Felix Nadar’s Giant Balloon or Le Géant

Felix Nadar’s giant balloon, or as it was christened, Le Géant, made its debut on Sunday 4 October 1863 in Paris in the Champ de Mars when it launched at 5pm. The promoter of this enormous balloon was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known by the pseudonym Nadar. He had made history in 1853 when he took his camera up in a tethered hot air balloon and took the first aerial photographs.

Caricature of Nadar as a ballooning photographer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides being a photographer, Nadar was also an ardent proponent of manned flight. That was partly why he had commissioned the prominent balloonist Eugène Godard Ainé to construct the biggest and most elaborate balloon of the times. It was called Le Géant and was 60 metres (196 ft) high and had a capacity of 6,000 m3 (210,000 cu ft). In fact, Le Géant was so enormous and amazing, it inspired Jules Verne to write the adventure novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon.

Felix Nadar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nadar was making history with his giant balloon just as he had with his camera. He was sailing off in it and word of the giant balloon’s October launch was reported by newspapers:

“All Paris, at this present hour of writing, is gathered in the vast parallelogram of the Champs de Mars, and every eye is upturned in wonderment at the colossal mass of inflated taffety (82,000 yards of strong Lyons silk), taller than the Vendome Column, and nearly of the dimensions of the Pantheon at Rome — in a word, Nadar’s giant balloon, which … is to be launched skywards for a week or a fortnight’s aerial navigation.”[1]

Le Géant. Author’s collection.

It was a three-part balloon, an amazing behemoth, and a description of it was provided soon after its first flight for Englishmen by The Illustrated London News:

“[It is] firstly, of a balloon consisting of the thicknesses of white silk of identical quality sewn entirely by hand and double-stitched (the labour required for the fabrication of this immense varnished silk bulb employed upwards of 200 women during a month); secondly, of a small receiving-balloon, called the ‘compensator,’ placed beneath and connected with the larger one, to receive the excess of gas caused by the dilatation of the ‘Giant’ in the higher atmospheres, and thus prevent its waste, and enable the aeronauts to preserve the means of prolonging their voyage; and thirdly, of the [wicker] car, or what replaces the car of former balloons, but is, in reality, a small oblong house, consisting of a ground floor and a gallery, the entire dimensions being about 8 ft. in height by 13 ft in length. … The only wonder is how so much accommodation has been provided in this slight basket-work construction, which is cleverly disposed in such a manner as to comprise a small printing-office, a photographic department, a refreshment room, a lavatory, a compartment for the captain’s bed and the ‘luggage’ of the travellers, and another compartment at the opposite extremity with three beds.”[2]

One person described the wicker car as a “small cottage” and touted it as something Robinson Crusoe might have thought of as a palace. Closer inspection of the car and what it contained was made possible by the public before the balloon’s debut flight because it had been drawn on a “truck” by four horses to the launch site. One reporter provided details:

“It is built of wicker work, and is as near as possible of the height and size of a second-class railway carriage, carrying sixteen persons. The ground floor … is divided into compartments, neatly lined with bed ticking, and where it would be quite possible to sleep. There is a dressing-room, with a cistern, and, I presume, a kitchen. At all events, provisions for the aerial voyage were ostentatiously displayed, and the larder formed a very material element of amusement to the spectators. I saw hung up on hooks outside the car a tempting but small leg of mutton, two fowls in their feathers, two bundles of radishes, and one stick of celery. I should hope that this was only a sample of provisions, and that there must be well-stored hampers inside. … Among the grappling irons, axes, and ropes, arranged in ship-shape order outside the car, were observed two rifle revolvers, which are supposed to be carried as a precautionary measure in case the balloon should alight on some savage portion of the globe. … A large speaking trumpet was also conspicuous among these appliances.”[3]

Photo of the wicker car. Courtesy of artnet.com.

It was a cloudy, windy, and cold day, when the balloon finally ascended in a north-easterly direction. Supposedly, Nadar’s excited travelers paid a thousand francs for the ride, but his real profits were supposed to come from the immense crowd of spectators (estimated to be about 80,000). They had paid admission of one or two francs to be allowed entrance into the Champs de Mars.

