James Glaisher


© History Oasis

The basket swayed gently as the Earth fell away below.

James Glaisher peered over the edge, thrilling at the receding green fields and tiny houses shrinking to dots.

The balloon billowed overhead, straining against its tethers, eager to be off.

With a running leap, Glaisher joined his pilot Henry Coxwell in the basket. A cheer went up from the gathered crowd as the sandbags were cut loose and the balloon leaped skyward.

As they climbed through wispy clouds, the air turned crisp and thin.

Glaisher began his measurements, angling his instruments to record each subtle change in temperature and pressure.

He had made dozens of balloon flights in the name of science, but the allure of the open sky beckoned him onward.

What new revelations awaited at the limits of the stratosphere?

Past 20,000 feet, the pairs' lips turned blue and fingers numb. Still they ascended into the frigid heights.

The altimeter spun wildly.

Glaisher scrawled the last entry his oxygen-starved mind could manage before slumping over. “We are ascending at the colossal rate of...”

When he came to, Coxwell stood over him looking ghostly pale.

The balloon was in free fall!

With a mighty heave, Coxwell pulled the gas release cord. The descent was controlled, but rapid.

Glaisher lay back and let the wind wash over his face, elated. Though they had approached the void, the boundless sky held secrets yet to reveal. Once more unto the breach...

This dramatic ascent exemplified James Glaisher's tireless quest for atmospheric knowledge through daring balloon flight.


James Glaisher reaching the atmosphere in a hot air balloon
© History Oasis

James Glaisher's daring and trailblazing flights in experimental hot air balloons pushed the boundaries of atmospheric science in the 19th century.

As a leading member of the Meteorological Society, he recognized the value of firsthand observation of the upper atmosphere.

During his prolific ballooning career from 1862 to 1866, Glaisher astonishingly made over 500 daring ascents to further mankind's understanding of meteorology and aviation.

His magnum opus occurred on September 5, 1862 when accompanied by experienced balloon pilot Henry Coxwell, Glaisher soared to an unprecedented altitude of 29,000 feet in their canvas balloon.

The intrepid pioneers battled the elements and physical deterioration as they ascended into atmospheric conditions never before experienced.

At such an extreme altitude, the air was so thin that Glaisher lost consciousness.

Thankfully Coxwell maintained awareness just long enough to release gas from the balloon and initiate a harrowing 7 mile-per-minute descent.

The hazardous journey proved fruitful—Glaisher's groundbreaking measurements provided revelations about temperature, humidity and air composition at high altitudes.

His balloon exploits made critical steps in paving the way for future daring flights that would eventually make commercial air travel possible.


the aeronauts reahing the stratosphere
© History Oasis

The meteoric rise of balloon-borne atmospheric exploration in the 19th century was exemplified by the death-defying ascent of James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell in 1862.

On September 5th of that year, the intrepid pair lifted off in their canvas balloon from Wolverhampton in England, determined to break the world record for highest altitude.

As they continued their dramatic vertical climb, the air temperature dropped and the atmosphere thinned until they soared past 36,000 feet.

At this extreme height, both men lost consciousness as their balloon drifted into the frigid stratosphere.

In a remarkable feat of physical stamina, Coxwell regained awareness and lucidity. Fighting frozen gloves and impaired motor skills, he desperately pulled the gas release valve to initiate their descent.

After a harrowing near-vertical plummet, they crashed back to Earth.

Though frostbitten and shaken, the two aeronauts had survived pushing human exploration to the threshold of space.

Their record ascent provided valuable data on temperature lapse rates and oxygen depletion at high altitudes.


One of the first weather maps
© History Oasis

Among his many contributions to meteorology, James Glaisher was a visionary in revolutionizing weather forecasting through his advocacy of daily weather mapping.

In the 1850s, the telegraph enabled rapid sharing of atmospheric pressure measurements from across Britain.

Glaisher recognized that by connecting points of equal pressure with isobars, or contour lines, one could visualize entire weather systems as they evolved.

This technique was a quantum leap compared to prior methods of extrapolation from limited data points.

Glaisher produced prototype maps that could track the passage of cyclones and anticyclones.

Despite initial resistance from older meteorologists, Glaisher tirelessly promoted the utility of plotting isobars, which soon became a standard forecasting technique.

His vision of using visual maps to discern patterns in the atmosphere gave birth to modern weather forecasting.

