Falling upwards, p.21
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       Falling Upwards, p.21

           Richard Holmes

  When a sudden drop in barometric pressure occurred, indicating the arrival of a severe low-pressure system and hence the likelihood of a storm in the North Sea, all the leeches became animated and climbed rapidly to the tops of their individual glass prisons. Their combined upward pressure triggered the whalebone springs, which in turn released the series of counterweights, which then drove the chime of small hammers against the bell. Thus a tempest was ringingly prognosticated. To add to its mystic appeal, Merryweather decorated the instrument with flutings, chains and curlicues, making it look like a cross between an Indian temple and a gypsy merry-go-round.

  Ingenious and attractive as Dr Merryweather’s device might appear, it did not greatly advance the theoretical understanding of pressure systems. In fact it rather obscured it, by introducing a false animating principle, and vaguely suggesting that the leeches consciously ‘knew’ about storms and were anxious to impart this valuable information to mankind.32 Nevertheless, the Prognosticator reappeared a hundred years later at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and a replica can still be found at the Barometer World museum at Okehampton in Devon.

  When the Royal Society was asked to look into the whole question of weather forecasting, it delivered a damning report in 1865: ‘We can find no evidence that any competent meteorologist believes the science to be at present in such a state as to enable an observer to indicate day by day the weather to be experienced in the next 48 hours.’33


  Glaisher and Coxwell’s most celebrated high-altitude ascent took place from Wolverhampton on 5 September 1862.34 They left the ground at 1 p.m. on a fine, cool autumn afternoon with an air temperature of 50 degrees. Forty minutes later they had risen through the twenty-thousand-foot barrier, where breathing begins to become harder, the temperature drops towards freezing, and the sky above is dark Prussian blue. At 1 p.m. and 54 minutes Glaisher meticulously recorded an adjusted barometric pressure of 9¾ inches, and a height of twenty-nine thousand feet, with the balloon still rapidly rising. So far all had gone smoothly, but now Coxwell saw that the continuous rotation of the basket had tangled the release-valve line overhead. Panting hard, he climbed into the balloon hoop to free it.

  During the next three minutes both men began to suffer from the extreme cumulative effects of oxygen deprivation. Glaisher found his eyesight blurring, so he could no longer read the fine barometric scale on the instruments, even with the aid of a magnifying glass. This was followed by rapid loss of muscular power in his arms and feet, and then in his neck: ‘In looking at the barometer my head fell on my left shoulder.’ When he tried to straighten it, it fell doll-like onto his right shoulder. He tried to reach for a bottle of brandy, but his arm went slack and fell across his instrument table. His legs gave way, and he slumped back against the side of the basket. He found he could no longer move his head at all, and could only stare upwards at Coxwell struggling in the balloon hoop.

  I dimly saw Mr Coxwell and endeavoured to speak, but could not. In an instant intense darkness overcame me, so that the optic nerve lost power suddenly, but I was still conscious, with as active a brain as at the moment while writing this. I thought I had been seized by asphyxia, and believed I should experience nothing more, as death would come unless we speedily descended.

  Meanwhile Henry Coxwell, suffering from similar loss of muscle power, was struggling in the balloon hoop trying to disentangle the trapped valve line. He kept losing his grip and nearly falling backwards out of the balloon. Pulling the valve line was the one way they could release gas and get the balloon to descend.

  Coxwell eventually freed the line so it hung down into the basket, but he now found his hands were completely frozen and incapable of grasping the line or pulling it. He also noted that his hands had gone black. He was unable to grip any rope sufficiently to manoeuvre himself back down into the basket. But after some experiments, he found that by locking both elbows across the diameter of the hoop, he was just able to lower himself down inside it, and then drop safely into the basket. Here he found Glaisher lying completely unconscious, ‘his face quite tranquil’, and could not wake him. He glanced at the small aneroid barometer fitted on Glaisher’s desk, and though his sight was so blurred that he could not read the scale, he noted that the brass pointer was exactly parallel to a particular string tether tied next to it.35

  Seizing the swaying valve line in the crook of his arm, Coxwell made one last effort, and caught the rope between his teeth. He pulled hard, ‘dipping his head two or three times’. High overhead he heard the gas begin to vent, and knew they might just be saved. He rested for some moments, panting against the side of the basket, then turned to the sprawled and immobile body of his friend Glaisher and began to shake him.

