Read A GREAT TRAVELLER IN THE AIR. of Beneath the Banner, free online book, by F. J. Cross, on


For many years past men of science have been engaged in ascending far up amongst the clouds for the purpose of finding out as much as possible about the various currents of air, the electrical state of the atmosphere, the different kinds of clouds, sound, temperature and such matters.

One of the most eminent balloonists of modern times, Mr. James Glaisher, was many times in danger of losing his life whilst in pursuit of knowledge miles above the earth.

His first ascent was made from Wolverhampton on the 17th of July, 1862. It was very stormy at the time of starting. Before he and Mr. Coxwell got fairly off they very nearly came to grief; for the balloon did not rise properly, but dragged the car along near the ground, so that if they had come against any chimney or high building they would probably have been killed.

However, fortunately, they got clear and were soon high up above the clouds, with a beautiful blue sky, and the air so pleasantly warm that they needed no extra clothing, as is usually the case when in the upper region of the atmosphere. When they were about four miles high Mr. Glaisher found the beating of his heart become very distinct, his hands and lips turned to a dark bluish colour, and he could hardly read the instruments. Between four and five miles high he felt a kind of sea sickness.

Mr. Coxwell began to think they might be getting too near the Wash for safety, and they therefore came down quickly, and reached the earth with such force that the scientific instruments were nearly all broken. In their descent they passed through a cloud 8000 feet (or over a mile and a half) thick!

On the 5th of September, 1862, Mr. Glaisher and Mr. Coxwell made one of the most remarkable ascents in the history of ballooning. It nearly proved fatal to both.

Up to the time they reached the fifth mile Mr. Glaisher felt pretty well. What happened afterwards is best described by himself.

“When at the height of 26,000 feet I could not see the fine column of the mercury in the tube; then the fine divisions on the scale of the instrument became invisible. At that time I asked Mr. Coxwell to help me to read the instruments, as I experienced a difficulty in seeing them. In consequence of the rotary motion of the balloon, which had continued without ceasing since the earth was left, the valve line had become twisted, and he had to leave the car, and to mount into the ring above to adjust it. At that time I had no suspicion of other than temporary inconvenience in seeing. Shortly afterwards I laid my arm upon the table, possessed of its full vigour but directly after, being desirous of using it, I found it powerless. It must have lost its power momentarily. I then tried to move the other arm, but found it powerless also. I next tried to shake myself, and succeeded in shaking my body. I seemed to have no legs. I could only shake my body. I then looked at the barometer, and whilst I was doing so my head fell on my left shoulder. I struggled, and shook my body again, but could not move my arms. I got my head upright, but for an instant only, when it fell on my right shoulder; and then I fell backwards, my back resting against the side of the car, and my head on its edge. In that position my eyes were directed towards Mr. Coxwell in the ring. When I shook my body I seemed to have full power over the muscles of the back, and considerable power over those of the neck, but none over my limbs....I dimly saw Mr. Coxwell in the ring, and endeavoured to speak, but could not do so; when in an instant black darkness came over me, and the optic nerve lost power suddenly. I was still conscious, with as active a brain as whilst writing this. I thought I had been seized with asphyxia, and that I should experience no more, as death would come unless we speedily descended. Other thoughts were actively entering my mind when I suddenly became unconscious, as though going to sleep. I could not tell anything about the sense of hearing; the perfect stillness of the regions six miles from the earth and at that time we were between six and seven miles high is such that no sound reaches the ear. My last observation was made at 29,000 feet.... Whilst powerless I heard the words ‘temperature’ and ‘observation,’ and I knew Mr. Coxwell was in the car, speaking to me, and endeavouring to rouse me; and therefore consciousness and hearing had returned. I then heard him speak more emphatically, but I could not speak or move. Then I heard him say, ‘Do try; now do!’ Then I saw the instruments dimly, next Mr. Coxwell, and very shortly I saw clearly. I rose in my seat and looked round, as though waking from sleep, and said to Mr. Coxwell, ‘I have been insensible’. He said, ’Yes; and I too very nearly ...’. Mr. Coxwell informed me that he had lost the use of his hands, which were black, and I poured brandy over them.”

When Mr. Coxwell saw that Mr. Glaisher was insensible he tried to go to him but could not, and he then felt insensibility coming over him. He became anxious to open the valve, but having lost the use of his hands he could not, and ultimately he did so by seizing the cord with his teeth and dipping his head two or three times.

During the journey they got to a height of 36,000 or 37,000 feet about seven miles that is to say, two miles higher than Mount Everest, the loftiest mountain in the world.

The year following Mr. Glaisher had a narrow escape from drowning.

He and Mr. Coxwell started from the Crystal Palace at a little past one o’clock on the 18th of April, 1863, and in an hour and thirteen minutes after starting were 24,000 feet high. Then they thought it would be just as well to see where they were, so they opened the valve to let out the gas, and came down a mile in three minutes. When, at a quarter to three, they were still 10,000 feet high Mr. Coxwell caught sight of Beachy Head and exclaimed: “What’s that?” On looking over the car Mr. Glaisher found that they seemed to be overhanging the sea!

Not a moment was to be lost. They both clung on to the valve-line, rending the balloon in two places. Down, down, down at a tremendous speed they went; the earth appeared to be coming up to them with awful swiftness; and a minute or two later with a resounding crash they struck the ground at Newhaven close to the sea. The balloon had been so damaged that it did not drag along, and though most of the instruments were smashed their lives were saved.

Much valuable scientific information has been obtained by Mr. Glaisher, and by those who, like him, have made perilous journeys into cloudland.