The Cloud Sea
Sometimes, when I am portraying a Victorian Scientist, I ask a question, normally it takes a bit of lateral thinking but I think you will get it right away.
‘In 1862, the explorers Henry Coxwell & Dr. James Glaisher made a terrible journey that almost killed them, they travelled nearly seven miles from Birmingham, where did they go?”
The pictures is a big clue, the answer is, straight up!
Coxwell was the balloonist, Glaisher was a scientist, a meteorologist, he wanted to know where clouds formed. They set off in the afternoon of September climbing rapidly their balloon pushed through, what these early aeronauts called, the Cloud Sea, and then upwards. As they passed 20,000 feet they entered regions no one had ever entered before, and kept on climbing.
They knew it was going to be cold, so they wore tweed jackets and woollen scarves, but made no preparation for lack of oxygen, in fact they were about to discover what oxygen starvation meant. Glaisher was affected first, as they passed 30,000 feet his hands lost all feeling, his sight went and then he passed out. Then Coxwell began to lose feeling in his hands, realising that if they didn’t begin to descend soon they would both die. He pulled the release cord that would let gas from the balloon, and nothing happened. The cord was caught in the rigging, so – with hands that didn’t work, he climbed into the rigging of the balloon, seven miles above the ground, to free the line.
He did it and, the balloon began to descend. After a few thousand feet Glaisher regained consciousness, and immediately returned to his instruments to make notes, after all, he realised he would never go into these regions again.
And no one did, even in fiction few explored these regions. One was the unfortunate aviator Joyce-Armstrong, whose terrible story is related in The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle. He describes how flying up to these regions he finds it inhabited, by giant jellyfish type creatures, long thin serpents and massive predators with long tentacles. On his second flight he fails to escape the predators.
In reality the next person to explore these regions was another magnificent scientist, the Belgian Professor Auguste Piccard, who in the 1930’s built an aluminium sphere and, under a giant balloon, flew it to the edge of space. He was Herge’s inspiration for the wonderful Professor Calculus in the Tintin stories. He realised that his sphere could be adapted to descent into the deep ocean. His son, Jacques Piccard, took it to the logical condition and, in the 1950’s piloted his bathyscaphe to the deepest point in the ocean, the Challenger Deep.
The Challenger Deep takes its name from HMS Challenger, the world’s first oceanographic research vessel, during its three year voyage it mapped the deep oceans and discovered hundreds of thousands of new species of animals and plants. The vessel was so important that the Space Shuttle Challenger was called after it, as was Professor Challenger, the scientific explorer invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who found The Lost World.
And so, from a photograph taken out of an aircraft window, we have gone from heroes of Victorian Science, via three famous Belgians, to a space ship and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.