Last Update: Jan. 10, 1999 Navigation: Main Menu Index of Tales[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, "The Balloon-Hoax" (B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, 1850, vol I, pp. 88-101.]
[Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk ! — The Atlantic crossed in Three Days ! Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason's Flying Machine ! — Arrival at Sullivan's Island, near Charlestown, S.C., of Mr. Mason, Mr. Robert Holland, Mr. Henson, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth, and four others, in the Steering Balloon, "Victoria," after a passage of Seventy-five Hours from Land to Land ! Full Particulars of the Voyage!
The subjoined jeu d'esprit with the preceding heading in magnificent capitals, well interspersed with notes of admiration, was originally published, as matter of fact, in the "New York Sun," a daily newspaper, and therein fully subserved the purpose of creating indigestible aliment for the quidnuncs during the few hours intervening between a couple of the Charleston mails. The rush for the "sole paper which had the news," was something beyond even the prodigious ; and, in fact, if (as some assert) the "Victoria" did not absolutely accomplish the voyage recorded, it will be difficult to assign a reason why she should not have accomplished it.]
problem is at length solved ! The air, as well as the earth and the ocean,
has been subdued by science, and will become a common and convenient highway for
mankind. The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a Balloon! and
this too without difficulty — without any great apparent danger — with thorough
control of the machine — and in the inconceivably brief period of seventy-five
hours from shore to shore ! By the energy of an agent at Charleston, S.C.,
we are enabled to be the first to furnish the public with a detailed account of
this most extraordinary voyage, which was performed between Saturday, the 6th
instant, at 11, A.M., and 2, P.M., on Tuesday, the 9th instant, by Sir
Everard Bringhurst ; Mr. Osborne, a nephew of Lord Bentinck's ; Mr.
Monck Mason and Mr. Robert Holland, the well-known æronauts ; Mr.
Two very decided failures, of late — those of Mr. Henson
and Sir George Cayley — had much weakened the public interest in the subject of
aerial navigation. Mr. Henson's scheme (which at first was considered very
feasible even by men of science,) was founded upon the principle of an inclined
plane, started from an eminence by an extrinsic force, applied and continued by
the revolution of impinging vanes, in form and number resembling the vanes of a
windmill. But, in all the experiments made with models at the Adelaide
Gallery, it was found that the operation of these fans not only did not propel
the machine, but actually impeded its flight. The only propelling force it ever
exhibited, was the mere impetus acquired from the descent of the inclined
plane ; and this impetus carried the machine farther when the vanes
were at rest, than when they were in motion — a fact which sufficiently
demonstrates their inutility ; and in the absence of the propelling, which
was also the sustaining power, the whole fabric would necessarily
descend. This consideration led Sir George Cayley to think only of
adapting a propeller to some machine having of itself an independent power of
support — in a word, to a balloon ; the idea, however, being novel, or
original, with Sir George, only so far as regards the mode of its application to
practice. He exhibited a model of his invention at the Polytechnic
Institution. The propelling principle, or power, was here, also, applied
It was at this juncture that Mr. Monck Mason (whose voyage from Dover to Weilburg in the balloon, "Nassau," occasioned so much excitement in 1837,) conceived the idea of employing the principle of the Archimedean screw for the purpose of propulsion through the air — rightly attributing the failure of Mr. Henson's scheme, and of Sir George Cayley's, to the interruption of surface in the independent vanes. He made the first public experiment at Willis's Rooms, but afterward removed his model to the Adelaide Gallery.
Like Sir George Cayley's balloon, his own was an ellipsoid. Its length was thirteen feet six inches — height, six feet eight inches. It contained about three hundred and twenty cubic feet of gas, which, if pure hydrogen, would support twenty-one pounds upon its first inflation, before the gas has time to deteriorate or escape. The weight of the whole machine and apparatus was seventeen pounds — leaving about four pounds to spare. Beneath the centre of the balloon, was a frame of light wood, about nine feet long, and rigged on to the balloon itself with a network in the customary manner. From this framework was suspended a wicker basket or car.
