Falling upwards, p.30
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       Falling Upwards, p.30

           Richard Holmes
 

  In 1908 Dolly gained a national reputation when she ascended on twin-parachute harnesses with her friend Louie May. When Louie’s harness failed to release at twelve thousand feet, Dolly performed the extraordinary feet of transferring the petrified Louie to her own trapeze, while still attached to the balloon. She then pulled her own parachute release, which worked, and with Louie’s arms locked around her neck, brought them both safely back to earth on a single parachute. Louie was unhurt, but Dolly suffered severe back injuries which left her paralysed in a wheelchair for many weeks. Astonishingly, she recovered, and continued balloon parachuting for several years afterwards.7

  It was an exceptional act of courage and, above all perhaps, of female friendship. Yet many felt that Dolly was being exploited by her balloon Svengali, a mysterious Frenchman known simply as ‘Captain Gaudron’. He arranged all her flights, supplied her equipment (including her provocative uniform, and also the release mechanism that failed), but only paid her piecemeal, by each ascent, and certainly without any life insurance. Yet Dolly would always speak with a naïve rapture, and a certain nostalgia, of her balloon experiences. Her passionate attitude seems expressive of this late period of extreme risk-taking.

  I never lost that sense of wonderment and ecstasy whenever I floated alone in the awesome silence … Every ascent renewed in me those same feelings of delight and contentment. When I soared upwards, above all earthly worries and discomforts, my mind was set free to wander at will and to absorb the sensations of gentle flight, and the beauty of everything around and below me. I never failed to marvel at my bird’s eye view of the scenes below, whether rural or urban, forming an intricately woven tapestry above which I floated so effortlessly. In those days, flight in any form was an experience known to only a very few of us. Remember, no aeroplane flew in England until 1908.8

  What was the appeal of these hugely popular and sensational displays? As the parachutes were still relatively crude, and the balloons increasingly old and ill-maintained, the performances were always far more dangerous than the sporting, fairground atmosphere suggests. Frequent injuries and regular fatalities occurred, as also happened in the Edwardian circus. According to Dolly, most of the parachutists with whom she worked, even the most glamorous ones such as Maude Brooks or ‘Devil-may-care Captain Smith or handsome dashing Captain Fleet’, somehow ‘disappeared’, as she put it in her memoirs.9

  They may have been killed, but the more sinister possibility is that, like her, they suffered spinal or internal injuries as a result of a crash or a heavy landing. But unlike Dolly, they may have been paralysed or disabled for life. There was no attempt to regulate or license the displays, let alone to insure the lives of the performers, until the First World War brought such frivolities to an end. Nevertheless, like their contemporaries the suffragettes, many of them, such as Dolly, insisted that they were striking a blow for women’s freedom.

  These young aerial artistes, so dazzling in their courage and carelessness, were some of the last representatives of the great nineteenth-century tradition of ballooning as entertainment. They were both the stars and the victims of the show, and it would be difficult to judge how far they were liberated or exploited in their métier. Like beautiful sacrifices they would be ‘offered up to heaven’; and like angels they would ‘drop back from the clouds’ for the edification of casual onlookers. Remarkably, such displays continued in America into the 1930s. But strangely, the ambiguity of their roles was mirrored in the other form of extreme ballooning.

  3

  The outstanding example of the extreme record-breaking balloonist was the Swedish engineer Salomon Andrée, and his fantastic efforts to reach the North Pole by balloon in 1896–97.

  Andrée was born in 1854 in the tiny provincial township of Gränna, three hundred miles south-west of Stockholm, on the edge of Lake Vättern. He was brought up largely by his mother, Wilhelmina; his father, an apothecary, died when he was sixteen. As a boy Salomon ran wild, building rafts, sailing boats and on one occasion launching a fire balloon that set light to a local barn. He remained close to his mother all his life, calling her Mina, and sending her long letters confiding in her all his plans and secret ambitions. She seems to have given him an inner confidence and self-sufficiency that never left him. He grew up exceptionally tall, headstrong and adventurous, and defiant in his attitudes. He was strongly committed to the natural sciences, with a special fascination for engineering, meteorology and ornithology. By contrast, he disclaimed all interest in the arts and literature, claiming that concerts and art galleries bored him, and that he only liked adventure stories – notably the fantastic tales of Baron Munchausen.10 Like a hero out of Jules Verne – or Nietzsche – his watchword became ‘Mankind is only half awake!’

