Yes, here we are again speaking about balloons and arctic expeditions, one of my favourite topics.
The Andreé expedition of 1897 has always mesmerized me. The Quixotic adventure and its dramatic end makes the perfect recipe for morbid minds like mine. The fact that the ill-fate of the three poor men who participated on the expedition was sadly ascertained 30 years after, when their journals and the pictures which were taken were discovered, only could add more fascination to the story.
|Eagle Crashed (Andreé´s balloon)|
From Wikipedia: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/Eagle-crashed.jpg
But from the reading of the story about the expedition, quickly, a question has begun to dominate my mind: Why there was not any attempt to explore the different waterways which forms the Northwest Passage with balloons during the peak years of its exploration? Why then waiting till 1897 to use them in the arctic regions? Was Andreé´s one the first attempt to use a balloon over the ice?
He likely was the first on attempting a manned one, but there were previous experiments with balloons in the arctic time before, as it is possible to see in the illustration below (about which case I couldn´t find any further information):
I find astonishing that in the middle of a voracious balloonmania, which surely was steaming in the minds of all Victorians in Britain, nobody would have even proposed to make a serious attempt to help to discover the Northwest Passage with a balloon. I don´t want to show myself too naive saying here that a balloon could have crossed the whole passage in a single and successful attempt, of course, but, why not using it to help to do some small and parallel explorations. For instance, to discover if a bay was really a bay, or to analyse the direction of the shoreline of the new discovered lands, etc.
|"Three Musketeers" by Peter Popken|
Somebody could think: Well, they were looking for a waterway suitable to be used for ships, large ships. We should not forget that the main objective which lies under the discovery of the Northwest Passage was to open a trading route, there were not scientific or sportive motivations. Well, that´s true, but at the time the Franklin expedition dissapeared forever in the arctic, there was not even a map of those northern regions. Aerial reconaissance would have been crucial at least to define where the waterways were and if they were blocked with ice or not.
Said that, now comes the technical matter, which surely is going to destroy any support to this theory.
We should talk first about flight range. How far could reach a balloon built in the mid 1800?
As early as 1785 the eccentric Jean-Pierre Blanchard had crossed the English channel at the same time he lost literally his trousers in the attempt and was threatening his companion with being thrown in case the things were wrong. Balloons had performed by then long trips of hundreds of kilometers and ascended heights as high as 9.000 feet (3.000 m) as was the case of Jacques Charles. In 1852, when numerous attempts to find Franklin and his men were being performed, the first dirigible made by Henrry Giffard was successfully performing its first flight.
|Traversée en ballon du Pas-de-Calais par Blanchard et Jefferies (1785)Crossing of the Strait of Dover by Blanchard and Jefferies · Überquerung der Strasse von Dover durch Blanchard und Jefferies|
From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Early_flight_02562u_(7).jpg
|Giffard 1852´s dirigible |
From Wikipedia: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b5/Giffard1852.jpg
|Portrait of Charles Green by Hilaire Ledru, 1835|
From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Green_(balloonist)
Then it is clear that ballooning was developing fast at the same time the expeditions were being sent to the arctic. Why don´t introduce then this new technology in the arctic expeditions?
The fact is that the technology was already being used by the Admiralty in their exploration ships, till certain point at least. They were not using manned balloons, but small ones which were widely employed to send messages. The Franklin expedition was equipped with them, and the expeditions which went after them carried ballons too.
But why they weren't used to send a man up into the air to take a look at what was in front of the ships? Climbing perhaps not as high as 3.000 m but to 300 m could have been a good help in most of the cases to determine if a waterway was practicable or not. There must be something which made them to abandon the idea.
Balloons of that time were not that big not to be able to be carried in the big ships which conformed arctic expeditions, though perhaps they were too fragile. They were built of silk, paper and ropes, so this should not be considered as the main cause to dismiss them. Balloons, on the other hand can be filled with hot air or gas (mainly Coal gas, helium or Hidrogen) it would have been difficult to carry the necessary equipment to produce the necessary amount of gas to fill a balloon big enough to lift a man, however, that is not the case of using hot air. In fact hot air was being used even before the first experiments with gases. Why don´t using that method to inflate a balloon where access to gas was imposible otherwise? Well, naturally here we encounter our first barrier, is it logical using hot air in an enviroment where the temperatures hardly reach the freezing point? I would say this would be the main issue to take into consideration. Keeping floating a balloon in air despite the ambient temperature would require a strong source of energy capable to produce enough hot air under almost any circunstances. Such source of energy could only increases the risk of setting fire to those enormous balls of paper.
It was the humidity of the air together with the cold which threw down Andreé and Nobile to the ground during their respective attempts to reach the North Pole. But, as I said before, we are not speaking here about the possibility of crossing the whole Northwest Passage from east to west, thinking that favourable winds could carry a happy Franklin from London to Vancouver in a matter of some days. I was thinking more on why was not used such new, sophisticated and helpful mean, like hot air balloons were, for short vertical flights of observation during the summer season which could have catapulted arctic expeditions to a third dimension, the height, from which it would have been possible understanding the ground and waters which surrounded them in a way never seen before in those remote places.