One of the greatest feats of Victorian exploration took place on 5th September, 1862 at Stafford Road Gasworks in Wolverhampton. It consisted of a balloon flight that greatly increased our knowledge of the atmosphere, and helped to lead the way to modern weather forecasting. There were other balloon flights from Wolverhampton’s gasworks, but this one was very different and far more important. It was in fact a scientific experiment.

Our ability to accurately forecast the weather depends to a large extent on our understanding of clouds, and which types will produce rain. The ancient Greeks understood that the heat of the summer evaporated water, which later came down as rain. This is known as the hydrological cycle. Isaac Newton greatly improved our knowledge of the cycle, and calculated how much water is evaporated into the atmosphere.

In 1803 Luke Howard classified the different cloud types and gave them Latin names which were standardised throughout the world.

It’s possible that people’s intense interest in weather, and rain in particular, was stimulated by the severe drought in the 1850s, when everyone was extremely worried about the shortage of water.

One of the leading scientists of the day, James Glaisher decided to investigate what happened to the water vapour as it rose into the atmosphere. The only way to get there at the time was by balloon. In the 1860s balloons were mainly used for entertainment, and ascents were a popular spectacle.

Wolverhampton Gasworks in the 1930s.

In 1862 the British Association of Science had selected Wolverhampton Gasworks as a suitable location for a research balloon flight because it was sufficiently far inland to prevent the balloon from being blown out to sea, and the gasworks could supply the gas to inflate the balloon.

Henry Coxwell was approached for the flight, and he undertook to build a suitable balloon at his own cost.

The balloon was 55 feet in diameter, and 80 feet high, with a capacity of 93,000 cubic feet.

Henry Coxwell was the son of a naval officer. He saw his first balloon flight at the age of nine, when he watched Charles Green ascend from Rochester through a telescope.

At the age of 16 he saw Charles Green launch a large balloon at Vauxhall.

Coxwell became a dentist, but his interest in balloons grew. He made his first flight in 1844 at the age of 25, as a passenger in Mr, Hampton’s balloon which ascended above White Conduit Gardens, at Pentonville.

He began to make a series of flights with two rival balloonists, Gale and Gypson, many of which took place on the Continent.

By 1852 he had become one of the country’s leading balloonists.

Mr. Green's balloon. From the Illustrated London News.

Mr. Hampton's balloon. From the Illustrated London News.

Glaisher and Coxwell made a series of balloon flights to study the moisture content of the air.

Their third and most important flight took place on 5th September 1862 from Stafford Road Gasworks, where there was a plentiful supply of town gas for the balloon.

On the day Glaisher filled the balloon basket with 17 scientific instruments and they lifted off at 3 minutes past one.

During the flight he intended to constantly monitor the instruments to discover the quantity of moisture that the air carried at different altitudes.

The balloon rose into the cloud at 5,000 feet, and broke through it onto a plateau of cloud.  Glaisher described it as follows:

On emerging from the cloud at seventeen minutes past one, we came into a flood of light, with a beautiful blue sky without a cloud above us, and a magnificent sea of cloud below, its surface being varied with endless hills, hillocks, mountain chains and many snow white masses rising from it.

Lift off from the gasworks.

Approaching the cloud.

The sea of cloud.  From the Illustrated London News.

At this point Glaisher attempted, possibly for the first time ever, to take a cloudscape photograph. Unfortunately the attempt was unsuccessful.

During the ascent Glaisher took regular readings of temperature and humidity as the balloon rose ever higher, but soon things started to go very wrong.

This was the highest manned balloon flight that had been attempted, and so the dangers were not fully understood.

The height of two miles was reached in 19 minutes, and the temperature was at freezing point. More sand was discharged, and 28 minutes later they reached an altitude of 5 miles. Up to this point Glaisher had no problems reading the instruments but Coxwell became breathless because of his exertions.

At one point he had to leave the basket and climb onto the ring to untangle the valve line, which become entangled because of the rotary motion of the balloon.

At 29,000 feet Glaisher began to have problems. He had difficulty seeing clearly and could not see the column of mercury in the wet bulb thermometer, or the hands of the watch, or the fine divisions on any instrument. He soon lost the use of his arms and legs and fell into unconsciousness.

Coxwell later claimed that he was so cold and paralysed that his hands ceased to function, and turned black from lack of oxygen. It seemed that as the balloon rose even higher, the occupants were doomed to die. As the air pressure reduced, the envelope would have expanded until it finally burst, at which point the balloon would plunge to the ground.

Coxwell claimed that he managed to grip the balloon’s rip chord in his teeth, and after three tugs the balloon started to slowly descend. He then let more gas out, to control the descent. It was an extremely narrow escape from death.

As the balloon continued its descent, Coxwell attempted to rouse Glaisher, who soon regained consciousness and immediately continued to monitor the instruments and make his observations.

He was a determined scientist who would stop at nothing to get his results. He had been unconscious for about 7 minutes.

When Coxwell told him that he had lost the use of his hands, Glaisher poured brandy over them.

Pulling the rip chord. From the Illustrated London News.

The whole flight took about 2½ hours. Glaisher thought that they had reached an altitude of 37,000 feet, around 7 miles. A world record at the time. He found that as they went higher there was less moisture in the atmosphere. This discovery alone enhanced out understanding of how and where clouds form, and advanced our understanding of rain.

The descent, which was at first very rapid, was effected without difficulty at Cold Weston. It had been one of the greatest journeys of Victorian exploration. A prodigious, and scientifically significant feat.

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