Falling upwards, p.22
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       Falling Upwards, p.22

           Richard Holmes

  Glaisher still considered his first concern to be the BAAS and the Meteorological Society, and continued to publish only technical papers on the nature of the upper atmosphere. These covered the relationship between altitude and decrease in temperature; the appearance of the solar spectrum; barometric information about pressure systems and weather ‘fronts’; changes in the magnetic field; changes in wind direction and velocity, and the possible causes of these; the propagation of sound in various atmospheric conditions; and above all ‘physiological observations’, or the reactions of the human body (and mind) to high altitudes.49

  It was exactly this kind of data that Blackwood’s had derided; and exactly this kind of data that was indispensable to the eventual understanding of the nature of weather systems, upon which the future of genuine weather forecasting would depend. But Glaisher did more than this. He was a genuine explorer of the vertical. His meticulous records and measurements first mapped the general limits of the breathable atmosphere above the earth, the perils of the ‘death zone’, and the existence of what is now known as the stratosphere.50 In particular, he showed that Gay-Lussac’s observations that air temperature decreased steadily with altitude (at about one degree every three hundred feet) did not hold good above six miles. Here Glaisher had glimpsed the existence of a new atmospheric regime or ‘layer’, a true terra incognita.51

  Supported by Coxwell, Glaisher’s calm, heroic ‘physiological observations’ of his own body, even to the point of death, also opened up the subject of high-altitude asphyxia, with its accompanying decompression injuries and mental distortions. He had pioneered the subject of travel to the edge of space, and turned centuries of fiction into fact.52 From this, the whole idea of the layered, vital, atmospheric skins of our planet, and the small, fragile, vital biosphere contained within them, would ultimately derive.fn31


  Encouraged by Henry Coxwell, Glaisher did occasionally allow himself to savour the sheer delights of low-level ballooning. Flying one afternoon in July 1863, after a launch from the Crystal Palace, they drifted southwards until they were in sight of the South Downs and the sea near Arundel and Newhaven. Skimming along at eight hundred feet over the remote Sussex villages, with the shadows lengthening under the elm trees, Glaisher forgot his instruments long enough to record a kind of rural soundscape, or aural tapestry of country life as heard on an idyllic midsummer evening. Here the young, footloose surveyor of the Donegal hills could be glimpsed once more.

  The cheering cry of children was frequently heard above all other sounds. Geese cackled, and frightened scuttled off to their farms; pheasants crowed as they were going to roost … and packs of dogs barked in the wildest state of excitement. Journeying in this way was most delightful; all motion seemed transferred to the landscape itself, which appeared when looking one way to be rising and coming towards us, and when looking the other as receding from us. It was charmingly varied with parks, mansions and white roads …53

  On this flight they had taken along the young Christopher Hatton Turnor, who would become one of the great historians of Victorian ballooning, celebrated in his huge anthology Astra Castra: Experiments and Adventures in the Atmosphere (1865). Turnor immediately sent an amusing account in a letter to The Times, dreamily entitled ‘Coasting in a Balloon’. He noted that Glaisher took two photographs, one over Epsom and the other over Horsham, and seemed completely relaxed and at home in the basket. Similarly, Coxwell was in an adventurous mood, and kept mischievously proposing to extend their flight across the Channel.

  Finally Coxwell settled on the more convenient landing site of Goodwood Park. They descended at 8 p.m., with dusk just falling: ‘Mr Coxwell, after throwing a rope to a cricketer, landed us so gently that we could not have crushed a daisy. We were afterwards drawn by a rope to the front of the house for the benefit of a few gazers.’ A substantial dinner followed in the pavilion.54 Nevertheless, even on this idyllic occasion the indefatigable Glaisher did not omit to record a precise temperature variation of thirteen degrees between eight hundred and 2,800 feet, and also a ninety-degree shift in wind direction from east to north, which he found ‘very informative’.55

