Early Balloonists Took Science 'Up, Up and Away'

In Falling Upwards, writer Richard Holmes tells the story of early balloon flight—and of the nervy scientists who risked life and limb to take their experiments into the air. Among their discoveries? Insect migration and the stratosphere. Falling Upwards chronicles the balloonists who took science into the stratosphere.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Imagine a time, before space shuttles, planes and cars, when the new technological breakthrough was the hydrogen balloon. What could these new flying machines do? Cross an ocean? Help predict the weather? The sky was the limit, if only engineers could figure out how to steer them.

In his new book, "Falling Upwards," Richard Holmes tells the story of ballooning's early days. It turns out long before astronauts, balloonists took science into the stratosphere. Scientists took off in balloons to figure out how the weather formed. They flew up thousands of feet to find out what the upper atmosphere was really like. Some even made it down in one piece.

We're going to talk about balloon technology and what those scientists found with my guest, Richard Holmes, writer, ballooning enthusiast and fellow of the British Academy. Richard, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RICHARD HOLMES: Hi. It's a pleasure to be floating alongside you.

FLATOW: He is author of the new book "Falling Upwards." Wow. How did you come up with that name?

HOLMES: Right. It's a story - you ask how these things begin. In my case, I was four years old and I had an uncle who's in the Royal Air Force, a pilot, and he took me to a little country fair. And at the stall they were selling those helium party balloons. You know the things, bright red balloons?

FLATOW: Absolutely.

HOLMES: And remember, I was four years old. He bought one of these and he tied it onto my - the top button of my (unintelligible) shirt, right?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

HOLMES: And he looked at me rather quizzically - remember, he was a pilot. He didn't say much usually - and he said, Richard, maybe you will fly. And he was holding my hand and he let go of my hand, and of course I thought this balloon was going to take me straight up. I was only four years old. And that turned into a sort of wonderful recurrent dream, really.

And I date my fascination with flying, which also went to various other light planes and gliding and so on. But ballooning was the thing. There's something about ballooning. So that's how it all began.

FLATOW: Yeah. You've written a lot about ballooning. In your last book, "The Age of Wonder," you talk about the very first balloon. How does that story go?

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean that's fascinating. That's the Montgolfier, his name that most people have heard. In fact, they were paper manufacturers. And the first balloons were large paper bags, which they - one of the brothers, Joseph, discovered that when smoke or hot air from a fire got into one his paper bags, it rose to the ceiling. And he thought, so what happens if we built a very big paper bag?

And they started building paper bags, which were 20 and 30-foot high, and they found it took more than 15 people to hold them down. So - then they built these beautifully decorated balloons, which are really big, 90-foot or so, and then they started making them out of silk. The original ones weren't even glued together. They were buttoned together. And then they took them to Paris. And in September 1783, the first man-carrying balloon flew across the River Seine, just skimmed over the river tops. And that was the breakthrough.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Talking about ballooning. And so this is fascinating. When did ballooning then become a tool for scientific endeavor?

HOLMES: Yes. The early balloons are either hot air like the Montgolfier or on a parallel track but more scientific with the hydrogen balloons, because hydrogen had been isolated by a number of natural philosophers, they still call themselves there - Joseph Priestly and Black and Lovoisier in France. And a wonderful man called Dr. Alexandre Charles built the first hydrogen balloon, which he launched from the Tuileries Gardens a little bit later in first of December, 1783. And that flew an amazing distance, over 30 miles or so.

He was with a companion who got out of the balloon when they landed. Of course this halved the weight of the balloon, which immediately rose with Dr. Charles to 10,000 feet. And the great thing he said is I saw the sun set twice because he'd seen it once on the ground. And then from then on, the great question, as you said in the introduction, was could you navigate these machines? Could you go from A to B? And part of the early part of my book is the account of how they learned they could always leave A, but they can never get to B.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah. That is a problem. Even today it's a problem in modern ballooning, how to decide where you're going to go. But would they ride the air currents up and down looking for a stream they needed?

HOLMES: They - I mean, much like modern hot air balloonists, they - what the balloons began to do is they made people simply aware of the upper atmosphere. Remember, this is a new dimension. And so one of the things I tried and do in the book is try and take the reader back to a time when no one had flown. No one knew what was out there.

