Archive: Climbing into the Clouds for Glory and Science; Wolverhampton Was the Unlikely Setting for One of the Greatest Ballooning Adventures of All Time, as Two Courageous Aeronauts Soared into the Record Books. Chris Upton Reports
Byline: Chris Upton
Not many months ago it was impossible to open a newspaper without reading stories about high-altitude balloons.
Around the world they flew, rose, plummeted and disappeared in a vain attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
This is the last great endurance test to be conquered, apart from hopping to the North Pole on one leg.
All these heroic tales recall the golden age of ballooning, a period which in fact spanned the whole of the 19th century and a little on either side. In the absence of anything with wings, the balloon offered mankind the sole opportunity of climbing into the clouds.
It attracted both the intrepid pioneers who sought a challenge and the scientists who wanted to measure temperature, pressure, wind speed and their own pulse rate.
Such a combination of science and heroism is evident in one of the greatest feats of ballooning of them all (apart from the challenge of setting foot in the basket in the first place), which took place at Wolverhampton in 1862.
It would be fair to say that the two men involved would go down in the record books, except that they went up.
As with the personnel of space exploration the ideal ballooning team combined brain-power and bravado.
Dr James Glaisher was the scientist. He was one of the country's foremost meteorologists, with a lifetime's work at Greenwich and at Cambridge University already behind him. He also had aerodynamically designed whiskers.
His companion, Henry Tracey Coxwell, was, you could say, a professional aeronaut and probably the greatest balloonist of Victorian England. He later went on to pilot the first balloon used for taking aerial photographs, which then led to ready employment working for the Germans in aerial reconnaissance during the Franco-Prussian War.
In total, Coxwell and Glaisher made three balloon ascents from the grounds of the Stafford Road Gas Works in Wolverhampton. I have no idea as yet why the two men chose Wolverhampton as their base - perhaps the view from above was more picturesque than the one from ground level - but their reason for choosing the Stafford Road is clear enough.
Their balloon was filled, not with the traditional hydrogen, but with coal gas, and a plentiful supply from the local gas works was needed.
Plentiful is hardly the word, for their balloon - called The Mammoth - was over 80 feet high and 55 feet in diameter. To be fully inflated it required 93,000 cubic feet of coal gas. No doubt they hoped to be well away from the scene when the quarterly bill arrived.
The first ascent was made on July 17. Taking off at 9.30 in the morning, they landed near Oakham in Rutland at midday.
The following week the two men took flight again, this time travelling only as far as Solihull. There was, it has to be said, hardly any way of directing balloon flights: that was part of the excitement.
The nuisance was that each time they had to make their way back to Wolverhampton to start afresh. …