Friday, March 2, 2012

Science, Showmanship and Suspense: Part 1: Crossing the Atlantic by Air

As Professor Thadeus S.C. Lowe gained notoriety and experience in the scientific art of aeronautics during the decade preceding the outbreak of civil war, he also joined the ranks of American balloonists who had announced their intentions to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. Lowe’s rivals, James Allen and John La Mountain had also proposed the feat and even asked Congress for funds.

Lowe, however, was able to make a helpful connection the others could not: backers in Philadelphia put him in contact with Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution. The two met and became friends. Henry, impressed by Lowe’s equipment, ability, and knowledge, supported his plan, but suggested one final overland experiment, both to assure the hardiness of the craft and to provide additional evidence of the theory of consistent easterly winds at high altitudes (thanks to the research of Lowe and others, the existence of such a current is now common knowledge).

Lowe’s massive balloon, The Great Western, had already been on display in New York City for several months. In fact, the aerostat had originally held the name City of New York, but when, much to Lowe’s annoyance, that city’s gas company was unable to fully inflate the balloon in the required window of time, Lowe moved his operation and renamed it.

The Great Western was an impressive vehicle—when fully inflated, the envelope was 130 feet in diameter, 200 feet high, and contained 725,000 cubic feet of gas. Suspended below was an enclosed basket with room for six passengers and provisions. Various national flags hung around the outside of the basket as a show of friendship to any country in which the journey may end—France, Spain, and Morocco for example. A boat (called the Leontine, after Mrs. Lowe), with sails, a small engine, and additional supplies was tethered underneath the basket, in case the crew should need to make a premature water landing. Supplies included food, water in India rubber bottles, barometers, thermometers, telescopes, compasses, life-preserving suits, passports, flares, and 100 rubber bags with small silk parachutes containing messages to be dropped over land or to vessels on the sea below.

As per Professor Henry’s suggestion, Lowe travelled with a smaller test balloon, Enterprise (built with funds gathered for his trans-Atlantic flight and associated research), to Cincinnati, Ohio and awaited the proper conditions for his final epic experiment—the journey that would prove his readiness to cross the Atlantic by air…

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