The screw consists of an axis of hollow brass tube,
eighteen inches in length, through which, upon a semi-spiral inclined at fifteen
degrees, pass a series of steel wire radii, two feet long, and thus projecting a
foot on either side. These radii are connected at the outer extremities by
two bands of flattened wire — the whole in this manner forming the framework of
the screw, which is completed by a covering of oiled silk cut into gores, and
tightened so as to present a tolerably uniform surface. At each end of its
axis this screw is supported by pillars of hollow brass tube descending from the
hoop. In the lower ends of these tubes are holes in which the pivots of
the axis revolve. From the end of the axis which is next the car, proceeds
a shaft of steel, connecting the screw with the pinion of a piece of spring
machinery fixed in the car. By the operation of this spring, the screw is
This model (which, through want of time, we have necessarily described in an imperfect manner,) was put in action at the Adelaide Gallery, where it accomplished a velocity of five miles per hour; although, strange to say, it excited very little interest in comparison with the previous complex machine of Mr. Henson — so resolute is the world to despise anything which carries with it an air of simplicity. To accomplish the great desideratum of ærial navigation, it was very generally supposed that some exceedingly complicated application must be made of some unusually profound principle in dynamics.
So well satisfied, however, was Mr. Mason of the ultimate
success of his invention, that he determined to construct immediately, if
possible, a balloon of sufficient capacity to test the question by a voyage of
some extent — the original design being to cross the British Channel, as before,
in the Nassau balloon. To carry out his views, he solicited and obtained
the patronage of Sir Everard Bringhurst and Mr. Osborne, two gentlemen well
known for scientific acquirement, and especially for the interest they have
exhibited in the progress of ærostation. The project, at the desire of Mr.
Osborne, was kept a profound secret from the public — the only persons entrusted
with the design being those actually engaged in the construction of the machine,
which was built (under the superintendence of Mr. Mason, Mr. Holland, Sir
Everard Bringhurst, and
The balloon is composed of silk, varnished with the liquid gum caoutchouc. It is of vast dimensions, containing more than 40,000 cubic feet of gas ; but as coal gas was employed in place of the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen, the supporting power of the machine, when fully inflated, and immediately after inflation, is not more than about 2500 pounds. The coal gas is not only much less costly, but is easily procured and managed.
For its introduction into common use for purposes of aerostation, we are indebted to Mr. Charles Green. Up to his discovery, the process of inflation was not only exceedingly expensive, but uncertain. Two, and even three days, have frequently been wasted in futile attempts to procure a sufficiency of hydrogen to fill a balloon, from which it had great tendency to escape, owing to its extreme subtlety, and its affinity for the surrounding atmosphere. In a balloon sufficiently perfect to retain its contents of coal-gas unaltered, in quantity or amount, for six months, an equal quantity of hydrogen could not be maintained in equal purity for six weeks.
The supporting power being estimated at 2500 pounds, and
the united weights of the party amounting only to about 1200, there was left a
surplus of 1300, of which again 1200 was exhausted by ballast, arranged in bags
of different sizes, with their respective weights marked upon them — by cordage,
barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight,
water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters,
including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime,
so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do
so. All these articles, with the exception of the ballast, and a few
trifles, were suspended from the hoop overhead. The car is much smaller
and lighter, in proportion, than the one
As soon as the balloon quits the earth, it is subjected to the influence of many circumstances tending to create a difference in its weight ; augmenting or diminishing its ascending power. For example, there may be a disposition [[deposition]] of dew upon the silk, to the extent, even, of several hundred pounds ; ballast has then to be thrown out, or the machine may descend. This ballast being discarded, and a clear sunshine evaporating the dew, and at the same time expanding the gas in the silk, the whole will again rapidly ascend. To check this ascent, the only recourse is, (or rather was, until Mr. Green's invention of the guide-rope,) the permission of the escape of gas from the valve ; but, in the loss of gas, is a proportionate general loss of ascending power ; so that, in a comparatively brief period, the best-constructed balloon must necessarily exhaust all its resources, and come to the earth. This was the great obstacle to voyages of length.
The guide-rope remedies the difficulty in the simplest
manner conceivable. It is merely a very long rope which is suffered to
trail from the car, and the effect of which is to prevent the balloon from
changing its level in any material degree. If, for example, there should
be a deposition of moisture upon the silk, and the machine begins to descend in
consequence, there will be no necessity for discharging ballast to remedy the
increase of weight, for it is remedied, or counteracted, in an exactly just
proportion, by the deposit on the ground of just so much of the end of the rope
as is necessary. If, on the other hand, any circumstances should cause
undue levity, and consequent ascent, this levity is immediately counteracted by
the additional weight of rope upraised from the earth. Thus, the balloon
can neither ascend or descend, except within very narrow limits, and its
resources, either in gas or ballast, remain comparatively unimpaired.
