The balloon ride of death (1875)

It is easy to forget that the early years of scientific pursuit were times when one could potentially risk not just wealth and reputation, but one’s very life.  A little-known but perfect example of this is the horrifying and deadly balloon flight taken in 1875 by Gaston Tissandier, Joseph Croce-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel.  In a scenario reminiscent of a horror movie, of the three men who ascended to the heavens from Paris on that April day, only one would return alive — and he would be forever damaged by the experience.

Manned ballooning in fact began nearly 100 years before the fatal flight, and unsurprisingly had its own share of tragedies during the period leading up to it.  The first manned and untethered balloon flight launched from Paris on November 21, 1783, and carried the French science teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier together with the Marquis d’Arlandes.  The balloon used hot air for buoyancy and was designed by the Montgolfier brothers, one of whom (Étienne) in fact was the first man to fly in a tethered balloon ride earlier that year.

The first untethered balloon flight, November 21, 1789.

The first untethered balloon flight, November 21, 1783.

In what might be considered a grim omen, de Rozier would also become one of the first air crash fatalities.  During an attempt to cross the English Channel on June 15, 1785, a change in wind direction pushed de Rozier and colleague Pierre Romain back over land, where the balloon unexpectedly deflated, sending them plummeting to Earth.  Both men died on impact.

Early drawing of the death of de Rozier and Romain.

Early drawing of the death of de Rozier and Romain.

These deaths were not the only balloon-related disaster to occur in 1785.  On May 10th a hot air balloon crashed in the town of Tullamore, Ireland, igniting a fire that burned down approximately 100 homes.  This event devastated the town, though it fought back to prosperity and even adopted the phoenix on its official crest.  From 2001-2010, Tullamore also hosted a “Phoenix Festival” featuring art, music and other entertainment.

The Tullamore Crest, featuring the phoenix.  Via Wikipedia.

The Tullamore Crest, featuring the phoenix. Via Wikipedia.

One might have expected such tragedies to put a damper on aviation experiments.  The thrill of flight was too much to resist, however, and the practical scientific and military aspects of ballooning were too important to ignore.  The first use of a balloon in war took place during the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, in which the French Revolutionary Army squared off against the Coalition army during the War of the First Coalition.  The observation balloon l’Entreprenant provided reconnaissance for the French that aided in their decisive victory, and the use such balloons quickly became routine.

Bataille de Fleurus, by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse.  Note the balloon in the background.  (Via Wikipedia.)

Bataille de Fleurus, by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse. Note the balloon in the background. (Via Wikipedia.)

By the 1860s, balloon aviation had become a routine experience, and adventurous aviators began to seek higher and higher altitudes in the name of science. The French chemist  Gaston Tissandier (b. 1843) fell in love with the idea of flight both scientifically and emotionally.  As he described in the 1871 book Travels in the Air,

Who could, indeed, remain unmoved before the fine spectacle presented to us by the limpid atmosphere so capriciously intersected with white vapour, and notice the magnitude of its extent, without experiencing a desire to become acquainted with the mysteries hidden in its bosom? The calm zephyr or the tempest blast, the mild breeze or the terrible cyclone, offer admirable pictures to the true lover of Nature; and the air, like the ocean, proves a source of invincible attraction to the mind.

Whatever may be said by certain pedantic physicists who wish to ignore balloons, science has much to learn from these aerial voyages. “It would require a volume,” says Lavoisier, “to describe all the advantages that aërostats can bestow upon society at large;” and Arago also took the greatest interest in balloon ascents. Most of our learned men understand the scientific service that may be done by these aerial skiffs, which may truly be termed ” floating observatories,” carrying the philosopher into the midst of the atmosphere, and placing him in immediate contact with some of the grandest phenomena of Nature, enabling him, perhaps, to discover the causes and mechanism of aerial currents.

But besides the scientific interest attached to these excursions, are we not attracted also by the odd manner of travelling and the charm of meeting with novel scenes? If a tourist can clamber painfully into the glaciers of the Alps in search of new sensations, could be not do better in carrying his yearning after novelty into the regions of the clouds? As for myself, I had never seen a balloon pass overhead without longing to make an excursion into the air! But, alas! there is a vast distance between the desire and its accomplishment.

Tissandier at age 32.  Via McClure's Magazine, December 1894.

Tissandier at age 32. Via McClure’s Magazine, December 1894.

Tissandier gained a fateful opportunity to fly in Calais, France, in August of 1868.  He spotted an advertisement indicating that the noted aviator Claude-Jules Duruof would be making an ascent.  Tissandier sought out Duruof, after a quarter-hour’s conversation they became “the best friends in the world,” and Gaston was offered a place on the balloon.

The story of the ride in Travels in the Air is worth reading in its entirety, if only to see how bold the men were in their flight.  The two men (and Duruof’s assistant) spent all day in the balloon, and were blown over the North Sea twice during that time, once just as the sun was setting.  Even after the first seaward drift, they refused to land, and barely managed to land on the coast.


Tissandier was hooked, and he became a regular balloonist, first continuing with Duruof and then joining other collaborations.  His courage and skill at flight were really tested, however, during the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), which led to a siege of Paris that began on September 19th of 1870.  A number of aviators were trapped within the city, and set on a plan with the government to airlift messages out of the city via balloon, all other forms of communication being cut off.  Durouf left on the 23rd of September; he was followed by balloonist Mangin on the 25th, Godard Jr. on the 29th, and Tissandier on the 30th.  In this way balloon mail was born, and 65 flights were made out of Paris during the siege, with 155 people being transported out and 3 million letters.