  Coxwell recalled: ‘Never shall I forget those painful moments of doubt and suspense as to Mr Glaisher’s state when no response came to my questions. I began to fear that he would never take any more readings.’36 But Glaisher was not dead. To Coxwell’s immense relief he began to stir and mumble. Glaisher’s first impression on returning to consciousness was of a tall figure bending over him, and gently enquiring about temperature readings and instrumental observations. Glaisher realised that Coxwell was ‘endeavouring to rouse him’ by asking strictly scientific questions. Even at such a desperate moment Victorian politesse and scientific etiquette were wonderfully sustained.

  ‘I then heard him speak more emphatically,’ remembered Glaisher, ‘but could not see, speak or move … I heard him say: “Do try to take temperature and barometer observations, do try” … I heard him again say, “Do try, now do.” Then the instruments became dimly visible, then Mr Coxwell, and very shortly I saw clearly. Next I arose from my seat and looked around as though waking from sleep, though not refreshed, and said to Mr Coxwell, “I have been insensible.” He said, “You have, and I too, very nearly.” I then took a pencil in my hand to begin observations. Mr Coxwell told me that he had lost the use of his hands, which were black, and I poured brandy over them.’ (Glaisher does not add what was surely the case, that they both swallowed large mouthfuls of the brandy too.)37

  Afterwards, Glaisher minutely calculated what the final height attained in those lost moments might have been. His last accurate barometer reading of 9¾ inches indicated ‘above 29,000 feet’, ‘implying a height of about 5¾ miles’. It had been made at precisely 1 p.m. and 54 minutes. This was just before the crisis with the valve line.38

  At this point the barometer was still visibly dropping, so the balloon was still rapidly ascending. Glaisher calculated the climb rate as ‘about one thousand feet a minute’. He became ‘insensible’ three minutes later, at 1 p.m. and 57 minutes, by which time the balloon would have risen another three thousand feet, reaching approximately thirty-two thousand feet. Glaisher remained ‘totally insensible’ for a further seven minutes, returning to consciousness at 2 p.m. and 4 minutes, having been roused by Coxwell. But, as he noted meticulously, he was only able to read his instruments accurately again at 2 p.m. and 7 minutes.

  This gave a total elapsed time between the two accurate readings (1.54 p.m. and 2.07 p.m.) of exactly thirteen minutes. At that point his barometer read eleven inches, and was ‘increasing quickly’. This indicated that the balloon was now at an altitude of approximately twenty-seven thousand feet, and descending rapidly.39 The crucial question was, what happened during those lost thirteen minutes between the two accurate barometer readings of twenty-nine thousand feet (ascending) and twenty-seven thousand feet (descending)?

  Glaisher estimated as follows. The balloon probably continued to rise for at least half of the elapsed time, say six or seven minutes, before Coxwell succeeded in pulling the valve line, and starting their rapid descent. Therefore, at the climb-rate of one thousand feet a minute, this gave a possible increase in height of between six and seven thousand feet, or a maximum altitude of about thirty-five or thirty-six thousand feet. In fact one of their other instruments, a max-min thermometer which recorded height in terms of decre
ased temperature, suggested a maximum altitude of thirty-seven thousand feet, or just over seven miles. Glaisher also checked the position of the aneroid barometer scale against the tether that Coxwell had seen. This also suggested seven miles. But in a letter sent to The Times, Glaisher modestly claimed a maximum altitude of thirty-two thousand feet, or six miles. This record would stand for the rest of the century.40

  The significance of the ascent was not immediately realised. On 6 September 1862 The Times published a brief paragraph simply headed ‘A Recent Balloon Ascent’. It reported without comment that Mr Glaisher and Mr Coxwell had ‘attained an altitude of six miles’, and had used a new Negretti & Zambra mercury barometer, which was more accurate than any previous instrument. Four days later it published the letter from Glaisher, briefly outlining the circumstances of the ascent, but drawing particular attention to Coxwell’s climbing into the hoop and cool handling of the crisis with the valve line. Glaisher remarked that this was completely ‘in character’ for Coxwell, and that he always had complete confidence in his ability to handle any crisis. He also praised the excellent quality of the coal gas provided by Mr Proud, the chief engineer of the Wolverhampton Gasworks.

