Trans-Atlantic Balloon History – 1910

Trans-Atlantic Balloon History – 1910

     Since the first manned balloon ascensions in the late 1700s, aeronauts had been envisioning a time when it would be possible to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air.  With the advent of mechanical flight in the early 1900s it was thought that aviation technology might have reached a point where such a crossing might be possible. 

     The following article appeared in the Evening Star, a defunct Washington, D.C. newspaper, on October 20, 1910.  It illustrates why crossing the ocean was easier said than done, and mentions aeronaut Washington Donaldson, and his unexpected trip to New England.   

     DREAM OF 70 Years


Flight Across Atlantic Hope of Many Persons.


     For the last seventy years there have been numerous projects for crossing the Atlantic Ocean by means of a balloon, but, while several of those engaged in the enterprises expended considerable money in making preparations , only one balloon before that of the Wellman expedition actually made a start.

     Strange as it may appear, the first idea of crossing the Atlantic by means of the old-fashioned spherical balloon came from England, but from such information as is now common property regarding the upper air currents generally blowing over the North Atlantic, such an expedition would be impossible in all but a reversal of conditions, which, in the law of averages, is not likely to happen more than once in ten thousand times.  In a spherical balloon it was recognized after John Wise, a Philadelphia aeronaut, published his studies in the 1840s, that a voyage across the sea from east to west, while not impossible under conditions that were hardly to arise at the psychological moment, was so unlikely to meet with those conditions that it was improbable.

     It was in the year 1840 that Charles Green, a daring English aeronaut, outlined his proposals for crossing the ocean.  Mr. Green offered his services gratuitously if some wealthy persons would finance the project. These patrons of ballooning, however, failed to come forward in the requisite number, and the project went to join the great limbo of great things undone.  Green’s idea, briefly, was to jockey for the right currents of air.  He intended to rise up to meet the current that would carry him in the chosen direction, or would descend to the stratum that would do so. 

Much Ballast Needed      

     Such a plan necessitated an enormous quantity of ballast, and it was pointed out by Tissandler and others that the experienced aeronaut did not, perhaps, count sufficiently on the loss of gas that would follow such a proceeding. They also showed that by making this attempt the balloon could not possibly have the buoyancy necessary for so long a voyage. 

     There seems to be no doubt that Green’s project gave the initiative to John Wise, for in the year 1843 he published his plan for making the voyage across the Atlantic, and having asserted the existence of an almost constantly prevalent wind blowing toward the east, received more attention than such daring projects usually gain.

     In an announcement directed “to all publishers of newspapers on the globe,” Mr. Wise told of his intention to cross the Atlantic in the summer of the following year.  The announcement asked the commanders of seagoing vessels to be on the lookout for him and his balloon, and he admitted that the expedition was daring and dangerous and it success only problematical. 

     It was thirty years afterward before the dream seemed to be on the eve of realization, and at the time when the big airship was being manufactured and arrangements made for the actual voyage, Wise published another book, in which he explained that the trial had not been attempted sooner because of the failure to receive the financial assistance that such an expedition entailed.

     While Wise did not make the voyage in the summer of the year 1844, as he had announced, about that time there appeared in the New York Sun a most wonderful account of a voyage of Monc Mason, Harrison Ainsworth, and one or two others.  This was the now celebrated balloon hoax, written by Poe, and, with the announcement of Wise still in their ears, it required no serious difficulty to make the majority of persons believe that a voyage by balloon across the Atlantic actually had succeeded.   In a day or two the hoax became evident, and even now the story is read with interest because it was constructed on such probable lines that only Jules Verne, in a later time, has succeeded in giving so marvelous a tale.

Prepared For Start      

     In the fall of the year 1873 the great balloon that had been designed by Wise was being made ready for the start in Brooklyn.  Wise was to be the chief of the expedition, and his lieutenant was to be the daring aeronaut and circus acrobat, Washington H. Donaldson.   The balloon followed closely the pattern Wise had advanced thirty years before.  It was not, however, quite so extensive.

     The balloon was said to have a lifting power of 14,000 pounds, and sufficient carrying capacity to permit about 7,000 pounds of ballast and passengers and freight being taken.  In addition to the main aerostat, there was a smaller one, which was intended to supply gas when the main gasbag should need repletion, and when it had been exhausted in this manner it was the intention to cut it up for ballast.

     Hanging below the balloon was a car of two stories in height, in which the passengers, food, and ballast were stowed.  Below this there was a boat weighing 800 pounds, which was to be used in emergency.  Wise already had used a boat under his balloon in his historic voyage across lake Erie, when he was carried along with a hurricane that was terrifying in its violence. 

     The lower room in the car was taken up with ballast and with a windlass to lower and take up the drag rope, which weighed about 600 pounds.  The boat was divided into airtight compartments, and was believed to be practically unsinkable.  Provisions and water for the party for thirty days were taken in.

     After the great balloon had been taken to the ground in Brooklyn where it was to be inflated a series of disappointments beset Wise.  It seemed to be impossible to inflate the huge gasbag.  Several ineffectual attempts were made, and then Samuel A. King, another Philadelphia aeronaut, now the nestor of the whole profession, being in his eighty-third year, was called in, and he succeeded in inflating the aerostat with the hydrogen gas.      

     It was about this time that a disagreement arose between Wise and others connected to the enterprise.  This result, Mr. king always had predicted, would be the end of Wise’s connection with the project, and in the end the balloon was placed in charge of Donaldson, who, while regarded as the most daredevil man who ever went aloft in a balloon, had had so little experience with ballooning that it was said he never would succeed in making the voyage.

Trip Began In Gale     

     There was a fierce gale blowing toward the east when, on the morning of October 6, 1873, the balloon with the expedition on board was cut loose and swiftly sailed toward Europe.  The balloon soon rounded the eastern end of Long Island, where a contrary current of wind changed her course to the north , and the huge aerostat was hurriedly carried over the New England states.  Its farthest northern point was in Massachusetts, when another current caught it and bore it back again.  Finally the balloon came down and its passengers made a landing safely, in a terrible storm, after a voyage of about 500 miles. 

     There were several French projects afterward, but some of these were not balloon projects, but airships, that had not been actually made, but designed.  One of the most interesting of these was a steam airship designed by Nadar, which, although using planes for supporting surfaces, made its ascent or descent by means of a series of vertical screws, the principle which now is being studied in the helicopter designs of airships.

     In the winter of the year 1879 Samuel A. King put into practice his long cherished project of attempting to cross the Atlantic, and it may be said that while that failed he still believes in its possibility.  A syndicate built two giant aerostats, and they were established in a station on Manhattan Beach.  The balloons had each an ascensive force of about 10,000 pounds, and figuring on green’s studies, Mr. king expected to be able to stay in the air long enough to jockey the balloon across the ocean.  The studies, however, showed that there were still some things to be learned.

     While wireless telegraphing had not been discovered at that time, telephony had not only been invented, but was in a small way actually in use in the larger cities, and Mr. King’s balloon had arranged to make use of this new invention: but this, it should be stated, was only used while the balloons were used as captives at the observing station on Manhattan Beach.  They could have no use at sea.

     Some hitch occurred before the time for the starting of the expedition arrived, and Mr. King never made his attempt.  This was the withdrawal of the backers according to Mr. King.      


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