Poster of balloon flights during the siege of Paris, showing their landing location.  (c. 1880, by M. Mangin, via Wikipedia.)

Poster of balloon flights during the siege of Paris, showing their landing location. (c. 1880, by M. Mangin, via Wikipedia.)

Gaston Tissandier continued his balloon flights and made observations of optical and atmospheric phenomena in the name of science.  His disastrous flight would occur in the Spring of 1875.  He had joined forces with two other experienced aviators, Joseph Croce-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel, the latter two of whom were interested in studying the effects of breathing oxygen at great heights to prevent asphyxiation.  Early experiments were promising, and on April 16 the trio took off from Paris to study meteorological phenomena of the upper atmosphere.  In addition to scientific pursuits, they also hoped to beat the long-standing 1862 altitude record by James Glaisher, who it is estimated went as high as 36,000 feet.  Glaisher lost consciousness on the flight and nearly lost his life, but Croce-Spinelli, Sivel and Tissandier were confident that they would do well with their oxygen supply.

Left to right: Sivel, Tissandier and Croce-Spinelli on their fateful 1875 balloon flight.  Via McClure's Magazine.

Left to right: Sivel, Tissandier and Croce-Spinelli on their fateful 1875 balloon flight. Via McClure’s Magazine.

For the results of their voyage, I turn to a contemporary account in the American Journal of Science and Arts*:

On the morning of the 16th of April last, under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences, the Zenith, containing the three experienced aeronauts, Captain Sivel, Croce-Spinelli and Gaston Tissandier, and well equipped for scientific work, started on its ascent from the gas works of La Villette, Paris. By 1 o’clock, at noon, they bad reached an altitude exceeding 5,000 meters, the barometer marking a pressure of 400 millimeters, and the thermometer 5° C. They had oxygen in bags for breathing in the upper rarefied air, and found it very beneficial At 1h 20′ the barometer marked 320 mm., showing an altitude of 7,000 meters; the temperature was – 10° C., and soon afterward 7,400, with the temperature -11° C.

To give some perspective, 7,400 meters is roughly 24,000 feet.  Skydivers making jumps above 15,000 feet are required to use oxygen on the ride up to altitude; above 23,000 feet, skydivers are required to have oxygen on the ride up and down.  The trio of balloonists were quickly approaching the altitude of 26,000 feet, above which is known in mountaineering as the “death zone” because the oxygen levels are not enough to sustain human life.

Sivel and Croce were already pale and very feeble. By mutual consent Sivel with his knife cut the cords which kept closed three sacs of ballast of 25 kilograms each that were hanging outside. The three sacs emptying themselves, the balloon ascended rapidly, and near 1h 30′ all three of the aeronauts bad fainted. Tissandier, as his consciousness was leaving him, read from the barometer 280 mm., but was already too much paralyzed to speak out his thought– 8,000 meters.

All three aviators were overwhelmed by the thinness of the air before they could get to their bagged oxygen.

Tissandier and his friends partially revived, as the balloon was making a very rapid descent; but again all became asphyxiated. The survivor supposes that more ballast was probably dropped by one of them to prevent a fatal descent, and up the balloon went. At 3 o’clock the balloon was again descending rapidly, and Tissandier became conscious; and at 4 o’clock it struck the earth at Ciron near Le Blanche with a severe shock. Sivel and Croce were dead, their faces black and their mouths full of blood. The greatest height reached, as indicated by the self-registering barometer, was 8,540 to 8,600 meters.

By luck or fate, Tissandier had survived both the asphyxiation and the fall.  In the end, it would turn out that the men had not even reached the altitude reached by Glaisher.  There were scientific discoveries on the voyage, however, of the most grim kind:

The lessons taught to science are: that man cannot safely make a rapid balloon ascent to an altitude of 8,000 meters; that the only chance for reaching alive that altitude in a balloon is by making the rate of ascent above 7,000 meters very slow, giving 12 hours at least to the next 1,000 meters, and a rate half as fast for the meters beyond; that better arrangements for carrying up air or oxygen to supply the breathers may be of service; that man reaches soon the upward limit of atmospheric investigation.

Tissandier did not escape unscathed: he became at least partially deaf as the result of the disastrous expedition.  He continued his ballooning, however, and in 1883 was the first aviator to achieve powered flight, having affixed an electric motor to one of his airships.  In 1894, he finally surrendered the field to younger aeronauts.  In retirement, he decorated his Paris apartment with mementos of the history of ballooning, including an original 1783 eyewitness account of the Montgolfier brothers’ first public demonstration of balloon flight, witness by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

The sacrifices of such early pioneers were not in vain, however; they paved the way to the modern era of aviation, and their experiences at high altitude improved the safety of flights for all those that followed.  Such brave souls (albeit ones who are a little crazy) should not be forgotten.

Graphite drawing of Gaston Tissandier, c. 1886.  (Via Library of Congress.)

Graphite drawing of Gaston Tissandier, c. 1886. (Via Library of Congress.)


* American Journal of Science and Arts, “The catastrophe of the Zenith,” 9 (1875), 481.

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4 Responses to The balloon ride of death (1875)

  1. great tale. was directed here by Adam Minter who called this, the best read of the day, i agree. so many good tales out there …

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  3. Pingback: Quick Fact: In 1875 three French men traveled to a height of... - Quick Facts

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