By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

6. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 144-182

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Balloonists in Heaven, 7-12; Herschel Among the Stars, 1
Lunardi did little to advance ballooning as a serious scientific pursuit, but the man who made the second ascent in Britain, James Sadler, was more in earnest about it. He was by trade a baker and confectioner in Oxford, but he was also an amateur chemist and an inventor. He raised money for his balloon attempts from the Oxford undergraduates who patronized his confectionery business, and built both a fifty-foot-tall Montgolfier hot-air balloon and a smaller hydrogen balloon. In the first, he took a thirty-minute flight in October 1784 -- the second British flight -- and in November ascended in the hydrogen balloon, which was equipped with scientific instruments. Unfortunately, the wind was too brisk and Sadler had to jettison the instruments when the balloon tore apart after seventeen minutes. Sadler escaped with bruises, but still proclaimed the hydrogen balloon the better one.

Sadler then proclaimed his intent to fly across the English Channel. Samuel Johnson, visiting Oxford, had hoped to witness Sadler's flight but was too ill. He died less than a month later. Perhaps having heard of Sadler's loss of his instruments, Johnson "presented (or probably bequeathed) to Sadler an enormously expensive barometer" that the balloonist kept and used on later flights, even though he was tempted to sell it to raise funds. 

In France, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who had hoped to be the first aeronaut, was experimenting with ways to steer a balloon, including his moulinet, a hand-cranked propeller. In 1784 he came to London in search of financing, and made several ascents in a hydrogen balloon. One of his backers, a member of the Royal Society named John Sheldon, equipped him with scientific instruments for a flight, but Blanchard through them overboard when he had trouble getting over the rooftops of London. Blanchard finally teamed up with John Jeffries, an American physician who had been a military surgeon for the British during the Revolutionary War.

Jeffries, who wanted to be elected to the Royal Society, saw ballooning as primarily a scientific endeavor, and proposed four points to be studied: the control of ascent and descent; the direction of the course of the balloon; the nature of the atmosphere at varying heights; and shedding "new light on the theory of winds in general." In November 1784, he and Blanchard made a flight across the Thames that was the first to accumulate significant amounts of data. It demonstrated that balloon flight was not a simple parabola but a series of ascents and descents as the balloon struggled for equilibrium. Jeffries then agreed to finance a flight from Dover to France.

Blanchard and Jeffries were not the only contenders for the first trans-Channel flight. Sadler had to give up when his balloon was destroyed by a rainstorm as it was being transported on a barge on the Thames from Oxford. Pilâtre de Rozier had the backing of the French court and the Académie des Sciences, but while he was waiting at Boulogne for favorable winds, rats ate at the balloon canopy. Blanchard and Jeffries had their own difficulties, partly caused by Blanchard's ego -- he wanted to to fly solo, and tried to trick Jeffries by wearing a lead-weighted belt which would enable him to claim that Jeffries was weighing down the balloon and that Blanchard would have to proceed alone. Jeffries caught on to the trick, however. Blanchard then insisted that Jeffries's scientific instruments were too heavy, and forced him to proceed with only a barometer and a compass.

On January 7, 1785, Blanchard and Jeffries made their ascent from Dover cliff for a two-hour flight across the Channel. When they began to lose altitude over the water, they jettisoned everything they could -- the ballast, their food, and everything except the barometer and a bottle of brandy. They were still too low for the cliffs of the Pas de Calais, so they began removing their clothes until they were in their underwear. The barometer went, too, but not the brandy. The striptease worked: As they reached the cliffs, they rose and caught the onshore wind, traveling twelve miles inland. But their course was taking them toward a forest, where a crash-landing in the trees could be fatal. So Blanchard suggested one last way of lightening the load: They urinated into the leather bladders that they had kept as potential flotation devices and threw them overboard. It was just enough to take them over the treetops. In his account of the flight, Jeffries apologized for telling the story of urinating into the bladders, but maintained it was of scientific import. Holmes, however, observes in a footnote that the volume of urine probably wouldn't have been sufficient, and suggests that they must have defecated as well. "No doubt Jeffries felt that this last detail was too much even for scientific candour."