  Andrée trained at the Royal Institute of Technology, Oslo, where he graduated with a first-class degree in engineering, and a passionate belief in the power of ‘technology’ to solve human problems. This engineering degree was itself a recent innovation, with particular attention paid to all forms of transport, including railways, engines and bridge constructions. Immediately on graduation, at the age of twenty-two, Andrée characteristically decided to visit the future, and travelled steerage to America, landing in New York with little money, no contacts and no work in prospect. Undaunted, he took the railroad south to the home of American science, Philadelphia. He arrived in time (probably as he had planned) for the Philadelphia International Exhibition of summer 1876, and enthusiastically toured all the stands, making notes of all the new mechanical inventions. To his delight he came upon a Swedish national stand, and at once succeeded in landing himself a job as a demonstrator and technical assistant for the duration. He also had his first glimpse of the importance of publicity and clever presentation in getting innovative projects ‘off the ground’ – a significant new American catchphrase.

  But something unexpected occurred during these formative weeks. Andrée sought out not contemporary engineers and railroad designers, but the legendary old American balloonist John Wise, now retired (temporarily) at ground level on the east coast. They talked of the American dream of the Atlantic balloon crossing, and the theory of prevailing high-altitude currents. They may even have talked of ballooning to the Pole, since Wise published a letter on this very subject three years later in the New York Times.11

  Young Andrée became fascinated by the technical challenge of ballooning. Wise recommended the latest works on meteorology and trade-wind patterns, and promised to take his young Swedish protégé on an introductory flight once the Exhibition was over. Twice Andrée climbed into one of Wise’s balloon baskets, but twice Wise cancelled the flight at the last moment due to bad weather conditions, a lesson in prudence that Andrée did not perhaps fully appreciate at the time. To his infinite frustration, Andrée never actually flew with John Wise in America, though in later years he sometimes implied that he had, the old American master handing on the aeronautical baton to the young Scandinavian one.

  Returning home, Andrée obtained a post in the Swedish Patent Office, where he could study the development of every kind of mechanical invention, but he remained restive and unfulfilled. In 1882 he made another daring career leap, and volunteered for a two-year scientific expedition to the bleak northern island of Spitsbergen. This was a remote, icebound territory claimed by Sweden, lying inside the Arctic Circle between 78 and 80 degrees north. Hitherto quite unexplored, except by passing whalers, Spitsbergen was fast becoming the new Swedish centre for the science of polar exploration. There was growing rivalry with the Norwegians, who had discovered Franz Josef Land to the east in 1873. At this time neither Pole had been reached, and numerous expeditions – like that of Sir John Franklin to discover the North-West Passage in 1845 – had been lost, always under terrible conditions, including snow-blindness, limbs amputated as a result of frostbite, and rumours of cannibalism. There was much speculation about the unknown icy extremes at either end of the planet. Were they simply frozen deserts, or were they inhab
ited by unknown tribes, or even by unknown monsters? The great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen wrote at this time: ‘The history of polar exploration is a single mighty manifestation of the power of the unknown over the mind of man.’12

  The North Pole was particularly mysterious, with a powerful symbolic presence in Icelandic literature, and in such works as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), whose terrible dénouement takes place on the frozen Arctic Ocean. No one knew if the ice pack eventually became land, and if so what kind of creatures – besides the enormous and ferocious polar bear – might live there. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole itself had no land mass or definable landmark, but was merely a geographical coordinate at 90 degrees north on the frozen ice cap. No expedition had reached further north than 83 degrees and survived to tell the tale. Using sledges, the English explorer William Edward Parry had got less than a hundred miles beyond Spitsbergen to 82.45 north in 1827, and the Royal Navy Commander Albert Markham had pushed to 83.20 north in 1876. But two American expeditions, led by Charles Hall (1871) and George DeLong (1881), had ended in disaster.

