Monday, May 27, 2013

Arctic Message Balloons

Inspired by a recent post on Andés Paredes Salvador's blog on the strange tale of a balloon found in an English Garden, I've been doing a bit more research on the question of these balloons, their use, and the effect they had on the imagination of ordinary people back home in Britain.

Hydrogen and hot-air balloons had been around since the eighteenth century, and had been employed for all manner of purposes: humans went up in them, mail was first delivered using them in 1789, and inventors sought, by attaching sails and wings, to control their direction and speed. But the idea of using an unmanned balloon to carry a message seems to have originated in the Franklin search era; the ships of Austin's squadron were equipped with specially-made ones manufactured by George Shepherd (see package above), along with printing presses and strips of silk for making the messages colorful and light. The design even included a fuse which, as it burned, would release a message periodically to drift down to the ice below.

Back home in England, though, news of these balloons clearly sparked the public's imagination. For instance, among the many non-credible but nevertheless amusing letters sent to Lady Jane Franklin, there was this curious missive from February of 1850:
My lady, I have took the liberty of thus a-Dressing you with a Line through whose hands I hope will forwar to you this remarkable dream which I have often found too true . . . I saw in my dream 2 air Bloons a great distance off rising just liek the moon -- I said in my dreams to myself There's Sir. J. Franklend ...
The Gloucester balloon, "found" in a garden in October of 1851, at least had concrete form: there was a balloon, that much could not be doubted. Still, it was an odd discovery: the balloon did not show signs of having travelled thousands of miles; the "gas" in it was said to have a "foul odor" (neither hydrogen nor coal-gas has an odor, though other chemicals are added to the latter to make its detection easier); the balloon itself seemed to be of Shepherd's design, which would suggest that if Franklin's men had sent it, they must have found and re-inflated one of those sent from Austin's ships. Or, if a hoax, it must have been one retained by Shepherd, or one of the four he presented to others: one to the president of the Civil Engineers' Society, one to the Royal Society, and two to Lady Franklin. Could her Ladyship have had an interest in the hoax? It certainly seems unlikely.

What is less well-known is that Sir John Franklin's expedition came very close to being supplied with similar balloons. According to his son, Robert Baden-Powell, Professor Baden Powell of Oxford had recommended that hydrogen balloons be taken by Franklin; there is apparently a letter in which the Professor expressed his regret that this plan was not adopted.

As to the message in the balloon found in the garden -- "Erebus, 112 W, Long, 71 deg. N. Lat. September, 3, 1851. Blocked in" -- it at least makes it clear that the whole thing was a hoax, since the co-ordinates are in the midst of Victoria Land at a site with no connection to the sea, and HMS "Erebus" could not possibly have been stranded there. However, as W. Gillies Ross points out in his definitive essay on this balloon in the Polar Record, the location -- though vague -- is within the area that Dr. Rae had suggested "Erebus" and "Terror" would most likely be found, and so conceivably was chosen by someone hoping to direct searchers to this area.


  1. Russell, remembering my days of speleologist, I remember having used countless times calcium carbide in carbide lamps to illuminate our way on the caves(mining style).

    If you poured water over the calcium carbide you obtain acetylene which is sligthly lighter than the air and though when it is pure it is odorless, when you obtain it from calcium carbide it has a peculiar and strong odor. What I cannot say it is if that density difference is enough to rise a ballon like that.

  2. I don't think acetylene is bouyant enough to lift a balloon very high -- but it sure is explosive!

  3. Hydrogen is also flammable, we only had to remember how the Zeppelin Hindenburg burnt in 1937.

    I am sure that you would find interesting this book: "How to Build & Fly Hydrogen & Hot Air Balloons by John Wise (1984)" is a version of another book written in 1850 an called "A System of Aeronautics (1850)". It is mentioned here:

  4. Acetylene is even more flammable than hydrogen, and can burn at a lower concentration. Its density, though lower than air, is much higher than hydrogen, though, so I doubt it could keep even a very light balloon aloft.

    Thanks for the reference to the book! I will definitely track it down.

  5. I see that Gillies-Ross has looked into all possibilities, and suggests that coal-gas or oil-gas ("portable gas") are the most likely; either might have a smell if impure.