James Glaisher

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James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell in the basket of the Mars - studio portraitIn 1862 the British Association for the Advancement of Science decided to fund a series of flights to study the upper atmosphere. The balloons would have to fly as high as possible. Member of the Greenwich Observatory and founder member of the British Meteorological Society, James Glaisher (1809-1903), volunteered to perform these potentially dangerous flights. In all he made 28 ascents between 1862 and 1866, 13 of which were funded by the Association. His usual pilot was the experienced balloonist Henry Coxwell (1819-1900). On their first ascent of 17 July 1862 they reached an altitude of 26,177 ft. without oxygen. On 5 September, in a balloon called the Mars, they managed an altitude in the region of 30,000 ft., although it almost cost them their lives. Glaisher lost consciousness and Coxwell had to climb up into the rigging to free a tangled valve line. His hands were so paralysed with cold that he had to pull the chord with his teeth in order to check their ascent. Had he failed to manage it, they would both surely have died of hypothermia or oxygen starvation.

Here is Glaisher's account:

Our ascent had been delayed owing to the unfavourable state of the weather. It commenced at three minutes past one p.m., the temperature of the air being 59 degrees, and the dew-point 48 degrees. At the height of one milethe temperature was 41 degrees and the dew-point 38 degrees. Shortly afterwards clouds were entered of about 1,100 ft. in thickness. Upon emerging from them at seventeen minutes past one, I tried to take a view of their surface with the camera, but the balloon was ascending to rapidly and spiralling too quickly to allow me to do so. The height of two miles was reached at twenty-one minutes past one. The temperature of the air had fallen to 32 degrees and the dew-point to 26 degrees. The third mile was passed at twenty-eight minutes past one, with an air temperature of 18 degrees, and a dew-point of 13 degrees. The fourth mile was passed at thirty-nine minutes past one, with an air temperature of 8 degrees, and a dew-point of minus 6 degrees; and the fifth mile about ten minutes later, with an air temperature minus 5 degrees, and a dew-point minus 36 degrees.

Coxwell climbs into the riggingUp to this time I had experienced no particular inconvenience. When at the height of 26,000 ft. I could not see the fine column of the mercury in the tube; then the fine divisions on the scale of the instrument became invisible. At that time I asked Mr.Coxwell to help me to read the instruments, as I experienced a difficulty in seeing them. In consequence of the rotary movement of the balloon, which had continued without ceasing since the earth was left, the valve line had become twisted, and he had to leave the car [basket], and to mount into the ring above to adjust it. At that time I had no suspicion of other than temporary inconvenience in seeing. Shortly afterwards I laid my arm upon the table, possessed of its full vigour; but directly after, being desirous of using it, I found it powerless. It must have lost its power momentarily [i.e. in a moment]. I then tried to move the other arm, but found it powerless also. I next tried to shake myself, and succeeded in shaking my body. I seemed to have no legs. I could only shake my body. I then looked at the barometer, and whilst I was doing so my head fell on my left shoulder. I struggled, and shook my body again, but could not move my arms. I got my head upright, but for an instant only, when it fell on my right shoulder; and then I fell backwards, my back resting against the side of the car, and my head on its edge. In that position, my eyes were directed to Mr.Coxwell in the ring. When I shook my body I seemed to have full power over the muscles of the back, and considerable power over those of the neck, but none over my limbs.

As in the case of the arms, all muscular power was lost in an instant from my back and neck. I dimly saw Mr.Coxwell in the ring, and endeavoured to speak, but could not do so; when in an instant intense black darkness, and the optic nerve lost power suddenly. I was still conscious with as active a brain as while writing this. I thought I had been seized with asphyxia, and that I should experience no more, as death would come unless we speedily descended. Other thoughts were actively entering my mind when I suddenly became unconscious, as though going to sleep. I could not tell anything about the sense of hearing: the perfect stillness of the regions six miles from the earth - and at this time we were between six and seven miles high - is such that no sound reaches the ear. My last observation was made at 29,000 ft., about fifty-four minutes past one. I suppose two or three minutes elapsed between my eyes becoming insensible to seeing the fine divisions and fifty-four minutes past one, and that another two or three minutes elapsed before I became unconscious; therefore I think that took place about fifty-six or fifty-seven minutes past one. Whilst powerless I heard the words 'temperature' and 'observation', and I knew Mr.Coxwell was in the car, speaking to me, and endeavouring to rouse me; and therefore consciousness and hearing had returned. I then heard him speak more emphatically, but I could not speak or move.

Then I heard him say, "Do try; now do!"

Then I saw the instruments dimly, next Mr.Coxwell, and very shortly I saw clearly. I rose in my seat and looked around, as though waking from sleep, and said to Mr.Coxwell, "I have been insensible."

He said, "Yes; and I too, very nearly."

I then drew up my legs which had been extended out before me, and took a pencil in my hands to note my observations. Mr.Coxwell informed me that he had lost the use of his hands, which were black, and I poured brandy over them. I resumed my observations at seven minutes past two. I suppose three or four minutes were occupied from the time of my hearing 'temperature' and 'observation', until I began to observe. If so, then returning consciousness came at four minutes past two and that gives about seven minutes of total insensibility. Mr.Coxwell told me that, in coming back from the ring, he thought for a moment that I had laid back to rest myself; then he spoke to me without eliciting a reply; that he then noticed that my legs projected, and my arms hung down by my side. That my countenance was serene and placid, without the earnestness or anxiety, he had noticed when going into the ring. It then struck him that I was insensible. He wished then to approach me, but could not, and he felt insensibility coming over himself. He became anxious to open the valve, but, in consequence of having lost the use of his hands, he could not; and ultimately he did so by seizing the cord with his teeth and dipping his head two or three times.

No inconvenience followed our insensibility.  When we dropped it was in a country where no accommodation of any kind could be obtained [near Brown Clee Hill, Shropshire], so that we had to walk between seven and eight miles. At the time of ceasing our observations the ascent was at a rate of 1,000 ft. per minute, and on resuming observations the descent was at a rate of 2,000 ft. per minute. The two positions must be connected, having relation to the interval of time which elapsed between them; and they can scarcely be connected at a point less than 36,000 or 37,000 ft. high. Again, a very delicate minimum thermometer was found to read minus 12 degrees, and that reading would indicate an elevation exceeding 36,000 ft. There cannot be any doubt that the balloon attained the great height of seven miles - the greatest ever reached. [Glaisher's attempt to calculate the balloon's maximum altitude must surely be flawed. Both men would have been dead in seconds at 36,000 ft. Their known height of 29,000 ft. was still a world record.] In this ascent six pigeons were taken up. One was thrown out at three miles. It extended its wings, and dropped like a piece of paper. A second at four miles, and it flew with vigour. A third between four and five miles, and it fell downwards. A fourth was thrown out at four miles in descending, and it alighted on the top of the balloon. Two were brought to the ground. One was dead, and the other was ill, but recovered so as to fly away in a quarter of an hour.

On subsequent flights, Glaisher routinely went beyond 23,000 ft. to make his observations on the decrease of air pressure with height, temperature inversions in the atmosphere at night, wind streams at different heights, and the chemical composition of the upper air. Glaisher and Coxwell still hold a number of British altitude records.

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