July 11, 2012
One hundred fifteen years ago today, on July 11, 1897, engineers S.A. Andrée and Knut Fraenkel and photographer Nils Strindberg set off to reach the North Pole by balloon. They were never seen again. As Alec Wilkinson writes in The Ice Balloon (Knopf, 2012):
Before the twentieth century, more than a thousand people tried to reach the North Pole, and according to an accounting made by an English journalist in the 1930s, at least 751 of them died. Only [S.A.] Andrée used a balloon. He had left on a blustery afternoon [in July 1897] from Dane’s Island, in the Spitsbergen archipelago, six hundred miles from the pole. It took an hour for the balloon, which was a hundred feet tall, to disappear from the view of the people who were watching from the shore—carpenters, technicians, members of the Swedish navy who had assisted in the weeks leading up to the launch.
Two years of planning had led Andrée to predict that he would arrive at the pole in about forty-three hours. Having crossed it, he would land, maybe six days later, in Asia or Alaska, depending on the winds, and walk to civilization if he had to. Ideally, he said, and perhaps disingenuously, he would descend in San Francisco. To meet the dignitaries who would be waiting for him, he brought a tuxedo.
Every newspaper of substance in Europe and North America carried word of his leaving. The headline on the front page of the New York Times said, “Andrée Off for the Pole.” A British military officer called the voyage ‘The most original and remarkable attempt ever made in Arctic exploration.’ For novelty and daring, the figure to whom he was most often compared was Columbus.
Then, having crossed the horizon, he vanished, the first person to disappear into the air.
Andrée believed he could “sail” the balloon using a drag-rope technique; while most historians feel the technique wouldn’t have worked, it’s a moot point: the drag-ropes were pulled from the balloon just minutes after launching. Two days later, clouds and fog forced the balloon down to the ice pack; the men were grounded. They set out—shivering in their wool coats and carrying crates of champagne and cans of sausages—across the ice, toward a cache of food at Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land.
They never made it. By October all three were dead, probably from hypothermia and dehydration. It wasn’t until 33 years later, in August 1930, that the men of the Bratvaag Expedition (studying the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago) found the remains of the Andrée expedition. Escorted by five destroyers and five airplanes, the men’s bodies were returned to Stockholm on October 5, 1930.
May 12, 2011
When Jules Verne’s novel Five Weeks in a Balloon: or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen was translated into English in 1869, it appeared with this publisher’s note: “So far as the geography, the inhabitants, the animals, and the features of the countries the travellers pass over are described, [the book] is entirely accurate…. The mode of locomotion is, of course, purely imaginary…” (The Smithsonian Institution Libraries owns many early editions of Verne’s works; see a lovely on-line exhibition here.)
Verne may have been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1844 New York Sun newspaper article (which came to be known as “The Balloon-Hoax”) caused such a stir that the paper had to print a retraction.
Poe’s story—entirely fictional but presented as a straightforward newspaper article—informed readers of a three-day Atlantic Ocean crossing by balloon. (Notice that Poe’s and Verne’s balloons are both named Victoria.) Poe wrote that “The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a Balloon; and this too without difficulty—without any great apparent danger—with thorough control of the machine—and in the inconceivably brief period of seventy-five hours from shore to shore!” Supposedly, the details of the journey were “copied verbatim from the joint diaries of Mr. Monck Mason and Mr. Harrison Ainsworth,” two of the eight passengers aboard. (“Monck Mason” was based upon real-life aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason; “Harrison Ainsworth” was novelist William Harrison Ainsworth.)
The first aviators to actually cross the Atlantic were the pilots and crew of the NC-4 flying boat, which (along with the NC-1 and NC-3) left New York on May 8, 1919, arriving in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 27, 1919. Their journey was eclipsed in June 1919, when British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first direct nonstop flight across the Atlantic, flying a Vickers Vimy bomber. The first lighter-than-air crossing was made by the R34 rigid airship, commanded by Major George Herbert Scott, which left Britain on July 2, 1919, and arrived on Long Island, New York on July 6.
Five Weeks in a Balloon was made into a movie (starring Red Buttons, pop singer Fabian, Barbara Eden, and Peter Lorre) in 1962. At one point, as the balloon is about to land in the jungle, Sir Henry Vining exclaims, “It’s a forest full of trees!”
Glad we’ve got a genius on board.
January 31, 2011
Once you get used to the slightly overcaffeinated host, this is a pretty cool project —to drop a bunch of paper airplanes from a high-altitude balloon and see where they land. The team launched their balloon earlier this month, as the video shows. But, from what I can tell on their website and Twitter feed, nobody has turned up an airplane yet.
