I have been re-reading “The Aeronauts” by Time/Life books. It is a stunning book with a padded cover and brilliant colour inside. Too lazy to open the lid of the scanner, I’ve photographed it:
The following is taken from a first-hand account of the first successful crossing of the English channel by air – somewhat before steampunk times, since it happened in 1784 (but entirely within the realm of clockpunk). It went well at first, but then the intrepid pair of adventurers realised they were losing altitude in a manner that could soon prove fatal. Like all balloonists, they responded by throwing things overboard (NB: Blanchard, the captain, was a very short man).
“My noble little captain gave orders, and set the example,” Jeffries wrote, “by beginning to outstrip our aerial car, first of our silk and finery.” Over the side went the oars, the propeller, and two anchors, “after which my little hero stripped and threw away his coat. On this I was compelled to follow his example. He next cast away his trousers. We put on our cork jackets and were, God knows how, as merry as grigs to think how we should spatter in the water.” But the lightened gondola now rose again, and at 3 p.m., “almost benumbed with cold,” they were thrilled to see the French shore beneath them.
A half hour later, the balloon again began to descend, this time threatening the balloonists with a crash landing in a forest about 12 miles inland. This time they threw out their cork life jackets. When that had little effect, Jeffries suggested an imaginative expedient: “From the recollection that we had drunk much at breakfast and not having had any evacuation,” he reported delicately, “an extra quantity had been secreted by the kidneys, which we might now avail ouselves of by discharging.” They did so, filling two containers and dropping them over the side. A couple of pounds lighter, the balloon cleared the edge of the woods and Blanchard landed it in a small clearing. We were “almost as naked as the trees,” wrote Jeffries, with “not an inch of cord or rope left, no anchor or anything to help us, nor a being within several miles.” The only objects that remained in the car were Jeffries’ thermometer and barometer, a bottle of brandy and a packet of letters; history’s first airmail had arrived in France.
Blanchard pulled on the valve line, venting enough gas to collapse the balloon. Then the scantily clad aeronauts settled back to await rescue – and fame.
This is an artist’s rendition of the aeronauts setting off from Dover. The sail at the back is entirely fictional, although the (non-useful) oars really did exist.
If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll probably enjoy this one even more – it has accounts of more adventures aloft, including my own.