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How Coxwell and Glaisher reached a height of seven miles in an open balloon in 1862


AN ASCENT FROM THE CRYSTAL PALACE, London, was made in The Mammoth Balloon by Coxwell, Glaisher and nine passengers on September 1, 1862




























AN ASCENT FROM THE CRYSTAL PALACE, London, was made in The Mammoth Balloon by Henry Coxwell, James Glaisher and nine passengers on September 1, 1862. It was in this balloon that Coxwell and Glaisher made their record ascent to seven miles from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, four days later. The balloon was made of American cloth and had a capacity of 93,000 feet. Three ascents were made in this balloon from Wolverhampton - on July 17, August 18 and September 5, 1862.




INTENSELY cold, unable to use their limbs, at times insensible, the first men to reach a height of seven miles had only to open a valve to make their balloon descend. But they could not grasp the rope that would open the valve.


When their minds cleared momentarily to their desperate need, their frozen bodies refused to obey. But one of them, getting his mouth to the rope that his hands could not grasp, tugged with his teeth. It was all he could do; but it saved the aeronauts from the perils of their situation.


The two pioneers who came safely through this ordeal were Henry Tracey Coxwell and James Glaisher. Coxwell was the pilot who, resolute and resourceful, used his teeth when deprived of the use of his limbs. Glaisher was the scientific observer. His courage was equal to that of his companion; his devotion to duty was as remarkable as Coxwell’s skill. Until these two men joined forces in 1862 the chief honours for scientific investigation of the upper atmosphere had belonged to various Continental experimenters. But in 1862 the two Englishmen, by ascending to a height of seven miles, set up a record which remained unbeaten for many years.


Before their collaboration, each man had achieved considerable success in his own sphere. Coxwell, who was born in 1819, was an aeronautical enthusiast at the age of nine, when he saw a balloon ascend at Rochester, Kent. He lost no opportunity of increasing his knowledge of ballooning.


He made his first ascent in 1844, and in the following year he edited the first English paper on aeronautics, The Balloon, or Aerostatic Magazine. Fully alive to the importance of the balloon for military and scientific purposes, he took up two officers of the Royal Engineers in 1863. Seven years later he went to Cologne and helped in the formation of the first German Balloon Corps, during the Franco-Prussian war. Coxwell became a professional balloonist in 1852, and during the ten years before his association with Glaisher he made many remarkable flights. One of these, from Glasgow, affords an extraordinary example of coincidence. Having descended safely into a field near Milngavie, Coxwell learned that many years before, James Sadler had descended from a balloon in the same field; moreover, the man who caught the rope of Coxwell’s balloon was the man who had performed the same service for Sadler.


In 1862, when the British Association was finding difficulty in selecting a aeronaut and balloon for scientific investigations at high altitudes, Coxwell was the only man to inspire general confidence. No better choice could have been made.


James Glaisher, who shares with Coxwell the honours of the record-breaking ascent, was primarily a scientist. Born at Rotherhithe, Kent, in 1809, he was chosen at the age of

twenty to help in the trigonometrical survey of Ireland. In the mountains of Galway and Limerick he often worked for weeks in or above the clouds; and the conditions which might have discouraged many young men gave Glaisher his first taste for the study of the formation of clouds, fog and snow. He was destined to be the man to put meteorology on a sound scientific basis.



GLAISHER LAY UNCONSCIOUS against the balloon basket during the record ascent on September 5, I862, while Coxwell was freeing the valve rope which had become entangled with the supporting ropes. When Coxwell descended to the basket his hands were frozen and he had to pull the valve rope with his teeth. He thus saved himself and his companion.



When he was working at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1852, Glaisher saw a balloon ascent in remarkable circumstances. Under the auspices of the British Association, Mr. Welsh, of Kew Observatory, made several ascents in the great Nassau balloon in charge of the veteran aeronaut Charles Green. Glaisher watched one of these ascents through a telescope from the roof of the Greenwich Observatory.


He followed every movement of the balloon through his telescope, from its departure to its descent at Folkestone, Kent, fifty-seven miles away. It rose from Vauxhall, London, at 2.22 p.m., and remained in the air for an hour and eighteen minutes, during which time Glaisher never lost sight of it. He became convinced of the value to meteorology of observations from high-altitude balloons.


Despite the obvious advantages of such balloon observations, progress was slow. Finally Coxwell overcame the practical difficulties by making a new balloon, larger than any previously made. Glaisher, equally determined that the scientific objects of the scheme should be attained, decided to accompany him. Coxwell’s balloon, which was made of American cloth instead of silk, had a capacity of 93,000 cubic feet. It was 55 feet in diameter and 80 feet high. Ascents were to be made from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, chosen because of its central position and because of the adequate supply of coal gas obtainable there.