  In a series of later flights, in October 1865, Glaisher found a new delight in ascents over London, taken at various times of day and night: ‘When one mile high the deep sound of London, like the roar of the sea, was heard distinctly … but at four miles above London, all was hushed; no sound reached our ears.’ Here the balloon provided a platform for human as well as meteorological observations. These were similar to those of Mayhew, though less radical, and more clearly touched with Victorian pride in the economic triumph of the city. Glaisher observed the great arterial movements of commerce: railways, river boats and barges, and horse-drawn traffic, spreading out to the suburbs of Kent and Essex.56

  One sunset ascent over London on 9 October 1865 was especially memorable. At seven thousand feet directly above London Bridge, ‘the scene around was one that probably cannot be equalled in the world … with one glance the homes of three million people could be seen … the Thames dotted over its winding course with innumerable ships and steamboats, like moving toys … the coast around as far as Norfolk … Smoke, thin and blue, was curling from [the city] … I have often admired the splendour of the sky scenery, but never have I seen anything which surpassed this spectacle. The roar of the town heard at this elevation was a deep, rich, continuous sound – the voice of labour.’57

  Glaisher had also made a notable night ascent over the city on 6 October 1865. Here he gave a much more impressionistic and surprisingly poetic account of his experiences. For the early part of the ascent he had, characteristically, been ‘wholly occupied by the instruments’, but at a thousand feet he suddenly looked up and saw stretching beneath the balloon basket a view that amazed and enchanted him, ‘a starry spectacle of such brilliancy as far exceeds anything I ever saw’:

  On leaving Charing Cross I looked back over London, the model of which could be seen and traced – its squares by their lights; the river, which looked dark and dull, by the double row of lights on every bridge spanning it … It seemed to me to realize a wish I have felt when looking through a telescope at portions of the Milky Way; when the fields of view appeared covered with gold-dust, to be possessed of the power to see those minute spots of light as brilliant stars; for certainly the intense brilliancy of London this night must have rivalled such a view.58

  Glaisher was elected President of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1867. A sign of the times, he had also become a member of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain in 1866. Later in life he would give thrilling lectures on his balloon experiences. His ‘Address to the Young Men’s Christian Association’ in 1875 reconstructed a typical flight with Coxwell, with the dry banter between the aeronaut and the scientist. But it also added some of those emotions he had so carefully and effectively suppressed, and for so long.

  Four Miles High [twenty-one thousand feet]. We are now far beyond the reach of all ordinary sounds from the earth … Up to this time, little or no inconvenience is met with; but on passing above four miles, much personal discomfort is experienced; respiration becomes difficult; the beating of the heart at times is audible; the hands and lips become blue … and it requires the exercise of a strong will to make and record observations … Six Miles High [thirty-two thousand feet]. The balloon is now lingering as it were, under the deep blue vault of space … We now hold consultations, and then look around, giving silent scope to those emotions of the soul which are naturally called forth by such a widespread range of creation … Highest Point [thirty-five thousand feet]. Then in silence, for here we respire with difficulty and talk but little; in the centre of this immense space; in solitude, without a single object to interrupt the view for 200 miles or more all-around; abstracted from the earth; upheld by an invisible medium; our mouths so dry we cannot eat; a white sea below us … I watch the instruments, but forcibly impelled again, look round the centre of this immense vacu
ity, whose bounding line is 1,500 miles … I wave my hand and say, ‘Pull!’ A deep resonant sound is heard over head … It is the working of the valve which causes a loud booming noise, as from a sounding board, as the springs force the shutter back … a drum-like sound … it is cheering, it is re-assuring, it proves all to be right.59

  In this final retrospective account, Glaisher emphasised the particular scientific virtues required by ballooning: meticulous care and accuracy, calmness and detachment, stoic self-discipline; and a kind of spiritual openness to the wonders of Creation. Ballooning, in other words, has moral value. The lecture ends with a short, uplifting sermon on the disinterestedness of Victorian science: ‘We tell our story – how we have travelled in the realms of space, not for the purposes of pleasure, not from motives of curiosity, but for the advancement of science and the good of all mankind.’60