Rescued by a crowd that had been following their descent on horseback, they were celebrated in Paris, where Jeffries in particular was honored by Benjamin Franklin, with whom he "spent several quiet evenings ... discussing the future of flight, and the beauty and intelligence of French women." He was also elected to the Royal Academy but received no other honors from the British government. He made no other flights, and in his diary he expressed relief that he had survived. Blanchard, on the other hand, made a total of sixty-three flights, none of them of scientific consequence.

The fatal Channel-crossing attempt of Pilâtre in 1785
Ballooning began to wane in popularity, especially after the disastrous attempt by Pilâtre de Rozier to cross the Channel the other way, from Boulogne to Dover, in June 1785. He attempted to combine in a single craft both a hot air balloon and a hydrogen balloon. There is some evidence that he had reservations about this potentially "lethal combination of highly inflammable gas and naked flame." The weather was not the best, and at the last moment he persuaded a third person not to attempt the flight with him and his co-pilot, Pierre Romain. As the balloon rose and drifted toward the cliffs, sparks ignited the hydrogen that Pilâtre was venting from the upper balloon. Both men were killed in the crash. Pilâtre's death, followed by the accident the next year when Ralph Heron became entangled in the ropes of Lunardi's balloon, "discredited ballooning with the British public for a generation," although the French continued to experiment, especially with the military potential of balloons. There were tales of French military balloonists taking their girlfriends up in balloons, "so the first Mile High Club was also formed." Napoleon took four balloons to Egypt in 1798, but they were destroyed the following year in the battle with Nelson at Aboukir Bay. "Military balloons were not used again in any conflict until the American Civil War.

In 1810, James Sadler returned to ballooning and an attempt to cross the Irish Sea, a more difficult flight than the English Channel. On a practice flight over the Bristol Channel, he encountered wind turbulence and in his efforts to lighten the basket was forced to throw overboard Dr. Johnson's barometer, to his great regret. In October 1812, he tried to cross from Dublin to Liverpool, but was caught in winds that swept him northward over the sea. He tried to ditch into the sea, but a passing boat refused to rescue him for fear of getting tangled in the balloon's rigging. So he dropped his emergency ballast and relaunched -- a unique maneuver -- until he finally located a second boat that was willing to attempt a rescue. Sadler's feats attracted the attention of Shelley, who in the winter of 1812 launched several small balloons, each of which carried his pamphlet "A Declaration of Rights," and wrote a sonnet about the experience. Finally, in 1817, Sadler's son, Windham, made the crossing from Dublin to Wales, a five-hour, sixty-mile journey. Like his father, Windham was a firm believer in the scientific value of ballooning, but he was killed in a balloon accident in 1824, when he was twenty-seven. His father, James, never flew again.

Although the enthusiasm for balloons waned, some scientific benefit was attained. The French chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac experimented with high ascents, and his trip to 23,000 feet above Paris in 1804 helped establish the limit at which humans can breathe. Exploration of the sky also awakened interest in meteorology, leading to Luke Howard's study and classification of clouds in 1804, which established the basic types of clouds: cumulus, stratus, cirrus, and nimbus and their various combinations. Howard was elected to the Royal Society in 1821. The interest in clouds was reflected in the art of Turner and Constable, and the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley. "It could be argued that the Romantics actually invented the idea of 'the weather' itself, as it now preoccupies us; as well, of course, as 'inner weather.'" Ballooning also led to advances in mapping, and the creation of the British Ordnance Society, the first state mapping program. 

The Royal Society under Joseph Banks was, on the whole, more interested in astronomy than in ballooning. And in 1785 Herschel began his project to create most powerful telescope ever. The octagonal tube would be 40 feet long and five feet in diameter, and have two or even three mirrors, ranging in diameter from 36 to 50 inches. Because of it its size -- higher than a house -- it would have to be specially constructed to resist the wind, as well as the extremities of weather. The viewing platform for the astronomer (Herschel) would be dangerously high, and the assistant (Caroline) would have to be housed in a special booth with a communications tube to the astronomer. And it would be very, very expensive.

