aerial Villa, and quietly opened the door of an outhouse. Lo and behold! There, lovingly stacked and folded, were the treasured remains of the celebrated Nassau – the canopy with its Latin Daedalus motto, the battered basket, the mighty manila guide rope carefully slung from a wooden rafter. The old aeronaut seemed ‘quite overcome’ when he stood before his splendid aerostat. ‘“Here is my car,” he said, touching it with a kind of solemn respect, “which like its old pilot, now reposes quietly after a long and active career … And there is the tissue of the Nassau itself. – Poor old balloon, I love it like a child.”’7

  Then Green took another restoring glass of wine, and concluded with a wistful reflection that much struck Fonvielle. He said that what he really regretted in life was having had to make ballooning a commercial business, rather than a true scientific ‘vocation’. He gripped Fonvielle by the arm: ‘How happy you ought to be, to be able to carry on scientific and artistic researches in the air! I would like to have done so too, but I could not follow my own plans. I was an aeronaut by profession, and had to gain my bread by it. Lack of money prevented me from carrying out the numerous experiments that I had in mind … Let me shake you by the hand and wish you every success. In the upper atmosphere … there is so much still to be discovered!’

  As Fonvielle left Aerial Villa, he fancied he saw ‘a large round tear standing in the bright eye of the celebrated old man’. Green turned and walked slowly back towards the outhouse, which contained, as Fonvielle put it, ‘all his daring adventures of forty years ago’.8 Fonvielle went back to France, inspired by Green, and determined to continue with his aeronaut’s ‘vocation’. But was there any balloonist in Britain or France prepared to take up Green’s challenge? Was there anyone capable of further, serious ‘scientific and artistic researches’ in the upper atmosphere?


  In 1862 the British Association for the Advancement of Science elected a Scientific Committee to investigate ‘Hygrometric and other Conditions of the Upper Air’. It decided to do this with a series of sponsored scientific balloon ascents. Among the committee’s fourteen signatories were many leading names in British science, notably the Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir George Airy; Sir David Brewster, who had written Isaac Newton’s biography; Sir John Herschel, the best-known public scientist in Britain; and John Tyndall, who had inherited Humphry Davy’s position at the Royal Institution.9 The man they chose to prosecute these researches, and put the science back into ballooning, was a fifty-three-year-old meteorologist named James Glaisher (1809–1903).

  Glaisher did not exactly fit the profile of an aerial adventurer. A large, taciturn family man, solidly built and heavily bewhiskered, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society, an expert on the theory of magnetism, and for the last ten years had been Secretary to the Royal Meteorological Society. He lived comfortably with his extended household in a pleasant mansion at 22 Dartmouth Road on Blackheath, South London (now marked by a blue plaque). He strode daily over the Heath on his way to work at the nearby Royal Observatory at Greenwich. A proper Victorian patriarch, thoroughly regular and earthbound, he had ten children, the youngest of whom he was training to be a mathematician.10

  But Glaisher had hidden qualities. For a start, he was a meticulous scientific investigator. Undertaking to draw up a fully documented balloon research programme for the BAAS committee, he
compiled a thirteen-point ‘Terms of Reference’ document, setting out the main lines of proposed research in a manner reminiscent of Arago. These were detailed and complex, involving precise measurements of a number of phenomena: the earth’s magnetic field; the solar spectrum; dew point; oxygenation of the atmosphere; atmospheric electricity; barometric pressure; cloud density; and air currents. The key to the whole project would be continuous, accurate measurement, using the latest scientific instruments: that is, the production of data. His terms of reference also specified a working altitude limit of five miles, or about twenty-six thousand feet.11

  Glaisher agreed with the BAAS to oversee a series of high-altitude ascents, and to organise the appropriate scientific equipment. But of course he had no intention of going up himself. Clearly he did not consider himself suitable for such exploits. Instead, after consultations with Charles Green, he decided to employ a professional aeronaut, Henry Tracy Coxwell (1819–1900), who had already made over four hundred ascents, many of them abroad. Coxwell was modest and unflappable, the kind of man who would joke that his main connection with gas was that he had once been a rather successful dentist.

  Glaisher and Coxwell found that Charles Green’s famous Nassau was now – like its owner – too old and fragile to be of use. So the BAAS commissioned Coxwell to construct a rugged new balloon specifically designed for high altitudes. The ninety-three-thousand-cubic-foot Mammoth was made of top-quality American fabric, and its basket fitted out to carry the most complex suite of laboratory instruments ever taken aloft. With the correct ballast, it was theoretically capable of reaching altitudes well in excess of thirty thousand feet. It was constructed over the next few months, while Coxwell trained up several young meteorologists to accompany him. Thus the first serious scientific balloon programme since Gay-Lussac was planned, financed and launched.12 Glaisher had, perhaps unwittingly, taken up the baton from Green.fn27

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