  Mariners of the Upper Atmosphere


  By the late 1860s, a younger generation of Parisian aeronauts had begun to form a loose group of enthusiasts around the Godard brothers and the Société Aérostatique et Météorologique de France, originally founded in 1852. They were a new intellectual breed, quite unlike the previous showmen and barnstormers. They regarded the Godards as the balloon professionals, Nadar as the balloon publicist, and Henri Giffard as the master of the tethered balloon. But what they themselves dreamed of was free, beautiful flight in the upper air.

  They were amateurs in the true sense. Most of them had academic or scientific backgrounds, some had considerable private wealth, and several had strong republican sympathies. Among these younger aeronauts who regularly flew with each other were Camille Flammarion, the brothers Gaston and Albert Tissandier, and Jules Duruof, all in their twenties. Another was the republican journalist Wilfrid de Fonvielle, the man who came back with news of Charles Green in London, and who liked to ask, wherever his balloon landed, ‘Are we still in France?’1

  These men were strongly aware of the great balloon tradition, and the details of its history, about which many of them later wrote. They also contributed numerous balloon stories and articles to the French newspapers. Their later memoirs show how much they admired the feats of English aeronauts like Charles Green, James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell. Nevertheless, they regarded ballooning as almost exclusively French, and in this sense a ‘patriotic’ science. They had particular sympathy for Nadar, who despite his disasters, and without being a scientific aeronaut, had raised the profile of French ballooning throughout Europe, and even in America. They came to regard the skies overhead in a new way, as national territory, peculiarly and historically French, and probably republican too. These feelings were to prove highly significant when the French Second Empire met its sudden crisis in 1870.

  A leader among the group was Camille Flammarion (1842–1925), brother to the great literary publisher Ernest Flammarion. Camille was both the poet and the scientist of the band, a charismatic and eccentric figure, with a wild bramble of hair, a romantic heart and strong republican sympathies. Unlike his brother, he had little time for French imperial ambitions, writing angrily: ‘In France alone 250 times as much money is spent in the art of destroying the human species as is expended on education and science. That is why the projects and experiments of honest men remain so long in the state of dreams.’2

  For Flammarion, ballooning was one of these neglected dreams. He said he first fell in love with ballooning at the age of sixteen, ‘young and full of passion for discovery and adventures’. Like Nadar and many others, he recalled a balloon-conversion experience. He was out walking early one ‘pure blue morning’ in the Jardins du Luxembourg, when suddenly a dazzlingly beautiful balloon appeared over the treetops and flew low over his head. He could hear the two passengers – a man and a pretty woman – talking and laughing together. They leant over the basket and waved at him, then sailed silently away over Paris, and his heart went away with them. ‘I would have given the world to be in the car of that balloon; and long afterwards I could think of nothing but a journey into the atmosphere.’3

  As a young man, Flammarion trained first as a priest (which always left a certain mystical turn to his view of the world) then as an engraver, and finally as a mathematician and astronomer at the Paris Observatoire. All these métiers left their mark on his subsequent work. At the Observatoire he was regarded as unduly flamboyant, and had to leave when, aged twenty, ‘enflamed with the fiery ardour of a teenager’, as he put it, he published a controversial two-franc, fifty-four-page pamphlet, On the Plurality of Inhabited Worlds.4 He joined the staff of a new scientific magazine called Cosmos, and like Jules Verne adopted the new career of science journalist. He produced expanded versions of his pamphlet, vigorously arguing the case for a universe teeming with extra-terrestrial life, and referring to beliefs held by Indian, Chinese, Arab and Greek philosophers, as well as to modern astronomy. It became a best-selling book which ran to thirty-five impressions.5