"It was one of Sir Joseph Banks's most dramatic diplomatic coups that he had convinced the King to announce a grant by September 1785." The sum was £2,000 for construction and four years' expenses. In 1786, Herschel, Caroline, and Alexander moved to The Grove, a country house in the village of Slough owned by the Baldwin family, where they began construction on the observatory. Sometime that summer they were visited by an American, the fifty-year-old John Adams, who discussed the possibility of extraterrestrial life with Herschel. Adams was fascinated by the idea, and by its implications for traditional Christianity, believing that if life existed elsewhere, then the Christian ideas of the fall and redemption became absurd. Years later, he would write to Thomas Jefferson urging him not to hire British scientists to teach at the University of Virginia because too many of them -- unlike Herschel -- were orthodox Christians: "They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschel's universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by the Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world." (I wonder how many of the current right-wing fundamentalists who idolize the Founding Fathers would react to this?) 

Adams was only one of the flood of visitors who distracted Herschel from the construction of the telescope. In July 1786, he was sent by the king to personally install one of his telescopes at the University of Göttingen, a gift of the king. Caroline was left to supervise the construction, attend to the household, and try to get her own astronomical observations done. She soon decided that she couldn't do all of it. "She would be an astronomer, not a housekeeper." William had built her a small telescope of her own, which "was not suitable for deep space, but it was perfectly designed to spot any strange or unknown object moving through the familiar field of 'fixed stars.'" And with it, on August 1, she discovered a comet. Only about thirty comets had been identified by that time, half of them by the French astronomer Charles Messier, so this was a significant discovery.

On August 6, a delegation consisting of Banks, Secretary to the Royal Society Charles Blagden, and Lord Palmerston came to Slough to see Caroline's comet. The result was celebrity for Caroline independent of her brother's. "The idea of a female astronomer intrigued people." Fanny Burney came to visit, and wrote, "The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady's comet, and I was very desirous to see it." Caroline was, however, rather distant with Fanny. She hit it off better with, of all people, Nevil Maskelyne, who took her work seriously. As did others, after she discovered a second comet in December 1788. "Her reputation continued to grow, especially in France and Germany."

Work on the telescope continued, but in 1787 Caroline, who kept track of the finances, realized that they were facing a financial crisis that could doom the whole project. Joseph Banks came to their rescue again, suggesting that they give a Royal Telescope Garden Party for publicity and fund-raising. On August 17, George III and Queen Charlotte, and a host of royals and other dignitaries came to The Grove to witness what had been accomplished. The event "had the subtle effect, just as Banks would have foreseen, of further publicly committing the King to the scheme for which he was the acknowledged benefactor."

The publicity stunt put Herschel in a good position to request the additional funds, but he also dared to suggest that Caroline might also receive a royal stipend as his assistant. "No British monarch had ever granted a woman a salary, or even a pension, for scientific work before." The suggestion was made, perhaps by Banks, that the stipend might come from Queen Charlotte. On August 23, Banks was summoned to the palace and informed that he would renew Herschel's grant for a total of £2,000 plus an additional £50 per annum for Caroline:  "the first professional salary ever paid to a woman scientist in Britain." But the king also made it clear that he was annoyed at the request for additional funds, and at the garden party that had put him in the position of having to grant the request. He made it clear that this was the last penny he was going to spend on the telescope.

Banks was shaken by the vehemence with which the king expressed himself -- it was only a year before the madness of George III would begin to became apparent. But he was forced to communicate the king's severity to Herschel, who was upset and considered scrapping the project. Caroline was indignant, especially at the penny-pinching accounting rules that Banks said needed to be put in place. The relationship with Banks recovered, but not that with the king. Not until the Prince Regent took over for his incapacitated father did Herschel receive further honors, and although he was knighted in 1816, his £200 stipend remained the same, though its value was cut in half by inflation. 

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