  On Spitsbergen Andrée’s determination and independence greatly impressed the expedition’s director, Dr Nils Ekholm, who then held the important position of Senior Researcher at the Swedish Meteorological Central Office. Ekholm saw Andrée as a natural leader, with immense technical confidence. On his return to Sweden, Andrée began specialising in meteorology, and published several successful academic papers during the 1880s on electrical charges in clouds, and polar winds and weather patterns. He gained a reputation as a polar expert, and gradually the idea of mounting his own polar expedition from Spitsbergen began to possess his imagination.

  Against this was the possibility of a more conventional, domestic future. Throughout his thirties Andrée had a long-term liaison with a married woman, Gurli Linder. She was deeply attached to him, and considered divorce; but perhaps her married status suited Andrée.13 He used to say that ‘marriage was too great a risk’ for an explorer, and that his mother remained his closest confidante. He seems to have been curiously aloof and inexpressive in most of his friendships, although he had a natural gift with children, and would unbend and join in all their games with boyish enthusiasm, ‘frolicsome and roguish’.14 But more and more he became obsessed by finding a brilliant engineering solution to what he thought of as ‘the challenge’ of the North Pole.

  The infinitely slow and wearisome traditional method of Arctic travel by dog sledge, or skis, or drifting boat, seemed absurd to Andrée. He thought of John Wise and the great American dreams of epic flight. Slowly the decisive project took shape. The modern engineering solution to the North Pole was clearly air travel. Surely it would be possible to fly there in a specially designed and engineered hydrogen balloon? He could ‘conquer’ the Pole simply by dropping from the skies, anchoring at 90 degrees north, and depositing a Swedish flag and a marker buoy. It would be the ultimate, planetary, record-breaking balloon flight, before the nineteenth century came to an end. Andrée felt he had taken on a national destiny. Marriage would have to wait. He spent the next six years totally dedicated to technical preparation, publicity and fund-raising.

  Andrée took his first actual flight in a balloon surprisingly late, two years into his project, in summer 1892, having hired the Norwegian aeronaut Francesco Cetti, based in Stockholm, to teach him. Cetti described Andrée as ‘disagreeably calm’ when airborne, and impervious to the picturesque charms of ballooning. Instead he was excited by all the technical potential the balloon offered, notably the use of onboard cameras, and the possibility of mapping a large swathe of the unexplored Arctic with overlapping photographs. On the strength of such ideas, he managed to raise funds for his own first experimental balloon. This was a relatively small 37,230-cubic-feet aerostat, which he named Svea, after the national emblem, the fierce valkyrie Mother Sweden, tutelary goddess of the North. It was the first of many skilful publicity gestures.15

  Between 1893 and 1895 he made eight short flights aboard the Svea in Sweden, all undertaken solo and without further training from Cetti. He proved a natural aeronaut, cool and resourceful, and was soon experimenting with various forms of baskets, instrumentation, sails and drag lines. On his third flight, in October 1893, he was caught in a violent storm and blown out to sea from Gothenburg, and right across the Baltic towards Finland. He should have been lost, but keeping his head, he skilfully crash-landed on an offshore island, jumped from the basket, and allowed the tattered remains of the Svea to blow away without him. They were eventually found fifty miles away on the Finnish mainland.

  Because he was missing for forty-eight hours, Andrée attracted a great deal of publicity in the Swedish press, and the disaster was turned into a triumph. A crowd of three thousand people greeted him on his return to Stockholm aboard a Finnish steamer. His tall, Viking-like figure, with his thatch of blond hair and large, dashing moustaches became increasingly well known. On his last flight in the Svea he travelled 240 miles in little over three hours, and successfully used a rip-panel to land. He could now claim to be Sweden’s leading aeronaut, although in reality his total flying experience amounted to about forty hours in the air.