  Of the maximum altitude attained, Glaisher confirmed the figure of thirty-two thousand feet, or just over six miles, though suggesting that it could well have been higher, if only he had been in a fit state to read his instruments. In the graph profile of the flight he later published, the last eight thousand feet are merely indicated with a dotted line, with the single descriptive note ‘Intense blue Sky’.

  His letter closed on a typically dry and cautionary note: ‘It would seem from this ascent that five miles [26,400 feet] from the earth is very nearly the limit of human existence … I think that prudence would say to all, whenever the barometer reading falls as low as 11 inches, open the valve at once; the increased information to be obtained is not commensurate with the increased risk.’41 fn29

  Glaisher later published a fuller version of this letter in his classic book, Travels in the Air (1871). His laconic account became one of the most famous documents in the history of ballooning. It was completed with the characteristically dry observation that ‘no inconvenience’ followed his and Coxwell’s nearly fatal asphyxia and frostbite, though very regrettably they lost five of their six carrier pigeons. On landing safely in the deep countryside near Ludlow in Shropshire, the two aeronauts could find ‘no conveyance of any kind’, so Glaisher stoically walked ‘seven or eight miles’ to the nearest village inn at Cold Weston for a pint of beer. Ever after he kept the small aneroid barometer which had recorded the unofficial seven-mile maximum altitude as a good-luck charm in his pocket, and would not fly without it: ‘It was this instrument that Mr Coxwell read when we were seven miles high, and I at the time in a state of insensibility. It has been up with me in every high ascent since.’43

  Glaisher’s full report was published by the BAAS, and reproduced all over Europe and America. But the ascent was initially made famous by a magnificent third leader in The Times which appeared on 11 September 1862. On a page largely dominated by depressing news of the American Civil War, it turned its readers’ attention to higher matters, opening in fine style: ‘Poetry has described some famous descents into the subterranean world … But we have just had an ascent such as the world has never heard of or dreamed of. Two men have been nearer by some miles to the moon and the stars than all the race of man before them.’

  The leader gave details of Glaisher’s scientific reasons for making such a perilous attempt, but then turned to reflect on Coxwell’s peculiar brand of courage: ‘For ten whole minutes Mr Coxwell ascended alone – or rather worse than alone, with his companion insensible before his eyes – in a region six miles distant from the earth. That is a very extraordinary ten minutes, if we think of it, that solitary command, without a rival, of the boundless regions of space … It deserves its place among the unpatrolled junctures and critical and striking moments of war, politics or discovery.’

  The thought of this terrible, lonely ascent into the outer planetary darkness had evidently seized upon the journalist. He was soon imagining, for the benefit of his readers, the possible nightmare outcome: ‘Another minute and Mr Coxwell would have been stretched by the side of his companion, and a car containing two human bodies, would have been mounting to worlds unknown, and encountering aerial storms and shipwrecks so removed from all sublunary experience that we can hardly form the faintest image of the reality.’ For a moment, the fascinating possibilities of science fiction overtook the Times journalist as he gleefully imagined the two aeronauts, rather in manner of an Edgar Allan Poe story, sailing on upwards into outer space, their balloon eventually to be ‘dashed upon the bleak shore of another planet’, or like a second Noah’s ark, finding ‘a resting place upon some Ararat of the moon’.

  Little space was given to any of the actual scientific data obtained by Glaisher; or the clear implication that the life-sustaining envelope of breathable oxygen which surrounded the entire earth was alarmingly thin. In fact it was less than the distance that could be walked along a road in two hours (or from Glaisher’s point of landing to the inn at Cold Weston). But it was evident that the outer atmosphere was far less inviting, and far more frightening, than the beauties once imagined by poets.