I mean, they didn't know, if you flew into a cloud, would you be electrocuted by static electricity? Not so logical. They didn't know, like Icarus, if you got near to the sun, would you be burned? In fact, of course, you'd get much, much colder. They didn't know, could you breathe up there? How high could you go? They didn't know what made clouds form.

And so in the first 20 or 30 years, absent new fascination with weather, upper atmosphere, clouds, we get some of the first cloud books, a wonderful book by a man called Luke Howard called "The Modification of Clouds," which introduces already the main criteria that we use like cirrus, cumulonimbus and so on. So there's a general coming consciousness of this whole new dimension.

And then the explorations move from these horizontal attempts, and some of them are pretty impressive. They flew the channel pretty early. And then a wonderful British navigator-balloonist flew from London into Germany all night, 24-hour flight, nearly 500 miles.

FLATOW: I have to hold you here. Richard Holmes, author of "Falling Upwards." We'll be right back with him after this break. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about balloons. Over a hundred years ago, scientists flew balloons into the stratosphere. What did they find? Richard Holmes has found out. He's an avid balloonist. He has written a book called "Falling Upwards." Let's talk about the scientist hero of the book, James Glaisher. What did he do?

HOLMES: OK. Well, he was commissioned by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1862 to build a high-altitude balloon and to go up and find out how high it could go and what happened up there. And it's a story I go into in considerable detail, very interesting. He builds a kind of miniature Victorian laboratory, which he takes up, with a lot of equipment, particularly barometers and chronometers, Italian barometers, which of course act as altimeters, which by then had become very, very accurate.

He was an extraordinary man. He's sort of a big, solid, you know, family man with wonderful mutton whiskers - mutton-chop whiskers and so on, and the last person you would think was flying. And in fact, he turned out to be the most wonderful aerial scientist. Once aboard, he was taking 12 separate instrument measurements every 60 seconds. So you have this picture, this balloon flown by one professional balloonist, Henry Coxwell, going up at about a thousand feet a minute, and Glaisher bent over his instruments just recording, because what he said we needed was data. We needed data about what happened in the atmosphere: temperature shifts, barometric shifts and so on.

And they flew 15,000 feet, 20,000 feet - French balloonists have been that high - 25,000 feet, 29,000 feet, which is the height of Everest, roughly, which of course hadn't been climbed. And then they got into the region where the oxygen began to fail. And of course they didn't know this is going to happen. They had no breathing equipment. So they began to be overcome by, I think hypoxia is the technical term for failure of oxygen. And it's a very moving journal. I've seen the journal account where Glaisher - first of all, he stops being able to read his instruments because your sight goes at that, your circulation in your eyes is no good.

And then all his muscular strengths goes. There's a wonderful moment, he leans across his laboratory desk for a bottle of brandy and he can't hold it. The grip is gone from his arm. And then he slumps back unconscious in the balloon. Henry Coxwell, the pilot who's watching all this happen, thinks we must get down now. They're still rising at 1,000 feet a minute. This is recorded. And Coxwell reaches for the release - the gas hydrogen release valve line. And as with balloons, of course it's been turning slowly, and the line has got tangled in the hoop above.

He himself, his sight is going, his muscular strength is going. But amazingly - these were Victorian guys, remember? He clambers up into the hoop. He pulls the line down into the basket. He still can't hold it, to grip it, to release it. So he puts it in his mouth and he holds it with his teeth and he pulls it. And he gets the gas release. And gradually Glaisher comes back to consciousness. There's a wonderful scene, the balloon now going down, where Coxwell shakes James Glaisher by the shoulder.

Can you imagine what modern scientists might say? But in this case Coxwell said, Mr. Glaisher, do try and take some more instrument readings. Do try. Wonderful bit of Victorian (unintelligible) at that moment. And Glaisher does. And the journal starts again, recording the height and so on and the air pressure and the temperature. And what they've shown is somewhere around 30,000 feet, somewhere towards the seven-mile limit, all the breathable air runs out. There's no hope of biological life up there. And in fact, because the temperatures began to stabilize, they also establish that the stratosphere begins at that level.

But they come back with this very significant piece of scientific data, which is the atmosphere around our planet is only about seven miles thick. We live in this envelope, this fragile envelope, which is only seven miles thick. And that's, you could say, the beginning of a part of the whole environmentalist movement, that awareness of the - our precious, beautiful Earth. And it comes out of balloon rides like that.

