Barral & Bixio

The First Scientific Ascent
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From 'Wonderful Balloon Ascents or The Conquest of the Skies' by F.Marion (1870):

Monsieurs Barral & Bixio lift off - into the unknownThese gentlemen had conceived the project of rising by means of a balloon to a great height, in order to study, with the assistance of the very best instruments in use in their day, a multitude of phenomena then imperfectly known. The subjects to which they were specially to direct their attention were, the law of the decrease of temperature in progress upwards, the discovery of whether the chemical composition of the atmosphere is the same throughout all its parts, the comparison of the strength of the solar rays in the higher regions of the atmosphere and on the surface of the earth, the ascertaining whether the light reflected and transmitted by the clouds is or is not polarized &c.

All the preparations having been made in the garden of the Observatory at Paris, the ascent took place on the 29th of June 1850, at 10:27 a.m., the balloon being filled with hydrogen gas. The first ascent was a signal failure. It was found that the weather being bad, the envelope of the balloon was torn in several places, and had to be mended in all haste. Immediately preceding the moment of ascent, a torrent of rain fell. But the voyagers were determined to ascend. They placed themselves in the car [basket], and, when thrown off from the fastenings, they rose through the air with the speed of an arrow. The height to which the balloon reached made it suddenly dilate, and the network [of ropes over the envelope], which was much too small, was stretched to the utmost. The balloon was forced down upon them by the dilation, and one of them, in an endeavour to work the valve, made a rent in the lower part of the globe, from which the gas escaping almost over the heads of the travellers, nearly choked them. The escape of the gas had the usual result - the balloon descended rapidly, and fell in a vineyard near Lagny, where they were found by the peasants holding onto the trees by their legs and arms, and thus attempting to stop the horizontal advance of the car. They had risen to the height of over 17,000 ft., and they had descended from this height in from four to five minutes.

For all practical purposes the ascent was a failure, and the aeronauts immediately commenced preparations for a new voyage, which took place a month afterwards [27 July 1850]. They rose to very great altitudes, but experienced no illness from the rarefied air. M. Bixio did not feel the sharp pains in his ears from which he had suffered on the former occasion. They passed through a mass of cloud 15,000 ft. in thickness, and they had not yet quite passed through it, when at the height of over 21,000 ft. from the ground, they began to descend, their descent being caused by a rent in the envelope of the balloon, from which the gas escaped. They might, in throwing out the last of their ballast, have, perhaps, prolonged for a little their sojourn in space, but the circumstances in which they were placed did not permit them to make many more scientific observations than those they had made, and thus they were obliged to submit to their fate. When they had reached their greatest height, there seemed to open up in the midst of the vaporous mass a brilliant space, from which they could see the blue of heaven. The polariscope, directed towards this region, showed an internal polarization, but, when pointed to the side where the mist still prevailed, there was no polarization. [They recorded the temperature as -39 degrees centigrade at this point.]

An optical phenomenon of a remarkable kind was witnessed when the voyagers had attained their highest point. They saw the sun through the upper mists, looking quite white, as if shorn of its strength; and, at the same time, below the horizontal plane, below their horizon, and at an angular distance from the plane equal to that of the sun above it, they saw a second sun, which resembled the reflection of the actual sun in a sheet of water. It is natural to suppose that the second sun was formed by the reflection of the sun's rays upon the horizontal faces of the ice crystals floating in this high cloud.

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