Not a few of our readers will remember the ascent of Nadar’s colossal balloon from Paris, on Sunday, the 18th of October, 1863. This balloon was remarkable as having attached to it a regular two-story house for a car. Its ascent was witnessed by nearly half a million of persons. The balloon, after passing over the eastern part of France, Belgium, and Holland, suffered a disastrous descent in Hanover the day after it started on its perilous journey. It was a fool-hardy enterprise to construct such a gigantic and unmanageable balloon, presenting such an immense surface to the atmosphere, and being so susceptible to adverse aerial currents as to become the helpless prey of the elements; and it was still more fool-hardy to place the lives of its passengers at the mercy of such terrible and ungovernable forces. A large section of the public laboured under the delusion that Nadar’s balloon was one capable of being steered. In reality, however, the ‘Geant’ was unquestionably the most rebellious and unruly specimen of its class that has been made since the days of Montgolfier. The object in view when this formidable monster was designed and constructed was to create the means to collect sufficient funds to form a “Free Association for Aerial Navigation by means of MACHINES HEAVIER THAN AIR,” and for the construction of machines on this principle. The receipts from the exhibition of the “Geant” were intended to form the first capital of the association. The hopes, however, of the promoters have not been realised in this respect; for while the expenses of the construction of the balloon have amounted, directly and indirectly, to the sum of L8,300, its two ascents in Paris and its exhibition in London produced only L3,300.
Space forbids us to enter at length on the various stages of the idea of aerial navigation by means of an apparatus heavier than the atmosphere. The idea is not, however, by any means so absurd as it appears at first sight. Those who, like Arago, declare that the word “impossible” does not exist, except in the higher mathematics, and those who look hopefully to the future instead of resting content with the past, will join in applauding the spirit which dictated the manifesto of aerial locomotion to the founder of the association which we are about to describe. M. Babinet, speaking on this subject before the French Polytechnic Association, said: “It is absurd to talk of guiding balloons. How will you set about it? How is it possible that a balloon—say, for instance, like the Flesselles, whose diameter measures 120 feet—can resist and manoeuvre against opposing winds or currents of air? It would require a power equal to 400 horses for the sails of a ship to struggle on equal terms with the wind. Suppose an impossibility, namely, that a balloon could carry with it a force equal to 400 horse-power; this result would be of little use, for under the immense weight the fragile covering of the balloon would instantly collapse. If all the horses of a regiment were harnessed to the car of a balloon by means of a long rope, the result would be that the balloon would fly into shivers, being too fragile to withstand these two opposing forces. Man must seek to raise himself in the air by another mode of operation altogether, if he wish to guide himself at the same time. Some time ago I bought a play thing, very much in vogue at that time, called a Stropheor. This toy was composed of a small rotating screw propeller, which revolved on its own support when the piece of string wound round it was pulled sharply. The screw was rather heavy, weighing nearly a quarter of a pound, and the wings were of tin, very broad and thick. This machine, however, was rather too eccentric for parlour use, for its flight was so violent that it was continually breaking the pier glass, if there was one in the room; and, failing this, it next attacked the windows. The ascending force of this machine is so great that I have seen one of them fly over Antwerp Cathedral, which is one of the highest edifices in the world. The air from underneath the machine is exhausted by the action of the screw, which, passing under the wings, causes a vacuum, while the air above it replenishes and fills this void, and under the influence of these two causes the apparatus mounts from the earth. But the problem is not solved by means of this plaything, whose motive power is exterior to it. Messrs. Nadar, Ponton, D’Amecourt, and De la Landelle teach us better than this, although the wings of their different models are entirely unworthy of men who desire to demonstrate a truth to short-lived mortals. We have only arrived as yet at the infancy of the process, but we have made a good beginning, for, having once proved that a machine capable of raising itself in the air, wholly unaided from without, can be made, we have overcome with this apparently small result the whole difficulty. The principle of propulsion by means of a screw is by no means a novelty. It was first utilised in windmills, whose sails are nothing more nor less than an immense screw which is turned by the action of the wind on its surface. In the case of turbine water-wheels, where perhaps 970 cubic feet of water are utilised by means of a mechanism not larger than a hat, we see another illustration of it, with this difference, that water takes the place of wind as the motive power.
“The aerial screw is beset with great difficulties, but if we can succeed through its agency in raising even the smallest weight, we may be confident of being able to raise a heavier one, for a large machine is always more powerful in proportion to its size than a small one.
“Mlle. Garnerin once made a bet that she would guide herself in her descent from a considerable altitude towards a fixed spot on the earth at some distance, with no other help than the parachute; and she was really able to guide herself to within a few feet of the specified spot, by simply altering the inclination of the parachute.
“From observations in mountainous districts, where large birds of prey may be seen to the best advantage hovering with outstretched wings, I have come to the conclusion that they first of all attain the requisite height and then, extending their wings in the form of a parachute, let themselves glide gradually towards the desired spot. Marshal Niel confirms this opinion by his experience in the mountains of Algeria. It is, therefore, clear from these examples that we should possess the power of transporting ourselves from place to place if we could only discover a means of raising a weight perpendicularly in the air, which would then act as a capital of power, only requiring to be expended at will.”
