Falling upwards, p.23
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       Falling Upwards, p.23

           Richard Holmes
 

  Flammarion connected these early scientific conceptions with traditional literary and religious beliefs:

  The Latin poets placed the divinities of Olympus and the stately mythological court upon this vault, above the planets and the fixed stars. Previous to the knowledge that the earth was moving in space, and that space is everywhere, theologians had installed the Trinity in the empyrean, the glorified body of Jesus, that of the Virgin Mary, the angelic hierarchy, the saints, and all the heavenly host … A naïve missionary of the Middle Ages even tells us that, in one of his voyages in search of the terrestrial paradise, he reached the horizon where the earth and the heavens met, and that he discovered a certain point where they were not joined together and where, by stooping his shoulders, he passed under the roof of the heavens.9

  For Flammarion, ballooning was an idealistic and healing pursuit, which might indeed ‘pass under the roof of heaven’. In what he, like Nadar and Fonvielle (not to mention Hugo), regarded as the corrupt and materialistic atmosphere of the French Second Empire, he felt a longing for the ‘freshness and democracy’ of the upper air. Typically, he celebrated his honeymoon in August 1874 by taking his young bride on an overnight balloon flight from Paris, landing at Spa, over the Belgian border, near Liège. ‘What more natural,’ he told the American magazine McClure’s, ‘than for an astronomer and his wife to fly away like a couple of lovebirds?’10

  To him, although balloons were essentially a French discovery, and despite the historic support of Arago, their original promise had been shamefully neglected under the imperial regime. So ballooning had become almost a patriotic duty. It was vital to press on with the exploration of ‘the vast atmospheric ocean at the bottom of which we live’.11

  Flammarion saw this in the light of both science and of history:

  This splendid and marvellous means of locomotion was once hailed as an infallible method of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the earth’s atmosphere … The illustrious Benjamin Franklin foresaw the meteorological importance of a balloon. Whilst passing through Paris he spoke to several members of the Académie des Sciences on the scientific future for aerostation. This future was then supposed to be near at hand; but even now, in the seventieth year of this century, who can say we have remotely realised it?’12

  Flammarion joined the Société Aérostatique in 1867, and undertook about thirty ascents, in various borrowed or hired balloons, between then and 1880. Some were made with Nadar, some with the Godard brothers, and some with his friends Fonvielle and Tissandier. They became more scientific and experimental as he progressed. His very first was launched, with a certain symbolism, from the Paris Hippodrome on Ascension Day, 1867. This was the Roman Catholic feast of the Ascent of the Risen Christ into Heaven, actually a moveable feast, on the fortieth day after Easter, but usually in late May.13

  Flammarion was initially under the tuition of Eugène Godard, ‘Aeronaut to the Empire’ as he delicately put it, and used the balloon belonging to the Société Aérostatique. Ironically, this was originally constructed on the orders of the Emperor Napoleon III, as part of his imperial war adventures in north Italy. When these martial ambitions totally failed (a warning of things to come), the balloon was demobbed, so to speak, and sold off cheap to the Société. Flammarion made clear his anti-imperial sympathies by heading his account of the ascent with verses written by the exiled Victor Hugo:

  Où va-t-il ce navire? Il va du jour vêtu,

  A l’avenir divin et pur, à la vertu,

  A la science qu’on voit luire …14

  Whither sails this ship? It sails with daylight clothed,

  Towards the Future, pristine and divine; towards the Good,

  Towards the shining light of Science seen afar …

  Flammarion based his experiments on the scientific programme originally set out by François Arago, but also ‘after perusing the results obtained by Gay-Lussac, Robertson and Glaisher’. While criticising balloon showmen and publicists, he recalled that Arago had prophesied that ‘beautiful discoveries will reward those who make scientific excursions in balloons’. Flammarion himself regarded with particular awe the British ascents: ‘For the finest and most productive series of scientific expeditions into the atmosphere we are indebted to James Glaisher, Fellow of the Royal Society, the results of which are published in the volumes of the British Association.’15 fn32

