Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Balloon-Hoax
A newspaper caption announces "Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk!--The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days! Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason's Flying Machine--Arrival at Sullivan's Island, near Charleston, S.C., of Mr. Mason, Mr. Robert Holland, Mr. Henson, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth, and four others, in the Steering Balloon, "Victoria," after a Passage of Seventy-Five Hours from Land to Land! Full Particulars of the Voyage!" Poe, pg. 212. Following this is an explanation directly from Poe that these headlines had first appeared in the New York Sun and had excited all of the "quidnuncs," or busybodies in New York before they had received verification from Charleston that the story was not true at all. He adds that the mad rush of people to buy the newspaper was beyond description, implying that this was amusing to him. Finally, he states with great pride that even if a balloon named "Victoria" did not actually cross the Atlantic Ocean as the article initially reported, there is not a single flaw in his story to prove otherwise, since it was so convincingly written due to Poe's literary talents.
The full text of the original article thus follows. The article excitedly declares that "The air...has been subdued by science" and reiterates the details in the caption, that the Atlantic has been crossed in only seventy-five hours, adding that this information comes from a reporter down in Charleston named Mr. Forsyth. The trip began at 11 o'clock in the morning on April 6th in Great Britain and ended at two o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesday the 9th of April on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina. In addition to famous aeronauts Monck Mason, Holland, and Mr. Henson, there is the famous authors of Jack Sheppard, Harrison Ainsworth, Sir Everard Bringhurst, a nephew of Lord Bentinck named Mr. Osborne, and two sailors from Woolwich, England. The text of the remainder of this article come from the following selections taken from the detailed diaries of Mason and Ainsworth.
First of all, the actual construction of the balloon is explained as being the culmination of many scientists' ideas. Henson and another inventor named Sir George Cayley had both tried to create effective flying machines capable of traveling long distances and had failed prior to this balloon flight; part of Cayley's error was in using propellers to move a hang glider-type object forward, which resulted in the machine crashing into the ground. The propellers did little to move it ahead; modifying this plan, Cayley attached propellers to a balloon instead, displaying it at the Polytechnic Institution in London. However, once tested, this balloon was not able to rise either, because of the propellers. Monck Mason then modified this design, adding an Archimedean screw so that the gas levels could be increased accordingly, allowing for the balloon to rise without depending upon these propellers; Mason displayed his first functioning model at Willis's Rooms, and then to the Adelaide Gallery. The balloon was ellipsical in shape, with a dangling wicker basket for people to ride in. Extremely vivid details are provided of the machine's appearance, from the screw that controls the gas flow to the rudder that steers the craft. Mathematical figures of exact measurements and weights are mentioned as well.
At the Adelaide Gallery, this machine did not interest many people, however, because it seemed so primitive compared to the complicated plane-like "Aerial Steam Carriage" design of Mr. William Henson. Regardless, Mason's machine flew admirably well and passed all of his initial tests; he thus planned an expedition over to Europe, tracing the route laid out by the original Nassau balloon in 1837. He chose Osborne and Bringhurst because they are scientists reportedly, and Osborne offered to build the full size version of this balloon on his property in North Wales called the Wheal-Vor House secretly, so that nobody will hear about their invention. This fact also suggests why nobody had heard about this balloon before the article was printed in The New York Sun, because of Osborne's desire for secrecy. Mason also employs Holland and Henson to assist in this operation, and Henson brings along his friend, the author Ainsworth to join them as well. The addition of two sailors remains unexplained, that it is not at all clear how exactly they became a part of this expedition. The article acknowledges the contributions of scientist Charles Green, whose research has aided these men in properly inflating the balloon with air.
The inflation process is also well-illustrated, "The balloon is composed of silk, varnished with the liquid gun caoutchouc. It is of vast dimensions, containing more than 40,000 cubic feet of gas; but as coal gas was employed in place of the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen, the supporting power of the machine, when fully inflated, and immediately after inflation, is not more than about 2500 pounds. The coal gas is not only much less costly, but is easily procured and managed" Poe, pg. 216. To control the balloon's course, the men add weighted bags called ballasts, allowing for them to drop these weights out of the balloon when it needs to go higher in conjunction with more gas being released into the balloon. This can occur if moisture builds up on the balloon's outside and makes it heavier than usual, for example. Another tool in controlling the balloon's altitude is a guide rope invented by Charles Green, that drags along the ground behind the balloon as it floats, or that floats across the water using buoys. When the balloon is too low, they pull the rope up to make it rise with less drag beneath it, and when the balloon is too high, they release more of the rope down to the earth to cause it to sink. This way, gas stores are conserved without having to constantly add or take away their limited supplies of coal gas to alter the balloon's height. After the balloon is inflated at Osborne's house in northern Wales, the men climb aboard on the 6th of April and depart at eleven o'clock in the morning.