When the balloon ascended there was complete silence because by the time it lifted off, spectators were bored listening to the military bands and watching it be inflated for three hours. The balloon travelers expected to enjoy a pleasant nighttime trip, but that is not what happened. Details of the trip’s failure were provided in a letter written by Nadar to newspapers the following day:

“Here, as briefly as possible, is the account … Yesterday evening, at 9 o’clock, the ‘Giant’ was compelled to descend near the Barcy Marsh, two leagues from Meaux, after three violent shocks, the last of which completely turned everything in the car topsy-turvy, and it descended on its side. The rupture of our safety pipe rope while travelling by night forced us to throw out our anchors. One of the prongs of the first anchor having broken, the principal anchor fortunately took hold of the ground. We were able to let out the gas, notwithstanding the violence of the wind, and the car was set up at half-past one in the morning. Some slight contusions and a contusion of the knee of one of the passengers – that is our receipt in full. It is not too dear.”[4]

Two weeks later a second accession was planned. News of this second ascent on Sunday 18 October allegedly produced an immense crowd of spectators that this time were estimated to be as numerous as 500,000. London’s Examiner provided some details related to this second ascent:

“Owing to the publicity given to his former voyage the number of visitors to the Champs de Mars was very much greater than before, and the heights of Trocadero were crested with people as thick as swarms of bees, the Emperor himself being present, accompanied by three Marshals of France, and mixing indiscriminately with the spectators. M. Nadar made various ingenious arrangements to confute several criticisms made upon his former ascent. By way of affording a conclusive answer to the objection that the Giant was after all not so very large, he inflated by the side of it an ordinary balloon, such as generally makes an ascent at Parisian fetes, and this looked scarcely bigger than a tennis ball in comparison with its gigantic neighbour. Then, to prove that the Giant was strong enough to raise in the air a much greater number than thirteen, he crammed into the car about thirty soldiers, who mounted to the extent of the rope’s length, and then were pulled down again. The two balloons, the big and the little one, made their ascent simultaneously, and went off in a north-westerly direction, the little one being much the highest. The companions of Nadar consisted of the following persons: Madame Nadar; M. Saint Fleix, a rédacteur of the Nation; Baron Thirion, M. de Fonvielle, M. Ferdinand de Montgolfier, a descendant of one of the celebrated aeronauts of that name; M. Delessert, and the brothers Godard.”[5]  

When the balloon rose, a telegram was immediately wired to England from Paris dated 18 October, 6:45pm. It stated:

“Monsieur Nadar made a most successful ascent in his giant balloon at five o’clock, from the Champ de Mars. The Emperor, the King of Greece, and a vast crowd witnessed the ascent. The Champ de Mars kept by the military. Nine ladies and gentlemen ascended in the balloon, but it first made a short ascension with thirty-two persons.”[6]

Although the second flight was delayed and took off late, initially it appeared as if all was well. Nonetheless, it would soon turn into a disaster. At midnight the balloon passed safely over Erquelines, on the Belgian frontier, but seventeen hours after the balloon lifted off, as the morning sun rose, Nadar noticed the balloon was hot and swelling under the sun’s heat. He feared what would happen to Le Géant and decided to descend having travelled some 400 miles safely.

Unfortunately, as he approached the ground, he found a strong wind blowing. The aeronauts could not re-ascend having valved the gas when descending. Nadar threw out anchors, but they dragged never catching hold and then they broke. To the horror of the travelers, they realized the balloon was not stopping and they could not rise. The balloon was now being tossed about by the heavy winds in a “giddy” careening fashion that Nadar later referred to, “like an India rubber ball from the hands of an indefatigable player.”[7]

Those inside the balloon were terrified as it flew along at lightning speed in an uncontrollable manner. They survived bump after bump and shock after shock, but each new collision brought new terror. An approaching train increased the danger as Nadar found the balloon was on a direct collision with it. He was immediately “benumbed with fear” and later wrote:

“A few more revolutions of the wheels, and it will be all over with us, for we seem to be fated to meet with geometrical precision at one spot! … we give vent to a shout of terror.”[8]

Fortunately, the train engineer heard their cries, whistled in reply, and brought the train to a grinding halt just in time. The dizzying ride ended a few minutes later at the edge of the woods when the balloon abruptly halted after becoming entangled. Soon thereafter the balloon burst “like a furious monster, [and] destroyed everything around it.”[9]

The disaster with Le Géant. Public domain.