As the original design was to cross the British Channel, and alight as near Paris as possible, the voyagers had taken the precaution to prepare themselves with passports directed to all parts of the Continent, specifying the nature of the expedition, as in the case of the Nassau voyage, and entitling the adventurers to exemption from the usual formalities of office : unexpected events, however, rendered these passports superfluous.
The inflation was commenced very quietly at daybreak, on
Saturday morning, the 6th instant, in the Court-Yard of Weal-Vor House, Mr.
Osborne's seat, about a mile from Penstruthal, in North Wales ; and at 7
minutes past 11, every thing being ready for departure, the balloon was set
free, rising gently but steadily, in a direction nearly South ; no use
being made, for the first half hour, of either the screw or the rudder. We
proceed now with the journal, as transcribed by Mr. Forsyth from the joint
MSS. of Mr. Monck Mason, and Mr. Ainsworth. The body of the journal,
as given, is in the hand-writing of Mr. Mason, and a P. S. is
appended, each day, by Mr. Ainsworth, who has in preparation, and will shortly
give the public a more minute, and no doubt, a thrillingly interesting account
of the voyage.
Saturday, April the 6th. — Every preparation
likely to embarrass us, having been made over night, we commenced the inflation
this morning at daybreak ; but owing to a thick fog, which encumbered the
folds of the silk and rendered it unmanageable, we did not get through before
nearly eleven o'clock. Cut loose, then, in high spirits, and rose gently
but steadily, with a light breeze at North, which bore us in the direction of
the British [[Bristol]] Channel. Found the ascending force greater than we
had expected ; and as we arose higher and so got clear of the cliffs, and
more in the sun's rays, our ascent became very rapid. I did not wish,
however, to lose gas at so early a period of the adventure, and so concluded to
ascend for the present. We soon ran out our guide-rope ; but even
when we had raised it clear of the earth, we still went up very rapidly.
The balloon was unusually steady, and looked beautifully. In about ten
minutes after starting, the barometer indicated an altitude of 15,000
feet. The weather was remarkably fine, and the view of the subjacent
country — a most romantic one when seen from any point, — was now especially
sublime. The numerous deep gorges presented the appearance of lakes, on account
of the dense vapors with which they were filled, and the pinnacles and crags to
the South East, piled in inextricable confusion, resembling nothing so much as
the giant cities of eastern fable. We were rapidly approaching the
mountains in the South ; but our elevation was more than sufficient to
enable us to pass them in safety. In a few minutes we soared over them in
fine style ; and Mr. Ainsworth, with the seamen, were [[was]] surprised at
their apparent want of altitude when viewed from the car, the tendency of great
elevation in a balloon being to reduce inequalities of the surface below, to
nearly a dead level. At half-past eleven still proceeding nearly South, we
obtained our first view of the Bristol Channel ; and, in fifteen minutes
afterward, the line of breakers on the coast appeared immediately beneath us,
and we were fairly out at sea. We now resolved to let off enough gas to
bring our guide-rope, with the buoys affixed, into the water. This was
immediately done, and we commenced a gradual descent. In
P.S. (by Mr. Ainsworth.) The last nine hours have
been unquestionably the most exciting of my life. I can conceive nothing
more sublimating than the strange peril and novelty of an adventure such as
this. May God grant that we succeed ! I ask not success for mere
safety to my insignificant person, but for the sake of human knowledge and — for
the vastness of the triumph. And yet the feat is only so evidently
feasible that the sole wonder is why men have scrupled to attempt it
before. One single gale such as now befriends us — let such a tempest
whirl forward a balloon for four or five days (these gales often last longer)
Sunday, the seventh. [Mr. Mason's MS.] This morning the gale, by 10, had subsided to an eight or nine — knot breeze, (for a vessel at sea,) and bears us, perhaps, thirty miles per hour, or more. It has veered, however, very considerably to the north ; and now, at sundown, we are holding our course due west, principally by the screw and rudder, which answer their purposes to admiration. I regard the project as thoroughly successful, and the easy navigation of the air in any direction (not exactly in the teeth of a gale) as no longer problematical. We could not have made head against the strong wind of yesterday ; but, by ascending, we might have got out of its influence, if requisite. Against a pretty stiff breeze, I feel convinced, we can make our way with the propeller. At noon, to-day, ascended to an elevation of nearly 25,000 feet, by discharging ballast. Did this to search for a more direct current, but found none so favorable as the one we are now in. We have an abundance of gas to take us across this small pond, even should the voyage last three weeks. I have not the slightest fear for the result. The difficulty has been strangely exaggerated and misapprehended. I can choose my current, and should I find all currents against me, I can make very tolerable headway with the propeller. We have had no incidents worth recording. The night promises fair.