The full text of Mason and Ainsworth's journal of their three day voyage is included next, as the balloon loaded with those eight men (with the two seamen having mysteriously appeared) heads eastward towards the British Channel bordering the European mainland. The balloon rises much more easily than they had thought, and even when all of the guide rope was released, the balloon continues to rise up to an altitude of about three miles after ten minutes, according to the barometer they have brought along. The view around them is unspeakably beautiful, although the balloon, guided by wind currents, starts to move towards the southeast, where they soon see the Bristol Channel laying beneath them, and then behind them as they are pushed out over the Atlantic Ocean. Concerned that they are being carried off course, the men then try to steer the rudder and use the propeller to turn the balloon around. This attempt appears to work at first, and they write a quick note describing their mission, placing it into a bottle and toss it into the ocean, thinking that they will be leaving the Atlantic Ocean behind them. Soon after, the propeller comes apart, and their course is turned westward once again at a speed of about sixty miles per hour. Although they manage to fix this problem, the men by this time can already see Ireland's Cape Clear to the north as they speed out of sight from land.
Ainsworth suddenly suggests that they should ride these fierce wind currents, rather than fighting against them, to see if they can fly to North America. The other men think this is a great idea, except for the seamen whose fears are nullified by the others' enthusiasm. They lighten the load by throwing out some ballasts and steer the rudder directly westward, raising the guide rope as well away from the ocean. With this combination of actions, the balloon sped up quickly with the remaining rope sticking straight out behind them. Below, many ships are sailing upon the Atlantic Ocean, and some fire their guns in salute to this balloon they can see speeding across the sky above them, and this revelry continues until night falls and the balloon travels in darkness. Ainsworth then adds his own postscript to the journal entry, "The waters give up no voice to the heavens. The immense flaming ocean writhes and is tortured uncomplainingly. The mountainous surges suggest the idea of innumerable dumb gigantic fiends struggling in impotent agony. In a night such as is this to me, a man lives--lives a whole century of ordinary life -- nor would I forego this rapturous delight for that of a whole century of ordinary existence" Poe, pg. 222. Once again, the details are vivid and extreme, describing the compassion that this one man feels as he floats far above the Earth.
Mason's journal entry for Sunday the 7th day of April adds that the propeller has been very helpful in speeding and steering them along with the wind, and the balloon is now at a height of about five miles above the sea, confident that they will make it to North America. He refers to the Atlantic as "this small pond," because they feel so much more stronger than the sea as they soar above, uninhibited and free. Ainsworth adds that he is stunned to have not experienced any difficulty at breathing even though they are at an altitude as high as Mount Cotopaxi. The sky appears to be black, and they can see the stars even though it is daytime, because their balloon is so high in th air, and the sea below them appears to be concave, or curving inward. Poe then lapses into an elaborate mathematical explanation in an editor's note, basically attributing this distorted perception to be the result of the balloon's extreme height in the air. On the third and final day of the trip, Monday April 8th, Mason writes that their propeller has come undone yet again, and now they are at the mercy of the wind. Also they threw more message bottles down to ships in the sea far below. Ainsworth writes that he is exhausted and has to go to sleep, since he has not done so for two whole days. Finally, Mason's entry for one o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesday the seventh of April declares that South Carolina is within their sight, and they have obtained the goal of reaching North America from Great Britain.
Mr. Forsyth has included the final details of the landing, reported verbally to him by Ainsworth. Osborne apparently recognized Sullivan's Island and declared that they should land the balloon there, near Fort Moultrie. When the balloon floated over the bach, which showed lots of exposed sand due to the low tide, they dropped a hook to the earth, which stopped the balloon's movement immediately. Residents ran forth to meet the balloon, as the occupants deflated the balloon and descended from it. The current plans of these eight adventurers is not yet known, but the article promises to report these details within a couple days. It ends by applauding this journey once again, "This is unquestionably the most stupendous, the most interesting, and the most important undertaking ever accomplished or even attempted by man. What magnificent events may ensue, it would be useless now to think of determining" Poe, pg. 225. With the ending of this tale, one may recall again Poe's initial smugness at how easily everyone had believed the events of this story to be facts. Underpinning these closing lines, "What magnificent events may ensue..." one can sense the voice of sarcasm and mockery that occasionally characterizes Poe's writing. Indeed, it was the New York Sun that had wanted to outdo its competing newspapers with this "breaking news," but in the end it was Edgar Allan Poe who had beaten them all with his fictitious and infamous tale of "The Balloon-Hoax."