For several months before his first ascent Glaisher was fully occupied in preparations for it. He had to make some of the apparatus, decide on its arrangement in the car of the balloon, and acquire skill in the rapid handling of instruments in a confined space.


When the time came for Glaisher’s initiation into practical aeronautics his experiences would have deterred a less determined and courageous man. The weather was unfavourable, and the ascent was undertaken only because of previous delays and disappointments. While being filled the balloon was blown about so badly that it was impossible to fix any of the instruments in it — a state of affairs scarcely cheering to a novice who had never set foot in the car of a balloon.


When released the balloon did not rise at first, but for about a minute dragged the car on its side along the ground. This would probably have been fatal had there been a chimney or tall building in the way.


It took twenty minutes for Glaisher to get all the instruments into working order, by which time the balloon had risen to more than 10,000 feet. From this point onwards he made numerous timed observations of temperature, humidity, pulse rate and so forth, with remarkable scientific detachment.


“At 19,415 feet”, he records, “palpitation of the heart had become perceptible, the beating of the chronometer seemed very loud, and my breathing became affected. At 19,435 feet my pulse had accelerated, and it was with increasing difficulty that I could read the instruments; the palpitation of the heart was very perceptible. The hands and lips assumed a dark bluish colour, but not the face”.


Nearly an hour and a half elapsed before Coxwell — who was getting anxious that the balloon should not be carried out to sea — began the descent. It was unexpectedly fast. Although a large reserve of ballast had been held, to ease the landing, the balloon had collected so much weight by condensation that it landed with a considerable shock which broke nearly all the instruments.



HENRY TRACEY COXWELL was a dentist by profession until he devoted his time completely to ballooning. He made his first ascent in 1844, and eight years later became a professional balloonist. He made over five hundred balloon ascents before 1866, and did not retire from active ballooning until nearly twenty years later.



This landing took place at Langham, near Oakham, Rutlandshire. Despite the disappointment due to the broken instruments Glaisher’s first ascent had been highly successful; he had reached an altitude of five miles, and had shown the endurance and tenacity of purpose which marked the true pioneer.


His work during the ascent was much more exacting than might have been supposed. The primary considerations were the temperature of the air and the degree of moisture at different heights; the rate of decrease of temperature with increase of elevation; and the distribution of water in invisible vapours below the clouds, in the clouds and above them at various elevations.

By working quickly and methodically throughout the ascent Glaisher hoped to make these and other observations; but his task was rendered even more difficult because the necessary close attention to his instruments might cause him to miss some important phenomenon that had never before been seen by human eye. His companion, Coxwell, was fully occupied in handling the balloon.


Their record-breaking ascent to seven miles began at 1.3 p.m. on September 5, 1862, from Wolverhampton. The temperature on the ground was 59° Fahr; ten minutes later the temperature had fallen to 36.5° Fahr. At 1.22 p.m. the balloon reached a height of two miles

and the temperature fell to freezing point.


Only six minutes later the balloon had reached a height of three miles, and the temperature had fallen to 18° Fahr. Ice was forming some of the instruments.


Before another mile height had been gained, at 1.40 p.m., Coxwell was panting for breath, though Glaisher had experienced no such difficulty because he had not exerted himself physically. At four miles sand was discharged, and another mile of height was gained in ten minutes, the temperature having then fallen below zero.


More sand was discharged, and serious difficulties began to increase as the balloon rose from the fifth to the sixth mile. Glaisher began to find difficulty in seeing his instruments clearly; and the aspirator, which supplied a current of air to one pair of thermometers and to a hygrometer, became troublesome to work.


At 1.52 p.m. he could make out that the dry-bulb thermometer read -5° Fahr, but he could not see the column of mercury on the wet-bulb thermometer, nor the hands of the watch, nor the fine divisions of any of the instruments. He asked his companion to help him, but Coxwell could not pause to read the instruments because the valve-line had become entangled, and he had to leave the car of the balloon and mount into the ring above, to adjust it.


The barometer reading denoted a height of more than 29,000 feet (nearly six miles). The balloon was still climbing rapidly. Shortly afterwards Glashier, who had laid his arm — which until then had felt normal — along the table, found it was powerless. He tried to move the other arm, but could not do so.


“I tried to shake myself”, he recorded later, “but I seemed to have no limbs. In looking at the barometer my head fell over my left shoulder; I struggled and shook my body again, but

could not move my arms. Getting my head upright for an instant only, it fell on my right shoulder; then I fell backwards, my hand resting against the side of the car and my head oil its edge.


“In this 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 considerably so over those of the neck, but none over either my arms or my legs. . . .