They aren’t the first to try it, by the way:
October 19, 2010
As prizes go, this was a big one. In 1901, French oil tycoon and aviation patron Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe put up 100,000 francs (equivalent to more than $500,000 today) for the first airman who could fly a 7-mile circuit starting from a park in Paris, rounding the Eiffel Tower, then returning to the starting point, within 30 minutes. Heavier-than-air flight was still a couple of years away, so this was a contest for powered balloons. And Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont, the most famous airman in France, was ready with his airship No. 6.
In his 1904 autobiography, Santos-Dumont grumbled about some of the rules attached to the Deutsch prize. First, the flight had to be witnessed by a committee of the Aero Club, which had to be notified of the attempt 24 hours in advance (even though the balloonist wouldn’t know about weather conditions so far ahead of time). Once the committee was gathered, Santos-Dumont feared he “would be under a kind of moral pressure to go on with his trial,” whether or not he and his machine were ready. And it would be inconsiderate to ask the committee to show up at dawn, when atmospheric conditions would be best. “The duellist may call out his friends at that sacred hour, but not the air-ship captain,” he wrote.
So it was that at the inconvenient (for the balloonist) hour of 2:42 p.m. on Saturday, October 19, 1901, No. 6 rose 250 yards into the air and headed for the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t an easy flight. The balloon’s engine failed three times, but Santos-Dumont managed to restart it each time, and crossed over his starting point with 45 seconds to spare in the half hour. According to biographer Paul Hoffman, after he came down, he leaned over the side of his craft and yelled “Have I won the prize?”
Hundreds of spectators responded in unison, “Yes! Yes!” and swarmed the airship. He was showered with flower petals that swirled like confetti. Men and women cried. The Comtesse d’Eu dropped to her knees, raised her hands to the heavens, and thanked God for protecting her fellow countryman. The countess’ companion, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, squealed like a schoolgirl. A stranger presented Santos-Dumont with a small white rabbit, and another handed him a steaming cup of Brazilian coffee.
Now the bad news: According to the Aero Club, he hadn’t won the prize. The rules stated that his round-trip flight had to be completed (when ground crews grabbed the balloon’s guide rope) within 30 minutes. And he’d been 40 seconds late. The Parisian press and public were furious on their hero’s behalf, but the club stuck to its rules. Not until November 4 did it finally vote to award Santos-Dumont the prize money.
“But the action was too late to appease him,” according to Hoffman. “He promptly resigned from the Aero Club, thanked the people of Paris for their support, and announced that he would be spending the winter in Monte Carlo.” Then he gave half the prize money to the poor.
October 13, 2010
In September 1870, not long after the start of the Franco-Prussian War, the city of Paris was under siege by Prussian soldiers. By the 19th, the German army had blocked all communication into or out of the city. There was nothing worse, wrote French journalist Francisque Sarcey, than to “live cut off from the universe in the capital of the civilized world, like Robinson on his island.”
Rumors swept through the city. Some said the Prussian army was about to be crushed by a million-ton sledge hammer carried aloft by a fleet of balloons. Others reported seeing French and Prussian aeronauts battle in the air.
What was true was that the director general of the Posts immediately established a “Balloon Post” to carry messages outside the city. For Parisians, “The success of this aerial trip,” wrote Wilfrid de Fonvielle, “produced a feeling of happiness as if the enemy had been vanquished in a great battle.”
Some 67 balloons ascended from Paris during the 128-day siege, carrying more than 24,000 pounds of mail. (The National Postal Museum has an extensive collection of these letters. In an attempt to send messages into Paris, letters were placed inside zinc balls, which were tossed into the Seine and were supposed to float downriver until captured by a net; while none were recovered by Parisian residents during the siege, the balls continued to turn up as late as 1982.)
There weren’t enough balloons for the task, so Parisians immediately set up two balloon-making factories. Silk was difficult to find, so calico was used for the envelopes, yards of it varnished by women seated at long tables. Sailors made the dragging ropes, netting and baskets; each balloon took 12 days to make. Pilots were recruited from naval detachments in the city and from the civilian population. By October 12, two of the new balloons—the Washington and the Louis Blanc—were ready. The Washington came under fire, eventually smashing into some trees. The Louis Blanc traveled for three hours and finally made it to Belgium.
Two aeronauts were lost at sea. Six were captured by Germans. One drifted more than 800 miles to Norway. But these novice pilots transported at least 110 passengers, some 400 pigeons (letters were sent into Paris using an early form of microfilm; once the pigeons carrying their fragile film reached Paris, a group of clerks copied each message and sent it to the addressee), three million letters—and hope. John Fisher writes in his 1965 book Airlift 1870, “As the siege went on, as ascent followed ascent, the balloons, in the eyes of Parisians and in the eyes of the world, came to be regarded not merely as useful carriers but as symbols of French daring and enterprise and success. Each flight accomplished, each letter delivered, was in a sense another little victory over the great German war-machine; a defiance, a gesture made by an individual.”
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