Classic History Books


William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

The learned Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, who lived in the thirteenth century, seems to have thought of
the possibility of producing a contrivance that would float in air. His idea was that the earth's atmosphere

was a "true fluid", and that it had an upper surface as the ocean has. He quite believed that on this upper

surface - subject, in his belief, to waves similar to those of the sea - an air-ship might float if it once

succeeded in rising to the required height. But the difficulty was to reach the surface of this aerial sea. To

do this he proposed to make a large hollow globe of metal, wrought as thin as the skill of man could

make it, so that it might be as light as possible, and this vast globe was to be filled with "liquid fire". Just

what "liquid fire" was, one cannot attempt to explain, and it is doubtful if Bacon himself had any clear

idea. But he doubtless thought of some gaseous substance lighter than air, and so he would seem to have,

at least, hit upon the principle underlying the construction of the modern balloon. Roger Bacon had ideas

far in advance of his time, and his experiments made such an impression of wonder on the popular mind

that they were believed to be wrought by black magic, and the worthy monk was classed among those

who were supposed to be in league with Satan.

 

CHAPTER III. The First Man to Ascend in a Balloon

The safe descent of the three animals, which has already been related, showed the way for man to venture
up in a balloon. In our time we marvel at the daring of modern airmen, who ascend to giddy heights, and,

as it were, engage in mortal combat with the demons of the air. But, courageous though these deeds are,

they are not more so than those of the pioneers of ballooning.

In the eighteenth century nothing was known definitely of the conditions of the upper regions of the air,
where, indeed, no human being had ever been; and though the frail Montgolfier balloons had ascended

and descended with no outward happenings, yet none could tell what might be the risk to life in

committing oneself to an ascent. There was, too, very special danger in making an ascent in a hot-air

balloon. Underneath the huge envelope was suspended a brazier, so that the fabric of the balloon was in

great danger of catching fire.

It was at first suggested that two French criminals under sentence of death should be sent up, and, if they
made a safe descent, then the way would be open for other aeronauts to venture aloft. But everyone

interested in aeronautics in those days saw that the man who first traversed the unexplored regions of the

air would be held in high honour, and it seemed hardly right that this honour should fall to criminals. At

any rate this was the view of M. Pilatre de Rozier, a French gentleman, and he determined himself to

make the pioneer ascent.

De Rozier had no false notion of the risks he was prepared to run, and he superintended with the greatest
care the construction of his balloon. It was of enormous size, with a cage slung underneath the brazier for

heating the air. Before making his free ascent De Rozier made a trial ascent with the balloon held captive

by a long rope.

At length, in November, 1783, accompanied by the Marquis d'Arlandes as a passenger, he determined to
venture. The experiment aroused immense excitement all over France, and a large concourse of people

were gathered together on the outskirts of Paris to witness the risky feat. The balloon made a perfect

ascent, and quickly reached a height of about half a mile above sea-level. A strong current of air in the

upper regions caused the balloon to take an opposite direction from that intended, and the aeronauts

drifted right over Paris. It would have gone hard with them if they had been forced to descend in the city,

but the craft was driven by the wind to some distance beyond the suburbs and they alighted quite safely

about six miles from their starting-point, after having been up in the air for about half an hour.

 

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