1862 World Record Balloon Attempt Nearly Ends in Disaster as Pigeons Perish!

You’ve got to love the Victorian ‘can do’ spirit and their disregard for their own personal safety – especially in their thirst adventure and discovery . Animal welfare wasn’t too high on the priority list either.

In 1862 – Scientific heroes James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell wanted to go higher than anyone had ever done before but it nearly ended spectacularly badly for the pair – and most certainly did for their flying ‘lab rats’.

This is the balloon called the Mammoth – which took off from Stafford Road gasworks

On morning of the 17th July 1862 they set out to achieve their dream.

Here’s full account of what happened as reported in Sun (London) – Monday 08 September 1862.

Dr James Glaisher


The exact time of the descent was 20 minutes past 3 o’clock, at a spot about 7 [and a half] miles from Ludlow, in Shropshire. The descent was accomplished without any accident to either the aeronauts or the instruments. When the voyagers reached the clouds they found a dense mass of moisture which was 2,000 feet in thickness. These clouds contained as much moisture as they could possibly hold. Having shot through this they found above them a beautiful clear blue sky with the mass of clouds floating below. This was at about an elevation of a mile and three-quarters, after which no clouds were perceptible. At this height the air possessed such expanding powers that the balloon, which at the time of the ascent contained not much more than two-thirds of its full complement, was now quite filled, and consequently shot up very rapidly. When still higher Mr. Glaisher attempted to take photographs of the scene below which that gentleman describes as being very beautiful, but the great velocity of the ascent rendered the taking of a photograph impossible. At an elevation of three miles the first of six pigeons which were taken up in the balloon was thrown out. It could not fly and dropped as heavily as a stone.

A second was then thrown out with the same result. A third attempted to fly but failed, and shared the fate of the previous two. At a height of four miles a fourth pigeon was thrown out. This one was more fortunate than its predecessors, and succeeded in effecting a lodgment on the top of the balloon, but it was not known what ultimately became of it. The two remaining pigeons were brought down when one was found to be dead and the other nearly so. This last when liberated flew in a short circle, and then alighted on Mr. Glaisher’s hand. Eventually, however, it flew in the direction of Wolverhampton. At five miles high symptoms of blindness were felt by Mr. Glaisher, whose last entry of thermometer was minus five, or .37 below the freezing point. He subsequently saw, but was unable to register the barometer at 10in., which would indicate a height of miles. This gentleman then gradually became unconscious, and the last thing remembered by him was the dim outline of Mr. Coxwell’s figure in the balloon.

Henry Coxwell

Mr. Coxwell, however, remained quite conscious, and the balloon ascended with great rapidity for 10 minutes longer, and according to Mr. Coxwell’s reading, afterwards calculated by Mr. Glaisher, the aneroid barometer indicated that they had attained a height of six miles. At this juncture great risk was encountered, for Mr. Coxwell began to feel faint, and on attempting to effect a discharge of gas by pulling the valve string, he found that his hands had become powerless. The greatness of the danger at this height may be imagined when it is remembered that their safety depended entirely upon the little remaining consciousness of Mr. Coxwell, for Mr. Glaisher still remained in a state of unconsciousness. Having at length effected a discharge of gas the balloon began to descend, when Mr. Glaisher gradually recovered and resumed the reading of the instruments. The descent was now very rapid but successful. During the voyage ozone was found in the atmosphere. Terrestrial sounds were heard by Mr. Glaisher at a height of a mile and a half, and by Mr. Coxwell at three miles. After penetrating, as described, the mass of clouds, which were two thousand feet in thickness, the atmosphere became gradually dryer, and at a height of five miles none of the instruments indicated the slightest moisture.

A contemporary imagining of the record attempt

A self-registering thermometer which had. been taken up indicated that a temperature of minus 20 had been reached, which would be 62 degrees below freezing point. In proof , of the coldness experienced, it may be stated that a bottle of water was with difficulty kept from freezing continual shaking ; but, on Mr. Coxwell’s losing the use of his hands, it immediately froze, and remained in that condition for more than an hour after reaching terra firma. Mr. Glaisher had wisely provided himself with gloves, but Mr. Coxwell, who had not taken that precaution, suffered the penalty of having his hands turned quite black, in which condition they remained until the earth was reached. The height attained during this ascent is quite unprecedented, and it has been attended with no ordinary danger.



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