I should add that these two guys, when they landed they were in the middle of the English countryside, nothing near. Being Victorians, they packed up the balloon, and after this near-death experience, they walked arm and arm seven miles, exactly the distance they had risen, to the nearest country pub, where they bought each other a pint of beer.

FLATOW: Wow. Sounds like something I'd see on "Masterpiece Theatre."

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: They are - you're right. They're amazingly traumatic. But there are - the grasp of their height and so on, and the instrument readings all exist. And as I say, this produced...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...complete change in the notion of our biosphere.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, not every balloonist was as lucky to make it back alive like they were, right?

HOLMES: No. The best dramas - but also, there's - I tell a lot of the stories. I like to throw in one more scientific one, if I might.

FLATOW: Sure, sure. Please.

HOLMES: Which is very - just a little - a few years earlier, the question of also what you see looking down and how you record it has arisen. And, of course, people wanted to take the early cameras up into the balloons. And it's a great problem because they wouldn't stay still. The hydrogen spoiled the emulsion chemicals that they used to fix the photographs. But in 1858, a French photographer and balloonist called Felix Nadar took the first photographs over Paris and we were able to reproduce those.

And very shortly after, we reckon about 1860, the same and actually even better quality photographs were taken above Boston. Wonderful picture there called - it's called Boston - the City of Boston as the flying goose sees it - wonderful picture. So - and from there on, I argue that that, looking down at the Earth as a planet, which begins with balloon photography, there's a logical progression to satellite photography. And now, of course, we've...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...completely come to depend upon that. So that's another part of the scientific story.

FLATOW: Interesting.

HOLMES: Disasters - oh, gosh, there are plenty of them.

FLATOW: Not all of them.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: There are plenty of them. And part of the theme of this book...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...is just - which is an important theme, I think - it's where kind of straight human courage and recklessness, and also scientific daring, where those meet. And it's a very interesting area. And there are certain moral questions when people using balloons for escapes...

FLATOW: Right.

HOLMES: ...and they take their families with them, their children with them, I have various stories about that. That choice to take such risks. Are you morally justified and so on? I'll tell you one disaster, if you want.

FLATOW: Well, let me - I only have a few minutes time, but...

HOLMES: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...I'd rather get into the connection with science fiction because...

HOLMES: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: ...really, it set off a whole slew of stuff, right?

HOLMES: Yeah. Again, another theme of the book, the one, perhaps, to pick up, I mean, early, for instance, Mary Shelley, the author of "Frankenstein," wrote a later novel which involves flying a balloon from London to Scotland. But the very interesting connection is with Edgar Allan Poe who was reading - I mentioned earlier on - Charles Green, who flew through the night into Germany.

And he published a wonderful description of that flight, including the idea that flying at night - this wonderful phrase, he said, this flying - like flying into a solid block of black marble. Very frightening experience. And that idea of being entombed is picked up by the young Edgar Allan Poe writing in New York and Boston. And he writes a series of balloon stories, one, about flying a balloon to the moon with amazing technical detail.

But the best of all, as in 1844, he writes a superb account of how Charles Green, having come back from Germany, launches in a new balloon in Ireland and flies westwards, right across to the American shore, a journey of 3,500 miles. And he publishes in the New York Sun - the journal - Charles Green's flight journal, and very good technical details.

And they run this piece to New York Sun for three days. And it's a complete scoop. It triples the circulation of that newspaper. And on the third day, he reveals it's a complete hoax. It's a fiction. OK. And there are many other examples. The wonderful...

FLATOW: Right.

HOLMES: ...Jules Verne, his first science fiction novel, it's called "Five Weeks in a Balloon," which is about three mad Brits flying across Africa, from east to west. And again, very exciting, crazy flying over a volcano and getting attacked by condors. When it's reviewed, it's so beautifully written that the French reviewers review it as a nonfiction book. So that, I say, it's very poor, is that relation between fiction and nonfiction in science.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Well, Richard Holmes, it's a wonderful book. I suggest that if you're looking for a holiday gift, this is a great book also. It's called "Falling Upwards." Lots of great stories in there. Lots of great anecdotes about flying. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today and good luck with your book.

HOLMES: Thank you. It was a pleasure to share the atmosphere with you.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You're welcome. Richard Holmes, again, well, his new book "Falling Upwards" is a collection of balloon stories. And read an excerpt for it - from it at sciencefriday.com/balloon.

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