  Flammarion soon made his name both as a prolific popular-science writer and as the founder and first president of the Société Astronomique de France. His wide-ranging interests took in everything from ballooning to speculative cosmology and science fiction. He wrote novels, short stories and scientific treatises, eventually publishing over fifty books (virtually launching his brother’s firm single-handed), and from his royalties set up his own spectacular domed observatory at a château just south of Paris, at Juvisy-sur-Orge, to which he would invite students and fellow enthusiasts. Inscribed in letters of gold over the entrance gate were the words Ad Veritatem per Scientiam – ‘To Truth through Science’.6

  It explains a lot about Flammarion that he was an early proponent of the existence of an alien civilisation on the planet Mars, and that he was sure it would be ‘much more intelligent’ than that on earth. In his collection Real and Imaginary Worlds (1865), published when he was only twenty-three, he wrote brilliantly about extra-terrestrial life, reincarnation, psychical research, and even the end of the world. Although he was always fascinated by the wilder shores of scientific research, he would eventually subdue these heterodox interests to write two classics of largely conventional popular science, L’Astronomie populaire (1880) and L’Atmosphère: Météorologie populaire (1888). The English-language edition of the latter had a long, admiring Preface by none other than James Glaisher FRS, though Glaisher edited out many of what he called ‘Flammarion’s rhapsodies’.7 Both books became Flammarion company best-sellers, and Flammarion was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for what was indulgently termed ‘haute vulgarisation de l’astronomie’.

  Flammarion believed that astronomy was good for the soul. It might also bring universal peace and harmony. He promulgated such idealistic views with characteristic panache:

  What thoughtful spirit could look at brilliant Jupiter with its four attendant satellites, or splendid Saturn encircled by its mysterious ring, or a double star glowing scarlet and sapphire in the infinity of night, and not be filled with a sense of wonder? Yes, indeed, if humankind – from humble farmers in the fields and toiling workers in the cities to teachers, people of independent means, those who have reached the pinnacle of fame or fortune, even the most frivolous of society women – if they knew what profound inner pleasure awaits those who gaze at the heavens, then France, nay, the whole of Europe, would be covered with telescopes instead of bayonets, thereby promoting universal happiness and peace.8

  L’Atmosphère was powerfully inspired by Flammarion’s balloon experiences. While studiously surveying all ‘the great global phenomena of nature’ and the latest meteorological research on such scientific topics as wind, rain and air pressure, the book also succeeded in projecting a certain otherworldliness. Flammarion would later tell a story of how the manuscript of the ‘Wind’ chapter was blown off his desk and out of his window one stormy night, only to land inexplicably at the printer’s office the next day.

  The book became celebrated for printing as its frontispiece a large mystic image show
ing the place ‘where earth and heaven meet’, Flammarion’s poetic conception of Glaisher’s rather more prosaic ‘upper air’. This was a coloured engraving of striking beauty, made to look like a medieval woodcut, showing a pilgrim clambering from the warm, sunlit earth into the great icy-blue vault of the stars. Later this became known as ‘The Flammarion Pilgrim’, and was thought to symbolise man’s eternal desire to explore ever upwards, into the upper air and beyond the stars. It had of course a particular appeal for aeronauts: Excelsior!

  To enhance the mystery, Flammarion kept the name of the artist anonymous, although the image was quite possibly his own design. He accompanied it with a visionary commentary, which gives a good impression of his highly-coloured style and polyvalent approach, mixing science with history and mysticism. It was one of his better ‘rhapsodies’.

  Whether the sky be clear or cloudy, it always seems to us to have the shape of an elliptic arch; far from having the form of a circular arch, it always seems flattened and depressed above our heads, and gradually to become farther removed toward the horizon. Our ancestors imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silkworm took his web for the limits of the universe. The Greek astronomers represented it as formed of a solid crystal substance; and so recently as Copernicus, a large number of astronomers thought it was as solid as plate-glass.

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