Philobiblon: On a balloon and a prayer

Saturday, January 07, 2006

On a balloon and a prayer

My 19th-century "blogger" Frances Williams Wynn (who has been a bit slack lately - sorry) today has a brilliant post, if I say so myself, about the early days of ballooning and deep sea diving.

She calls the former "aerostation" - a curiously modern-sounding word, and while she's not actually going up herself, she gets a detailed account of what it involves. And you can see why she might not been keen to try it, given this tale:

The descent was very perilous: the young man — almost a boy—having asked Graham how high they were, and being told, I forget what, asked 'whether they could not ascend a little higher before they began their descent?' Graham said. Certainly they could, but that he was averse to the idea of expending any more gas, because a small quantity in reserve might be essential to the safety of their descent. "When once the ballast is all thrown out and the descent begun, the only means of avoiding any dangerous spot on which the balloon might chance to fall, is by admitting a little more of the inflammable gas, rising, and trusting to the wind to convey the machine out of the dangerous neighbourhood. The young man still pressed for a farther ascent; Graham weakly consented; and the danger he had foreseen actually occurred.

As soon as the earth became visible through their glasses, it was evident that they had their choice of dangers only: they were coming down between the river and some lime-kilns. The kilns were certain destruction ; the moment the balloon approached them. The inflammable gas must have ignited, and they must have been burnt to death. The only alternative was to rise and trust to the wind for conveying them out of this dangerous neighbourhood.

They had no gas left, and the only means of lightening the balloon was by cutting away the car—without the power (as George observed) of saying ' heads below'—-and trusting themselves to the ropes of the balloon itself, which of course rose, having a lighter weight, made still lighter by being close to it, instead of being attached at some distance. At last they fell into the river, and being both good swimmers, escaped.

(Probably not very practical in a skirt.)


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