Classic History Books

William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

Their voyage, however, had by no means been free from anxiety. We are told that the fabric of the
balloon repeatedly caught fire, which it took the aeronauts all their time to extinguish. At times, too, they

came down perilously near to the Seine, or to the housetops of Paris, but after the most exciting half-hour

of their lives they found themselves once more on Mother Earth.

Here we must make a slight digression and speak of the invention of the hydrogen, or gas, balloon. In a
previous chapter we read of the discovery of hydrogen gas by Henry Cavendish, and the subsequent

experiments with this gas by Dr. Black, of Glasgow. It was soon decided to try to inflate a balloon with

this "inflammable air" - as the newly-discovered gas was called - and with this end in view a large public

subscription was raised in France to meet the heavy expenses entailed in the venture. The work was

entrusted to a French scientist, Professor Charles, and two brothers named Robert.

It was quickly seen that paper, such as was used by the Montgolfiers, was of little use in the construction
of a gas balloon, for the gas escaped. Accordingly the fabric was made of silk and varnished with a

solution of india-rubber and turpentine. The first hydrogen balloon was only about 13 feet in diameter,

for in those early days the method of preparing hydrogen was very laborious and costly, and the

constructors thought it advisable not to spend too much money over the initial experiments, in case they

should be a failure.

In August, 1783 - an eventful year in the history of aeronautics - the first gas-inflated balloon was sent
up, of course unaccompanied by a passenger. It shot up high in the air much more rapidly than

Montgolfier's hot-air balloon had done, and was soon beyond the clouds. After a voyage of nearly an

hour's duration it descended in a field some 15 miles away. We are told that some peasants at work near

by fled in the greatest alarm at this strange monster which settled in their midst. An old print shows them

cautiously approaching the balloon as it lay heaving on the ground, stabbing it with pitchforks, and

beating it with flails and sticks. The story goes that one of the alarmed farmers poured a charge of shot

into it with his gun, no doubt thinking that he had effectually silenced the panting demon contained

therein. To prevent such unseemly occurrences in the future the French Government found it necessary to

warn the people by proclamation that balloons were perfectly harmless objects, and that the experiments

would be repeated.

We now have two aerial craft competing for popular favour: the Montgolfier hot-air balloon and the
"Charlier" or gas-inflated balloon. About four months after the first trial trip of the latter the inventors

decided to ascend in a specially-constructed hydrogen-inflated craft. This balloon, which was 27 feet in

diameter, contained nearly all the features of the modern balloon. Thus there was a valve at the top by

means of which the gas could be let out as desired; a cord net covered the whole fabric, and from the

loop which it formed below the neck of the balloon a car was suspended; and in the car there was a

quantity of ballast which could be cast overboard when necessary.

It may be imagined that this new method of aerial navigation had thoroughly aroused the excitability of
the French nation, so that thousands of people were met together just outside Paris on the 17th December

to see Professor Charles and his mechanic, Robelt, ascend in their new craft. The ascent was successful

in every way; the intrepid aeronauts, who carried a barometer, found that they had quickly reached an

altitude of over a mile.

After remaining aloft for nearly two hours they came down. Professor Charles decided to ascend again,
this time by himself, and with a much lighter load the balloon rose about two miles above sea-level. The

temperature at this height became very low, and M. Charles was affected by violent pain in his right ear


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