“I dimly saw Mr. Coxwell, and endeavoured to speak, but could not. In an instant intense darkness overcame me, so that the optic nerve lost power suddenly, but I was still conscious, with as active a brain as at the present moment whilst writing this. I thought I had been seized with asphyxia, and believed that I should experience nothing more, as death would come unless we speedily descended; other thoughts were entering my mind, when I suddenly became unconscious, as on going to sleep. I cannot tell anything of the sense of hearing, as no sound reaches the ear to break the perfect stillness of the regions between six and seven miles above the earth. My last observation was made at 1.54 p.m., above 29,000 feet. I suppose two or three minutes to have elapsed between my eyes becoming insensible to seeing fine divisions and 1.54 p.m., and then two or three minutes more to have passed till I was insensible, which I think, therefore, took place about 1.56 or 1.57 p.m. Whilst powerless I heard the words ‘temperature’ and ‘observation’, and I knew Mr. Coxwell was in the car, speaking to and endeavouring to rouse me — therefore consciousness and hearing had returned. I then heard him speak more emphatically, but could not see, speak or move. I heard him again say, ‘Do try; now do’. Then the instruments became dimly visible, then Mr. Coxwell, and very shortly I saw clearly.



JAMES GLAISHER was the meteorologist who accompanied Coxwell as scientific observer on high-altitude ascents. He took a large number of instruments with him, which were difficult to operate in the confined space of the basket and in the conditions of physical discomfort caused by the cold and the rarefied atmosphere at great heights.



“Mr. Coxwell told me he had lost the use of his hands, which were black, and I poured brandy over them. I resumed my observations at 2.7 p.m., recording the barometer reading at 11.53 inches, and the temperature at -2° Fahr. It is probable that three or four minutes passed from the time of my hearing the words ‘temperature’ and ‘observation’ till I began to observe; if so, returning consciousness came at 2.4 p.m., and this gives seven minutes for total insensibility”.


While Coxwell had been at work in the ring he had noticed hoarfrost all round the neck of the balloon, and found that his hands were frozen. He had to place his arms on the ring and drop down, and a few moments then elapsed before he noticed that his companion was insensible.


He tried to approach, but could not; and when he felt insensibility coming over him, too, he became anxious to open the valve to make the balloon descend. He succeeded by seizing the cord with his teeth and dipping his head two or three times, until the balloon took a decided turn downwards. The descent was rapid. The landing took place at Cold Weston, seven and a half miles from Ludlow, Shropshire.


Pigeons Released at Various Heights


Although it had proved to be impossible to make observations at the extreme height reached on this occasion, Glaisher made careful calculations from the data recorded by the instruments, and he considered that the balloon must have reached an altitude of 36,000 or 37,000 feet — fully seven miles.


One of the experiments carried out during this ascent was concerned with the effect of altitude on pigeons, six of which were carried, to be released at different heights. One, thrown out at three miles, extended its wings and dropped like a piece of paper. The second, at four miles, flew vigorously round and round; and the third, released at between four and five miles, dropped like a stone.


When the balloon was descending, a fourth pigeon was thrown out at four miles, and this one, after having circled the balloon, alighted on top of it. Of the two not thrown out, one was found to be dead when the balloon reached the ground. The other, though alive, could not fly for about a quarter of an hour, after which time it appeared to recover completely, and when shaken off the finger it flew away with some vigour.


Glaisher and Coxwell made several other joint ascents, but in 1866 Glaisher retired from active participation in meteorological ballooning. Coxwell could claim to have made his 500th ascent several years earlier; and he continued his remarkably successful career as a balloon pilot for nearly another twenty years, until his retirement in 1885. In their different spheres each man achieved great success; but probably they will always be best remembered by their adventure together when, for the first time, man ascended for seven miles into the clouds.



THE INSTRUMENTS PREPARED BY GLAISHER for use during high-altitude balloon ascents. They are (1), dry and wet bulb thermometers; (2), Daniell’s hygrometer; (3), mercury barometer; (4), blackened bulb thermometer for exposure to the sun’s rays; (5), wet and dry bulb thermometers connected with aspirator; (6), similar to No. 4, but contained in a vacuum tube; (7), sensitive thermometer; (8), Regnault’s hygrometer connected with aspirator; (9), one of the shields used to keep sun off wet and dry bulb thermometer; (10), water container for wet bulb; (11), bottle of water; (12), compass; (13), chronometer; (14), minimum thermometer; (15) and (16), taps to control aspirator; (17), aneroid barometer; (18), scissors for cutting string; (19), ether for Daniell’s and Regnault’s hygrometers; (20), magnifying glass to read instruments; (21), weight to keep barometer vertical; (22), foot-operated aspirator; (23), binoculars; (24), magnet for moving compass needle.



You can read more on “The First Aerial Voyages”, “James Sadler” and

“The Romance of Ballooning” on this website.


Altitude Pioneers: Coxwell & Glaisher