  In an early essay written in 1867, ‘A Sketch of Scientific Ballooning’, Flammarion set out his hopes for what he called the ‘application of balloons’ to meteorological investigations:

  This marvellous world of air, so mild and yet so strong, where tempests, whirlwinds, snow, and hail are elaborated, was henceforth opened to the inhabitants of the terrestrial soil. Its secrets would be disclosed, the movements of the atmospheric world would be counted, measured and determined as scrupulously as astronomers can determine those of celestial bodies; and man, once placed in possession of this terrestrial mechanism, would be able to predict rains and storms, drought and heat, luxuriant crops and famines, as surely as he can predict eclipses, and thus ensure an ever-smiling and fertile earth!17

  2

  Flammarion’s own declared scientific objectives were gloriously ambitious. Like Glaisher, he felt that only ballooning could supply the mass of data necessary to make genuine ‘predictions of weather’ possible, and thereby develop ‘a true meteorological science worthy of comparison with her eldest sister Astronomy’. He planned to establish ‘the various strata of the air’, and the nature of atmospheric ‘gradients’ in terms of temperature, electricity and barometric pressures, and to gather all sorts of information and analytical measurements, though his list was a little vague and poetic compared to Glaisher’s.

  He intended to investigate the following: ‘the moisture of the atmosphere, solar radiation, meteoric phenomena, the forms of clouds, the colour of the sky, the scintillations of the stars, the chemical composition of the air at various altitudes, the laws of sight and sound in these high regions etc. etc.’ He also believed that it would be possible to compile complete maps of the consistent wind currents at various altitudes, depending on the geographical location, the time of day, and the seasons of the year, rather like three-dimensional maritime tide-tables of coastal waters.18

  His instrumentation – basically various forms of barometer and thermometer – was amateurish in comparison to Glaisher’s sophisticated aerial laboratory. At night, for example, to view his instruments, instead of a Davy lamp as used by Glaisher, Flammarion ingeniously employed a little glass jar which he had stocked with glow worms.19 He obviously took pleasure in such an eccentric arrangement, poetry mixing with meteorology. Reading his elegant accounts, it is difficult to believe that the thrill of flying was not just as important for Flammarion as gathering data for the Société Aérostatique.

  Flammarion had a wonderfully fresh eye, and he constantly picked out and delighted in unusual phenomena. As he put it, ‘It seemed rational to “go and see” for myself what is being done in these higher regions.’ Once, while aloft, he noted a strange cloud of dust over Paris, ‘whitened by the rays of the sun’, and thought at first that it was ordinary city pollution. Then he realised it was kicked up by the exceptional crowds visiting the National Exhibition, far below. As he put it, the democratic air ‘bore witness to the excitement and pleasures of ordinary people’: running feet, dancing horses’ hooves, and flying carriage wheels over the gravillon. Another time, over green fields in the evening, with the sun low and behind him, he saw the balloon shadow ‘completely surrounded by a yellowish white aureole, such as is seen painted round the heads of saints’. The air beatified the balloon with a halo.20

  He delighted when he entered a thick cloud with a particularly high hygrometer reading, and suddenly found himself in the middle of a concert hall in which ‘excellent orchestral music’ was playing. It turned out that the dense, humid atmosphere was especially suitable for collecting the sounds from a village band playing in the central squa
re of Boulainvilliers, a little country town lying invisible 3,280 feet below.21

  He noticed the different colours of river waters, due to different soils, and how they did not always immediately intermingle on meeting: ‘The water of the Marne, which is yellow now as it was in the time of Julius Caesar, does not mix with the green waters of the Seine, which flows to the left of its current; nor with the blue water of the canal which flows to the right.’ The result became a single tricolour of river water which flowed for several kilometres, yellow in the centre and green and blue on either side. ‘If travelling in balloons were commoner than it is at present,’ he remarked pointedly, ‘what facilities it would confer on topography and surveying in general!’22