  What counted for The Times was the experience – particularly Coxwell’s experience – which was that of the intrepid explorer. It demonstrated moral courage, a courage quite unlike that of the soldier: ‘The courage of men of science deserves to have a chapter of history devoted to it … they are solitary, deliberate, calm and passive … The man of science has to fight alone and by himself against the faintness of nature, without men shouting, or flags flying, or trumpets clanging around him.’

  The leader concluded with reflections on the pioneering purposes of science, the admirable urge to explore new frontiers and limits, and the peculiar phlegmatic bravery of English scientists in a tight spot. It was the moment for a little patriotic hyperbole: ‘The cool feats of our scientific men are known to us all – such as that of Sir Humphry Davy inhaling a particular gas with an accurate report every minute or two of its successive effects upon his brain and sense. The aerial voyage just performed by Mr Coxwell and Mr Glaisher deserves to rank with the greatest feats of our experimentalizers, discoverers and travellers … They have shown what enthusiasm science can inspire and what courage it can give.’44

  This theme was taken up in a popular lithograph, ‘Mr Glaisher insensible at the height of seven miles’. It was reproduced in numerous journals in Britain, France and America. The image has a strange quality of nightmare suspension, and presents scientific research as pure Victorian melodrama. Its two protagonists grimly complement each other: the one active, the other passive, but both in imminent peril.

  Coxwell is overhead, perilously astraddle the balloon hoop, struggling to untangle the valve line, and likely to pitch backwards into the fathomless abyss at any moment. Glaisher is slumped below, fallen back semi-conscious and apparently dying against the balloon basket, clutching at his throat with one hand, the other dangling limply over the side, hanging into the void. Around them are strapped an orderly scientific array of barometers, compasses and other precision instruments, a mapping board, and a touchingly domestic pigeon cage. But all of them are now useless. Even the massive coil of manila guide rope attached to the side of the basket, with its purposeful iron grapnel designed to cling to the earth, looks fragile and impotent.

  The picture seems to carry an allegorical message, skilfully developed from that of the Times editorial: the Scientist presses the extreme limits of Nature at his peril. The well-ordered world of the Victorian scientific laboratory is transported into the hostile chaos of the upper atmosphere. Order and purpose become disorder and terror. The message may even have owed something to Charles Darwin’s new vision of Nature. But what is most fearful about this picture is the sense that death will come not by falling downwards, towards
the familiar clouds and the earth seven miles beneath, but by falling upwards into the endless, empty, unknown blackness of space above.fn30


  It is remarkable that Glaisher and Coxwell continued their scientific flights throughout the 1860s, and at least once, in June 1863, made another attempt to break the five-mile barrier. At just over twenty-three thousand feet, with a temperature of 14 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero, Glaisher urged Coxwell to go on, despite nearby stormclouds: ‘Mr Coxwell knew better, and I was met with a negative. “Too short of sand. I cannot go higher; we must stop even here.”’

  Glaisher looked around regretfully and observed that ‘the blue was not the blue of four or five miles high, as I had always before seen it’; while the air below appeared murky and curiously uninviting. Yet at this height they could still hear a train. Glaisher then became entirely absorbed by a snowstorm as they descended: ‘The snow was entirely composed of spiculae of ice, of cross spiculae at angles of 60 degrees, and an innumerable number of snow crystals, small in size but distinct and of well-known forms, easily recognisable as they fell and remained on the coat.’ He barely noticed that Coxwell was struggling to control the speed of their descent. When he looked round again they were well under ten thousand feet, and flying down laterally through a veil of marsh mist over the mighty towers and lantern of Ely Cathedral.46

  On all these ascents Glaisher took hundreds of temperature and pressure measurements, made pictures of different types of clouds, constructed and published vertical graph profiles of their flights, and several times tried photography, though apparently without success.47 As more and more of their ascents were reported in the press, he and Coxwell became something like national heroes, and their launches now took place further south, from Windsor Great Park or the Crystal Palace. Here they drew increasingly large crowds. Coxwell, as a professional balloonist, valued this growing publicity, but Glaisher as a scientist eschewed it; and this occasionally led to a certain friction between the two friends, especially after one of Coxwell’s balloons was mobbed by an over-enthusiastic crowd at Leicester in 1864.48

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