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The accidental aeronaut, Henry Coxwell

When Henry Coxwell, one of Victorian England's most famous balloonists, agreed to take a scientist high above the Earth, he hadn't banked on taking one of the country's most distinguished meteorologists. It was 1862, and James Glaisher had been superintendent of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department at Greenwich Royal Observatory for more than 20 years. He was middle-aged, meticulous and methodical, a man who made measurements, organised observers and sat on important committees - scarcely the sort suited to aeronautical adventures, Coxwell suspected. Within months, however, the two men would be national heroes, with the public agog for news of their every ascent.

As Coxwell soon discovered, Glaisher was not after adventure. To him, a balloon was simply a means of extending his observations into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Nor had Glaisher planned to be the one in the balloon. As a member of the balloon committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA), he had been pushing for a series of high-altitude ascents for years, but no one had a big enough balloon.

Then, in 1861, Coxwell offered to build a suitable balloon if the BA agreed to hire it for its scientific flights at 50 pounds a time. The BA jumped at the offer and so Coxwell built a monster balloon he called the Mammoth. Finding the right observer to fly in it proved harder, though. No one met Glaisher's high standards - so he volunteered himself. On 17 July 1862, Glaisher discovered what he had let himself in for. The Mammoth was to take off from the gasworks at Wolverhampton in the English Midlands. The windy weather at first made it difficult to inflate the balloon, and then a gust whisked it up before Glaisher had fixed his delicate instruments into position. This, he wrote, “was by no means cheering to a novice who had never before put his foot in the car of a balloon”.

A few minutes later, Mammoth emerged above the clouds into brilliant sunshine and Glaisher managed to settle down to work. Coxwell's job was to take the balloon as high as possible. Glaisher's was to record the temperature, air pressure and moisture, make notes on cloud formations and measure the speed and direction of any air currents they encountered - and to check the reliability of the newfangled aneroid barometer.

By the time they reached 6000 metres, the men's lips had turned blue and they could hear the pounding of each other's hearts. At 7500 m they found breathing difficult. At such an altitude, Glaisher wrote, “it requires the exercise of a strong will to make and record observations”. By 9000 m, he had made an important discovery. Measurements made on mountains had suggested temperature dropped uniformly with altitude, around 0.5 degree C for every 100 m. On this ascent though, the drop was anything but uniform: first the temperature plummeted, then it fell more slowly, then quite unexpectedly rose before dropping sharply again.

By now Coxwell feared the balloon was about to head out to sea and brought it down, landing with a crash that broke Glaisher's instruments. The meteorologist, however, had proved as heroic as any aeronaut.

Over the next three years, Glaisher made 27 flights. Not all were high-altitude ascents organised by the BA. Coxwell's balloons were a summer fixture at the Crystal Palace pleasure grounds in the London suburb of Sydenham. Among the millions who flocked to see the great glass palace, there were plenty willing to pay for a balloon ride over the city. The balloon ground had its own supply of coal gas, piped up the hill from Sydenham gasworks. The gas company's engineer even tweaked the mix to provide a lighter gas for lifting balloons. This arrangement was so convenient that Glaisher did make some official high-altitude ascents from Crystal Palace, but in his hunger for data he sometimes hitched lifts on Coxwell's pleasure trips, squeezing himself and his instruments into the basket with up to a dozen others.

Summer daytime flights left big gaps in his data, so Glaisher also risked ascents at night and in winter. Whatever the time, every flight was dangerous: he survived several crash landings, had a close shave with a cathedral spire, and more than once faced the prospect of ending up in the sea. But it was one particular flight - on 5 September 1862 - that turned Glaisher and Coxwell into celebrities.

They took off from Wolverhampton gasworks just after 1 o'clock. The balloon rose through a thick bank of cloud, then emerged into bright sunlight “with a beautiful blue sky, without a cloud above us, and a magnificent sea of cloud below, its surface being varied with endless hills… and many snow-white masses rising from it”. The balloon was rising extremely fast, and spinning as it went. They reached an altitude of 8000 m in 47 minutes. “Up to this time I had taken observations with comfort,” recalled Glaisher.

Then, as the balloon rose higher, he found it hard to read his thermometer and asked Coxwell for help - only to find him gone. During their giddy ascent, the valve line that allowed Coxwell to control the gas in the balloon had become tangled, so he had climbed up into the hoop above the basket to free it. They continued to rise. At 11,000 m, Glaisher realised he couldn't move his arms or legs. His head fell sideways. “I dimly saw Mr Coxwell in the ring and endeavoured to speak, but could not, when in an instant an intense darkness came. I thought that I should experience no more, as death would come unless we speedily descended.” By this time Coxwell's hands had frozen to the metal hoop. He grabbed the valve line in his teeth, and by nodding his head released some gas. The balloon began to descend.

“I thought death would come unless we speedily descended”

“Do try - now do!” Glaisher realised someone was speaking to him. He opened his eyes and sat up. “I have been insensible,” he said. Coxwell agreed he had. “I recovered quickly,” Glaisher reported in The Times. “But Coxwell said, 'I have lost the use of my hands; give me some brandy to bathe them.'” Glaisher poured brandy on Coxwell's blackened hands, then picked up his pencil and resumed his observations. They had, Glaisher reckoned, reached the limit of human existence.

Glaisher made a further 28 ascents in 1869, this time in Henri Giffard's great Captive Balloon, which was tethered in a London park. During his earlier ascents, Glaisher had rarely had time to take readings at lower altitudes because the balloon rose too quickly, but Giffard's balloon was controlled by a steam-powered winch, which meant he could stop and take the readings he needed. Glaisher might have made more flights, but later that year the Captive Balloon escaped and crashed.

Glaisher used his new-found celebrity to promote the science of meteorology, much to the irritation of his boss, George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Airy had given Glaisher his big break in science by putting him in charge of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department. But while Airy wanted him to concentrate on magnetism, Glaisher put most of his efforts into transforming meteorology from folklore into science. He set up networks of observers, instigated daily weather reports, gathered weather statistics and put Britain on the European weather map. Airy particularly disapproved of the balloon flights. Few meteorological measurements “were of the slightest utility”, he argued. Worse, Glaisher was getting all the attention. Glaisher's balloon exploits proved fruitful, however. He refuted the idea that temperature dropped steadily with altitude, and discovered that the atmosphere was like the sea, with currents moving at different speeds and in different directions, some warm and some cold. He found that conditions varied with time of day and season, and proved aneroid barometers were reliable. He also learned from experience that England was probably the worst place in the world to do science in a balloon. No matter where you started from, all too soon you were at risk of floating out to sea.

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