Taissumani, Oct. 25
Balloonacy. What a wonderful word. It sounds like such a modern melding of balloon and lunacy that it comes as a surprise to learn that it was used in the late 1800s by Dr. Emil Bessels, whose name lives on in infamy as the doctor who probably poisoned explorer Charles Francis Hall.
Bessels himself borrowed the word from journalists of his time, who coined it to describe an outrageous polar exploration scheme. The plan was concocted by a British naval commander, John Powles Cheyne. He was a man of some Arctic experience, having served on three Franklin search expeditions, the last while a lieutenant under Captain Edward Belcher on the Assistance in 1852-54.
In the 1860s Cheyne took a renewed interest in the search for the missing explorers and began giving illustrated lectures on the subject. Eventually the public’s interest in the Franklin search waned, and Cheyne sought other means of maintaining publicly his interest in northern exploration.
By the late 1870s he had devised a plan to reach the North Pole by balloon. Ships would carry explorers as far north as possible, up Smith Sound and through the other bodies of water that separate Ellesmere Island from Greenland.
When they could go no further, they would winter, then start for the pole by sled the following spring. And when the sleds could go no further, the parties would launch their hydrogen-filled balloons, joined together by “yoke-lines” and “rigid spars.” The hydrogen would be created by passing steam over iron filings and maintained by a portable supply of “pure condensed hydrogen.”
The party would consist of seven people, commanded of course by Cheyne, with food and water for 51 days. But it would not take nearly that long, thought Cheyne. The balloons would reach the pole in a maximum of 40 hours, spend a week there for scientific observations, and then return.
Oh yes, while at the pole, they would “despatch a balloon to Russia for the purpose of telegraphing the news to England.” When this whacky scheme was panned by critics, Cheyne modified it. The balloons – still man-carrying - would instead be used only as “observing machines” while the explorers continued to make their way to the pole by sled.
And when Cheyne heard that the United States was planning to establish a colony on Ellesmere Island and exploit a large deposit of coal that had been found by the Nares Expedition, he was recharged to insist that England should beat them to the punch, by following his scheme. “Why are we about to throw such favourable opportunities away?” he asked. “It surely cannot – indeed it must not – be.”
Cheyne announced another permutation of his plan and presented it to the Royal Geographical Society, for their blessing. The proposed expedition, scaled down because of his inability to raise the funds necessary for the more elaborate schemes, would travel by Dundee whaler to Greenland in the spring of 1881, picking up Inuit sled-drivers and dogs at settlements on the Greenland coast. Balloons would be taken to be used for purposes of observation.
They would winter near the coal seam that Nares had discovered, and use it for fuel to heat their quarters and also to inflate the balloons. He would reach the Pole, by boat and sledge, the next spring. The society acted quickly – they shot down the proposal the next day, in gentlemanly but firm words, saying that the scheme “does not commend itself to them… nor, even if it were feasible, do the means proposed… appear to them sufficient.”
At the height of Cheyne’s attempts to secure support for his plans, he was described as being “a man over fifty years of age with whitened hair, yet looks and is strong and hardy, — a little below medium height, yet with a well knit frame, ruddy complexion, penetrating eyes of gray, and wears white whiskers.”
Perhaps the defining mark of his eccentricity is that he named his two sons after Arctic explorers, one being called John Franklin Cheyne, the other poor fellow being saddled with the name Edward Parry Leopold M’Clintock Cheyne.
Cheyne made further sporadic efforts, on both sides of the Atlantic, to revive his scheme. But it was dead. He moved to Canada where he died in Nova Scotia in 1902.