  Flammarion carefully observed other creatures in the air, besides birds or his own carrier pigeons. He glimpsed moths, beetles, spiders, but especially butterflies: ‘Butterflies hover round the car of the balloon. Until today I imagined that those little things passed their short existence among the flowers of the fields, and that they never rose to any great height in the air. But in fact they rise higher than any of the birds of our forests, and soar to many thousands of metres above the ground … And another thing strikes me: they do not appear to be frightened by the balloon as birds are. Why is this?’23 fn33

  Sheep, horses and ducks, and sometimes the small children tending them, were also frightened by the balloon. The old superstitious cry of ‘It’s a Devil!’ was still occasionally heard when Flammarion crossed remoter countryside, much to his embarrassment. But on the whole the balloon was favourably regarded almost everywhere in the provinces. He and his companions frequently heard church bells rung to greet them as they passed over villages, and saw local mayors putting on their official sashes and running out to salute them from the steps of the mairie.25

  Railway trains signalled to them ‘by a joyous whistle from the locomotive’ as they flew above the tracks, to which the crew replied with merry – but faintly mocking – waving of flags. ‘What dust and what an infernal noise they make,’ Flammarion reflected of steam engines. ‘After all, how slowly they go in comparison with the rapidity of our smooth and silent course through the pure air!’ Most satisfactory of all, as they passed over large country estates, lordly invitations were frequently shouted up to them: ‘Ahoy, Monsieur! Do land here if you can, and come to dinner at the château!’26

  At night Flammarion revelled in the extraordinary brilliancy of the stars. On one occasion Jupiter seemed far brighter than the moon – it was ‘the sceptre of the night’. On another, the clarity of the craters and mountains on the moon’s surface, even without a telescope, was hypnotic, and reminded him of Tycho Brahe’s ‘naked eye’ observations centuries ago in Scandinavia. Indeed, he could see and worship the ‘radiating mountain’ named after Tycho himself.27

  At the same time, like John Wise in America, he could tell what kind of ground they were flying over in the darkness, simply by listening carefully: ‘The frogs indicated peat bog and morasses; the dogs were evidence of villages; absolute silence told us we were passing over hills or deep forests.’ Smells and scents could give similar information: crops, pine trees, cattle fields, duckponds, even rooftops (chimneys), all yielded up their distinctive identifying ‘perfumes’. These night flights, frankly more impressionistic than scientific, cast the most sustained magic. One lasted eleven and a half hours, and covered over three hundred miles from Paris to Larochefoucauld in the Limousin. They landed in a country lane just before dawn: ‘We sank slowly down like a lazy bird,’ overwhelmed by the sweet smell of vines and cornfields all around them.28

  For all his mathematical training at the Observatoire, Flammarion seems to have spent little time on data. He had a poetic and philosophical turn of mind, largely lacking from Glaisher’s meticulous reports. At six-thirty one perfect summer evening on 10 June 1867 he was floating at exactly 10,827 feet above the river Loire, south of the forest of Orléans. He was slightly higher, he noted characteristically, than Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. The air was perfectly clear, the sky perfectly blue. All the central district of his beloved France was spread out beneath him, like a magnificently painted geographical map of many colours. It was ‘the most magical panorama which fantastic dreams could evoke’. All was rich, glowing, peaceful. He could even see back as far as the geometric alleys of the Luxembourg Gardens, where his love affair with ballooning had begun.29

  In a sort of trance, he rose from his seat in front of the instruments, grasped the edge of the balloon basket with both hands, and leaning out as far as he could, gazed downwards into ‘the immense abyss’. But the thoughts that came to Flammarion now were not what he expected, on that idyllic summer evening above France, ‘in the midst of these blue heavens’:

  Down below, at 10,000 and odd feet beneath me, exist the universal radiations of life and activity; plants, animals, and men are breathing in the lower strata of this vast aerial ocean, whilst here above animation is already on the decline. Here we may contemplate Nature, but we repose no longer on her bosom. Absolute silence reigns supreme in all its sad majesty. Our voices have no echo. We are surrounded by a vast desert. The silence that reigns in these high regions of the air is so oppressive that we cannot help asking ourselves if we are still alive. But death does not reign here; we are impressed only by absence of life. We appear to appertain no longer to the world below … This absolute silence is truly impressive; it is the prelude to that which reigns in the interplanetary space in the midst of which other worlds revolve. The sky here has a tint which we never saw before … Planetary space is absolutely black.30

  3

  Flammarion’s fellow aeronaut, Gaston Tissandier (1843–99), appeared to be an altogether more conventional and earthbound character. His background was academic, and his manner deceptively restrained, sober, even pedantic. He would eventually become the greatest nineteenth-century French historian of ballooning, and his huge, meticulous collection of balloon pictures, letters, articles, books, documents and other memorabilia would form the major aeronautical archive in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. But all this was deceptive. Beneath the calm professorial exterior, with his neat pedagogic beard, beat the heart of a wild, chaotic and dauntless balloon enthusiast.

  Born in Paris in 1843, Tissandier studied chemistry at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, and graduated from the Sorbonne. A brilliant young chemist, dedicated and serious-minded, he was appointed Director of the Laboratoire National d’Essai et d’Analyse in 1864, at the early age of twenty-one, and began lecturing to teenage students at the Association Polytechnique. Five years later, when already embarked on his ballooning adventures, he published a successful popular textbook for them, Traité élémentaire de chimie (1869).

  The formative balloon experience came relatively late to the young professor, and was at first insidious rather than dramatic in its effects. He happened to witness one of Nadar’s later Paris launches in autumn 1866: ‘It was the Géant that drew me definitively into what I may term my aerial vocation. I shall never forget the ascent of that magnificent aerostat from the Champ de Mars, accompanied by the little Imperial. I have still before my eyes that mighty balloon awaiting the signal to rise into the air and soar through the clouds like an eagle … I still see the Géant rising magnificently: a shower of sand falls from the wickerwork car, and the balloon is soon lost to sight in a thick cloud of vapour. Around me arms are uplifted on all sides, shouts of excitement fill the air, hearts beat fast, and everyone returns home thinking of nothing but those aeronauts.’31 Anyway, Gaston certainly did, although his teaching duties allowed him no immediate chance to pursue that unexpectedly tantalising vision into the ‘thick clouds of vapour’ above his head.

  Two years later, in August 1868, while on a sedate seaside holiday with his parents and his elder brother Albert (1839–1906) in Calais, Tissandier spotted a ‘great red placard’ advertising a local balloon launch, scheduled for the next afternoon, in the place d’Armes. It instant
ly reawakened all his suppressed ‘aerostatic tendencies’.32 His account of what followed suggests something of the restless, impetuous spirit that secretly possessed the young chemistry professor at that time, as well as the continuing power of balloons to fascinate and intoxicate dreamers like him.

  The balloon to be launched was the Neptune, piloted by the controversial amateur aeronaut Jules Duruof (1842–99). The ascent was to celebrate the annual Fête de l’Empereur, Napoleon’s birthday on 15 August, the very day when the autumn weather was meant to declare its intentions. Its declared intentions over Calais were evidently stormy that year. This suited Duruof, still in his twenties, who had already made a reputation for madcap flights and disastrous landings, mostly on the north coast of France, or in the sea beyond it. He was even said to have once ‘purposely’ exploded his balloon, to create a sensation with a seaside crowd.33 He was regarded by many as an irresponsible, bad-weather balloonist, a ‘hooligan’ of the clouds, who took too many risks, and accordingly had a faithful popular following.

  Tissandier had never even heard of Duruof before, but quietly slipped round to his rooms at the Hôtel Dunkerque, and introduced himself. After ‘a quarter of an hour’s animated conversation’, they were ‘the best friends in the world’, and Tissandier had been offered the third place in the Neptune’s basket. ‘I was transported with joy on leaving him.’

 
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