  Andrée published his flight reports in the Royal Swedish Academy Journal, and gained the powerful support of the leading polar scientist A.E. Nordenskiöld. Building upon this, he shrewdly publicised his new method of steering the balloon, by combining a special type of drag rope with a newly designed sail. With such engineering innovations, Andrée caught the attention of the popular press, while simultaneously promoting scientific fund-raising. At academic sessions his gaunt, aristocratic appearance, sober and even melancholy, gave him natural charisma and authority.

  He did not seem like an adventurer, though he was quick to spot opportunities. During one meeting of the Academy, Nordenskiöld raised the possibility of a ‘photometric survey’ of the Arctic from a fixed balloon, tethered at Spitsbergen. Andrée cleverly ran with this as a brilliant idea, though he had already conceived it himself, and merely added that it would be even better for the Academy to fund a free balloon, because then the survey could go as far as the Pole itself. Nordenskiöld was delighted with this response.16 During the 1890s Andrée assembled serious scientific support for such a perilous and even quixotic expedition, and gained several wealthy patrons, including the great industrialist and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel.

  It helped him that polar exploration was increasingly in the news, and a question of national pride. In summer 1894 Nansen set out on his famous expedition to get as near as possible to the North Pole by drifting in the ice floes in his specially constructed boat the Fram. Nansen planned to overwinter on his journey, and somehow survive the six months of total polar night. He set out, amidst much Norwegian excitement, but failed to reappear in the summer of 1895. Nothing was heard of his expedition for the next twelve months. When he failed to return in the spring of 1896, a rival Swedish expedition seemed appropriate. Finally King Oscar II, monarch of both Scandinavian countries, expressed his approval of Andrée’s attempt to ‘conquer’ the North Pole by the latest technical means, and made a substantial donation. Exactly as Andrée had planned, his balloon expedition had become a patriotic endeavour.

  Andrée now hastened to put together a balloon crew. Shrewdly he first persuaded his erstwhile meteorological director, Dr Nils Ekholm, then in his late forties, to agree to accompany him. His professorial, bespectacled appearance somehow further increased the expedition’s scientific standing. A second potential member of the crew was Ekholm’s brilliant young assistant Nils Strindberg. Aged only twenty-four, Strindberg was a trained physicist and meteorologist, but also had wide interests in books and music. He drew, painted and played the violin. His family were prosperous and distinguished, and he was a nephew of the great dramatist August Strindberg.

  This was another shrewd choice. Temperamentally the opposite of Andrée, Strindberg was a cheery and attractive figure, bubbling with life and fun, adding a goo
d emotional balance to the team. He was disarmingly youthful in appearance, and soon attempted to cultivate an unconvincing Andrée-style moustache. Yet equally vital for the expedition, he had already made a name for himself as an open-air photographer, using the latest Eastman Kodak equipment. In this capacity he further enhanced the engineering credentials of Andrée’s crew. Like Ekholm he knew nothing at all about balloons. But unlike Ekholm, he characteristically hurried over to Paris to take aeronautical lessons, which he regarded as a ‘tremendous lark’.

  Andrée formally presented his scheme, ‘A Plan to Reach the North Pole by Balloon’, in a long and masterful speech given first to the Swedish Royal Academy in Stockholm in February 1895, and then repeated to the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London the following spring.17 In his best dry, commanding manner he outlined the apparently overwhelming challenges posed by an Arctic balloon flight. In sum there were four huge problems: how to sustain the balloon in the air for at least thirty days; how to survive the extreme cold and the potentially fatal problems of icing; how to navigate the balloon on a continuous northerly course; and how to get home in the eventuality that the balloon came down on the ice.18

  Then, one by one, he coolly analysed each of these formidable difficulties, giving his own precise technical answers. His central theme was that reaching the North Pole was no longer ‘a purely scientific problem’, or even a human problem. It had become a specifically technological problem, a straightforward ‘task for the technologist’ requiring a logical series of engineering solutions.19 He could provide these with a package of brilliant inventions, ranging from an adaptable sailing rig, adjustable guide ropes, self-venting gas valves and ice-repellent balloon fabrics, to the smallest practical details, like an insulated cooking device, lightweight aluminium cutlery, and tinned condensed milk.

 
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