From the foregoing remarks we may gather an idea of the importance which may be attached to aerial locomotion notwithstanding the successive failures of all those who have hitherto taken up the subject. We come now to the description of the memorable ascent of the ‘Geant.’
We learn from the very interesting account of the ‘Geant,’ published at the time, all the mishaps and adventures it outlived from the time of the first stitch in its covering to its final inflation with gas. We must, however, be content to take up the narrative at the point at which the ‘Geant,’ with thirteen passengers on board, had, in obedience to the order to “let go,” been released from the bonds which held it to the earth. The narrative is, as our readers will perceive, written in somewhat exaggerated language:—
“The ‘Geant’ gave an almost imperceptible shake on finding itself free, and then commenced to rise. The ascent was slow and gradual at first—the monster seemed to be feeling its way. An immense shout rose with it from the assembled multitude. We ascended grandly, whilst the deafening clamour of two hundred thousand voices seemed to increase. We leant over the edge of the car, and gazed at the thousands of faces which were turned towards us from every point of the vast plain, in every conceivable angle of which we were the common apex. We still ascended. The summits of the double row of trees which surround the Champ de Mars were already under us. We reached the level of the cupola of the Military School. The tremendous uproar still reached us. We glided over Paris in an easterly direction, at the height of about six hundred feet. Every one took up the best possible position on the six light cane stools, and on the two long bunks at either end of the car, and contemplated the marvellous panorama spread out under us, of which we never grew weary.
“There is never any dizziness in a balloon, as is often erroneously supposed, for in it you are the only point in space without any possibility of comparison with another, and therefore the means of becoming giddy are not at hand.”
A very experienced aeronaut, who numbers his ascents by hundreds, has assured me that he never knew of a single case of dizziness.
“The earth seems to unfold itself to our view like an immense and variegated map, the predominant colour of which is green in all its shades and tints. The irregular division of the country into fields made it resemble a patchwork counterpane. The size of the houses, churches, fortresses, was so considerably diminished as to make them resemble nothing so much as those playthings manufactured at Carlsruhe. This was the effect produced by a microscopic train, which whistled very faintly to attract our attention, and which seemed to creep along at a snail’s pace, though doubtless going at the rate of thirty miles an hour, and was enveloped in a minute cloud of smoke. What a lasting impression this microscopic neatness makes on us! What is that white puff I see down there? the smoke of a cigar? No: it is a cloud of mist. It must be a perfect plain that we are looking at, for we cannot distinguish between the different altitudes of a bramble-bush and an oak a hundred years old!
“It is one of the delights of an aeronaut to gaze on the familiar scenes of earth from the immense height of the car of a balloon! What earthly pleasure can compare with this! Free, calm, silent, roving through this immense and hospitable space, where no human form can harm me, I despise every evil power; I can feel the pleasure of existence for the first time, for I am in full possession, as on no other occasion, of perfect health of mind and body. The aeronauts of the ‘Geant’ will scarcely condescend to pity those miserable mortals whom they can only faintly recognise by their gigantic works, which appear to them not more dignified than ant-hills!
“The sun had already set behind the purple horizon in our rear. The atmosphere was still quite clear round the ‘Geant,’ although there was a thick haze underneath, through which we could occasionally see lights glimmering from the earth. We had attained a sufficient altitude to be only just able to hear noises from villages that we left beneath us, and were beginning to enjoy the delicious calm and repose peculiar to aerial ascents.
“There is, however, a talk about dinner, or rather supper, and night is now fast approaching. Every one eats with the best possible appetite. Hams, fowls and dessert only appear to disappear with an equal promptitude, and we quench our thirst with bordeaux and champagne. I remind our companions of the pigeons we brought with us, and which are hanging in a cage outside the railing. I knew there was no danger of their flying away, so fearlessly opened the cage. The three or four birds I had put in the car seemed struck with terror. They flew awkwardly towards the centre of our party, tumbling among the plates and dishes and under our feet. It was not a case of hunger with them, and I ought to have remembered that their feeding time was long since past. I replaced them in their cage.
“Meanwhile, the sun has left us for some time. Our longing gaze followed it behind the dark clouds in the horizon, whose edges it tipped with a glorious purple. Its last rays shone on us, and then came a bluish-grey twilight. Suddenly we are enveloped in a dense fog. We look around, above us. Everything has disappeared in the mist. The balloon itself is no longer visible. We can see nothing except the ropes which suspend us, and these are only visible for a few feet above our heads, when they lose themselves in the fog. We are alone with our wickerwork house in an unfathomable vault.
“We still ascend, however, through the compact and terrible fog, which is so solid-looking as to seem capable of being carved into forms with a knife. As we were without a moon, and had no light at all, in fact, we were unable to distinguish nicely the different shades of colour in these thick clouds. Now and then, when the clouds seemed to be lighter, they had a bluish tinge; but the thicker ones were dirty and muddy-looking. Dante must have seen some like these.
Content from Wonderful Balloon Ascents