As word leaked out about the downed balloon, Nadar sent the following communication to a friend on Wednesday, 21 October:

“We descended near Nienburg, in Hanover, at noon on Monday. Our balloon was dragged for several hours, the anchors having been broken. St. Felix, my wife, and I are rather seriously hurt; the others are better. We owe our lives to the courage of Jules Godard. More detailed news to-morrow.”[10]

A telegram stated that the balloon travelers were taken to Hanover and placed under the care of the French Legation, and a newspaper report stated:

“All the travelers in the ‘Giant’ are at the Union Hotel in Hanover. The whole town sympathises with them. … The French Minister … has had the kindness to send Madame de Ferrière’s own lady’s maid to nurse Madame Nadar. … The state of M. Nadar and his wife, although happily there is no positive gravity in the hurts they have received, causes their friends a good deal of anxiety, and requires great care on the part of their medical advisers. They are both in a high state of nervous excitement, and this is increased by the frequent repetitions of their story which they have made within the last three or four and twenty hours to their many visitors. It is feared, although it has not yet been thought desirable to ascertain the fact positively, that there may be a fracture in M. Nadar’s right leg. Both his legs are kept motionless, and enclosed in dextrine apparatus. Madame Nadar, who exhibits extraordinary fortitude, requires extreme care. It may be truly said that there is scarcely a part of body which is not the seat of a contusions, and some of them are considerable. Fortunately, there are no positive wounds. She did spit blood the first two days, but now that symptom has entirely ceased. When the balloon came down she was entangled in the car by her dress, and it took several men nearly three-quarters of an hour to dig her out, and cut away the parts of the car which pressed upon her.”[11]

A telegram also provided the following as to the injuries suffered by the balloon travelers:

“M. St. Felix has sustained a fracture of the left humerus, besides contusions on the face. M. Nadar has both legs dislocated. Madame Nadar has sustained a compression of the thorax and contusions on the leg.”[12]

The Le Géant trip couldn’t have been worse because in addition to the human injuries, the balloon itself was severely damaged. Nadar was also facing serious debt by November. However, despite his financial issues, his Le Géant was repaired, and, by December, it was floating in the centre transept of the Crystal Palace, which would also house a circus and showcase the daring feats of the famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin.

Le Géant on display at the Crystal Palace. Author’s collection.

While on display at the Crystal Palace, the roof of the balloon’s car was specifically pointed out and discussed. It had a strong high bulwark running around it and formed a terrace or quarter-deck:

“It was here that the whole party was huddled together in the last half hour of their perilous journey, in which they were whirled more than twenty miles, clinging for dear life to the cordage, bumped violently against the ground every two or three minutes, and expecting at every bound to be crushed to death.”[13]

In 1864, Nadar published Memories du Géant outlining the disastrous flight and founded a Society for Aerial Navigation at Paris. About a year later, in July of 1865, he bravely ascended in the massive balloon at Lyon. He also ascended in it again in September in Brussels and while there also erected barriers to keep the crowds a safe distance from his balloon, and, interestingly, crowd control barriers since that time have been called Nadar barriers in Belgium. Although Nadar never had another serious disaster in the giant balloon, he decided to sell Le Géant after his last ascent from Les Invalides on 23 June 1867.

References:

  • [1] Saunders’s News-Letter, “France,” October 7, 1863, p. 1.
  • [2] The Illustrated London News v. 34 (London: Leighton, 1863), p. 376.
  • [3] Saunders’s News-Letter, “Ascent of M. Nadar’s Monster Balloon,” October 7, 1863, p. 1.
  • [4] Dublin Evening Mail, “M. Nadar’s Monster Balloon,” October 7, 1863, p. 3.
  • [5] The Examiner, “Second Ascent of M. Nadar’s Giant Balloon,” October 24, 1863, p. 13.
  • [7] F. Marion, Wonderful Balloon Ascents: Or, The Conquest of the Skies. A History of Balloons and Balloon Voyages (New York: C. Scribner & Company, 1870), p. 176.
  • [8] Ibid, p. 179.
  • [9] C. H. Turnor, p. 270.
  • [11] Wellington Journal, “The Nadar Balloon Journey,” October 31, 1863, p. 4.
  • [12] The Examiner, p. 13.
  • [13] The Illustrated London News v. 34 (London: Leighton, 1863), p. 586.

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