P.S. [By Mr. Ainsworth.] I have little to record,
except the fact (to me quite a surprising one) that, at an elevation equal to
that of Cotopaxi, I experienced neither very intense cold, nor headache, nor
difficulty of breathing ; neither, I find, did Mr. Mason, nor Mr. Holland,
nor Sir Everard. Mr. Osborne complained of
* Note. — Mr. Ainsworth has not attempted to account for this phenomena [[phenomenon]], which, however, is quite susceptible of explanation. A line dropped from an elevation of 25,000 feet, perpendicularly to the surface of the earth (or sea), would form the perpendicular of a right-angled triangle, of which the base would extend from the right angle to the horizon, and the hypothenuse from the horizon to the balloon. But the 25,000 feet of altitude is little or nothing, in comparison with the extent of the prospect. In other words, the base and hypothenuse of the supposed triangle would be so long when compared with the perpendicular, that the two former may be regarded as nearly parallel. In this manner the horizon of the æronaut would appear to be on a level with the car. But, as the point immediately beneath him seems, and is, at a great distance below him, it seems, of course, also, at a great distance below the horizon. Hence the impression of concavity ; and this impression must remain, until the elevation shall bear so great a proportion to the extent of prospect, that the apparent parallelism of the base and hypothenuse disappears — when the earth's real convexity must become apparent.
Monday, the 8th. [Mr. Mason's MS.] This
morning we had again some little trouble with the rod of the propeller, which
must be entirely remodelled, for fear of serious accident — I mean the steel rod
— not the vanes. The latter could not be improved. The wind has been
blowing steadily and strongly from the north-east all day and so far
fortune seems bent upon favoring us. Just before day, we were all somewhat
alarmed at some odd noises and concussions in the balloon, accompanied with the
apparent rapid subsidence of the whole machine. These phenomena were
occasioned by the expansion of the gas, through increase of heat in the
atmosphere, and the consequent disruption of the minute particles of ice with
which the network had become encrusted during the night. Threw down
several bottles to the vessels below.
P.S. [By Mr. Ainsworth.] It is now 2, A.M., and nearly calm, as well as I can judge — but it is very difficult to determine this point, since we move with the air so completely. I have not slept since quitting Wheal-Vor, but can stand it no longer, and must take a nap. We cannot be far from the American coast.
Tuesday, the 9th. [Mr. Ainsworth's MS.] One, P.M. We are in full view of the low coast of South Carolina. The great problem is accomplished. We have crossed the Atlantic — fairly and easily crossed it in a balloon ! God be praised ! Who shall say that anything is impossible hereafter?
The Journal here ceases. Some particulars of the
descent were communicated, however, by Mr. Ainsworth to Mr. Forsyth. It
was nearly dead calm when the voyagers first came in view of the coast, which
was immediately recognized by both the seamen, and by Mr. Osborne. The latter
gentleman having acquaintances at Fort Moultrie, it was immediately resolved to
descend in its vicinity. The balloon was brought over the beach (the tide
being out and the sand hard, smooth, and admirably adapted for a descent,) and
the grapnel let go, which took firm hold at once. The inhabitants of the
island, and of the fort, thronged out, of course, to see the balloon ; but
it was with the greatest difficulty that any one could be made to credit the
actual voyage — the crossing of the Atlantic. The grapnel caught at
2, P.M., precisely ; and thus the whole voyage was completed in
seventy-five hours ; or rather less, counting from shore to shore.
No serious accident occurred. No real danger was at any time apprehended.
The balloon was exhausted and secured without trouble ; and when the
MS. from which this narrative is compiled was despatched from Charleston,
the party were still at Fort Moultrie. Their farther intentions were not
ascertained ; but we can safely promise our readers some
This is unquestionably the most stupendous, the most interesting, and the most important undertaking, ever accomplished or even attempted by man. What magnificent events may ensue, it would be useless now to think of determining.
[S:1 - Works, 1850]