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Victorian balloonists

The deeds, and near disaster, of two balloon-riding Victorians have inspired a new film. Nige Tassell tells the un-airbrushed story of the original aeronauts
James Glaisher (left) and Henry Coxwell (right) reached new heights, but at extreme risk

The sight of a hot air balloon was a popular Victorian spectacle, so the quiet scenes on 5 September 1862 would have made for a curious sight. On the outskirts of the Black Country town of Wolverhampton, two men climbed into the basket of a large balloon, but this was not to be a flight for public entertainment or simple pleasure. Armed with scientific instruments and packing a cargo of six pigeons, the men had loftier intentions.

The more senior of the two was the fabulously bewhiskered scientist James Glaisher, the superintendent of the Magnetic and Meteorological Department at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, who would go on to be a founder member of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain. His co-pilot was Henry Coxwell, a highly experienced balloonist.

The day’s flight was one of many the men had made together – part of a series of 28 balloon ascents commissioned by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Glaisher and Coxwell’s mission was to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere to better understand how this governed the weather – perhaps the scientist saw himself as a latter-day Christopher Columbus or Ferdinand Magellan, keen to explore what he called the “aerial ocean”, which offered him “a boundless sea of enquiry”.

“The scientist perhaps saw himself as a latter-day Magellan or Columbus, exploring the ‘aerial ocean’”

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Few legends from ancient history have continued to hold us in such thrall as that of the fall of Troy, the epic tale of love and loss; gods and mortals; treachery and truth. But how much of the story is actually true? Michael Scott weighs up the reality and fiction of probably the most famous of Ancient Greek myths. Plus: Ten quirkiest royal traditions, the secrets of the relics in Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Queen who took on the British in the 1857 Indian Rebellion, escapes over (and under) the Berlin Wall, and more.