An eye for an i #452 Children

Glaisher, Coxwell, and a near-fatal balloon ride

A portrait of James Glaisher (left) and Henry Coxwell during one of their balloon rides.   | Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum Wikimedia Commons

We take the views from the skies for granted these days. With passenger flights more common than ever before, the splendid sights that are on offer occupy our attention for not more than a few moments at a stretch. And yet, there was a time, not long back, when aeronautical expeditions were just taking flight.

It was in the second half of the 19th Century when ballooning had progressed to something of interest to scientists. And it was in this climate that English meteorologist, aeronaut, and astronomer James Glaisher, accompanied by accomplished English balloonist Henry Coxwell, broke the record for travelling higher than any others before them.

Astronomer turns aeronaut

The son of a watchmaker, Glaisher was born in London in 1809. A visit to the Greenwich Observatory in 1833 stoked his interest in scientific instruments, prompting him to join the Cambridge Observatory as an assistant to astronomer and mathematician George Airy.

After making a series of observations on Halley’s comet in 1835, Glaisher followed his mentor to Greenwich Observatory. He joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1841 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1849. By the time he had turned his attention to balloon flights, he had already made considerable contributions to science.

It was while surveying Ireland, mapping its contours and highest peaks, that Glaisher decided to set his sights skywards. With the firm belief that these trips would help him understand the atmospheric forces that govern the weather on Earth, Glaisher managed to convince the British Association for the Advancement of Science to fund his trips.

Teams up with Coxwell

Glaisher teamed up with Coxwell, an expert balloonist of the time, for these flights. They worked together and started from scratch, acquiring a new balloon to be used for their voyages.

Unlike the hot air balloons of today, these balloons were filled with a light gas like hydrogen. This meant that even though they could rise “with the ease of an ascending vapour” (in Glaisher’s own words), descending involved opening a valve to let some of this gas out of the balloon. Landing too was no easy feat as it needed releasing an anchor “that would hook into a tree or hedges and stop them being dragged along the ground”.

Following some false starts, the duo had their first success on July 17 1862 when they took off from Wolverhampton in the morning. Even though most of their other flights departed from Crystal Palace in London, they returned to Wolverhampton for the flight on September 5, their most popular trip.

Accompanied by six pigeons intended to send out messages from the balloon, Glaisher and Coxwell set out on that day, venturing into the unknown. Even though the flight had been delayed by “unfavourable weather”, they went ahead with their ride.

Uncontrolled ascent

As it turns out, the flight on September 5 was not a controlled ascent with Glaisher describing that the balloon was “rising too quickly” and “going around too quickly”. The fate of the pigeons should have indicated what was coming as Glaisher mentions that “a third was thrown out between four and five miles, and it fell downwards as a stone”.

Glaisher’s notes tell us that it was around 22,380 feet above sea level that he began noticing difficulties with his vision as he had trouble reading the many instruments that he had brought with them for the expedition. By 26,350 feet, Glaisher “lost” himself, no longer able to read his instruments and drifting away from consciousness owing to the cold, the lack of oxygen and the pressure falling rapidly with the ascent.

While it was obvious by this point that they had to descend, and quickly, the balloon’s valve-line had twisted and tangled itself with the other ropes as a result of the turning motion of the balloon. Coxwell, who himself was losing control of his limbs, climbed out of the safety of the basket to release the valve. In the end, he held the valve-line in his teeth and yanked his head many times, filled with relief when he finally succeeded in opening the valve, beginning their rapid descent.

When Glaisher came back to his senses, he quickly returned to his instruments, taking down notes and making all the observations that he could. Within no time, their near-fatal episode had come to a successful conclusion as they landed away from Northampton.

Weather-related discoveries

Glaisher and Coxwell estimated that they had climbed up to 37,000 feet in that ride, nearly 8,000 feet above the summit of Mt. Everest, reaching heights that had never been seen before. As for the pigeons, only one remained when they were back on Earth and it was so traumatised that it clung on to Glaisher for a full 15 minutes before eventually taking flight.

Unfazed by this near-death experience, Glaisher went on to make many more flights, making crucial observations that changed our understanding of weather. He discovered that the winds change speeds at different altitudes and also found out the way in which raindrops form and gather moisture as they head towards the Earth.

Glaisher’s reports and writings were a treasure trove of sorts as he went into incredible detail with immense zest. He wanted his observations and recorded experiences to not only be of interest in the scientific circles. With a lucid and vivid writing style, he made sure that the common folks too shared the sense of wonder that he himself experienced. That sense of wonder is still not lost on humankind.


Try this out!

If you loved this account of the near-fatal experience of Glaisher and Coxwell, you should probably try watching The Aeronauts. While the 2019 film is nowhere near a perfect historical account of this flight, the fictionalised story is inspired by this ride and the many others of the time and truly captures the excitement around ballooning in the 19th Century.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 10:43:38 AM |

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