This pioneering work enabled prediction of weather based on observable data, saving countless lives by providing storm warnings. Glaisher's innovative isobaric weather maps profoundly advanced humanity's ability to comprehend and forecast nature's complex workings.


The Big Ben Clock tower where James Glaisher was trapped
© History Oasis

Long before his fame as a balloonist, James Glaisher endured a claustrophobic nightmare inside London's newly-constructed Big Ben clock tower in 1855.

During a tour of the iconic tower while still under construction, Glaisher entered the elevator that shuttled visitors to upper levels.

However, soon after starting the ascent, the primitive hydraulic lift ground to a halt between floors.

The malfunctioning machinery trapped Glaisher inside the cramped, dark elevator cab.

With no way to communicate, he remained stuck for over 6 interminable hours.

The elevator operators failed to realize anything was amiss until his panicked emergence.

The frustrating ordeal foreshadowed similar elevator tragedies in buildings of that era caused by lack of safety mechanisms and procedures.

For Glaisher, the experience fueled his lifelong fear of confined spaces and avoidance of elevators.

Ironically, just eight years later, he gladly braved the open stratosphere in a simple balloon basket.

The providential elevator failure kept one of Britain's most prolific balloon aeronauts with his feet planted firmly on the ground a while longer before launching his meteoric ascent to atmospheric fame.


© History Oasis

Though James Glaisher never piloted a powered aircraft, his daring balloon flights proved crucial in paving the way for early aviation.

As an intrepid balloon aeronaut, Glaisher was able to gather meteorological data from the stratosphere that was inaccessible at ground level.

His meticulous measurements of air pressure, temperature, and gas composition at altitudes above 29,000 feet provided revelations about the upper atmosphere's properties.

At the dawn of manned flight, very little was known about conditions pilots would encounter at high elevations.

Glaisher's balloon datasets helped reveal the challenges of low oxygen, frigid temperatures, and air density that aircraft would face.

Aeronautical engineers used his stratospheric findings to improve aircraft wing design and engine performance.

Test pilots were able to prepare for extreme altitude thanks to Glaisher's warnings of its effects.

Though tethered to a balloon, he shared the spirit of trailblazing flight. Glaisher's voyages to the sky's limits enabled him to make contributions to aviation that allowed powered flight to slowly but surely follow in the up-currents of his balloons.


© History Oasis

In addition to his daring exploits as a balloon aeronaut, James Glaisher made prolific academic contributions as a leading scientific scholar of his era.

He actively participated in prestigious institutions like the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society.

Glaisher was a prolific publisher, authoring over 150 research papers throughout his lengthy career.

His extensive writings covered critical analyses of meteorological data, astronomical observations, and balloon flight experiments.

He provided great service to the scientific community as Secretary of the Royal Meteorological Society for 37 years.

Glaisher's tireless efforts to document and share knowledge epitomized the Victorian-era scientist.

Though lacking formal higher education, he more than compensated through self-study and an unquenchable thirst for discovery.

Long after his record-breaking balloon flights faded from headlines, his academic articles and society memberships kept alive Glaisher's legacy and impact on meteorology, astronomy and aeronautics for future generations.

Through both physical courage in the sky and intellectual discipline on paper, Glaisher pushed the boundaries of mankind's understanding of the atmosphere.


the horse cab that killed James Glaisher
© History Oasis

James Glaisher led an extraordinarily long life for a man of his era, surviving into his 90s despite the great risks taken during his balloon-borne scientific ascents.

Ironically, after coming through his spectacular mid-air brushes with death unscathed, he met his end in a freak accident on the ground.

In 1903 at age 94, Glaisher was navigating the busy London streets when he was suddenly struck by a horse-drawn cab. The pioneering balloonist was knocked to the ground and sustained grave injuries.

After months of deterioration, he succumbed not to the perils of the stratosphere but to the hazards of everyday city traffic.

Glaisher's improbable demise captures the fickle nature of fate—that a man who regularly dared the heavens and extreme altitude in 19th century balloons would finally meet his mortal end in the most mundane of circumstances.

The tragic accident cut short one of the most exceptional lives of scientific adventure in the Victorian era.

To the end, Glaisher maintained the same relentless passion for learning about the mysteries of the atmosphere that had lifted his balloons to the threshold of space.


Portrait of James Glaisher
© History Oasis

James Glaisher's legendary ascent to atmospheric heights was powered by his boundless enthusiasm for balloon flight. While most aeronauts saw ballooning as a means to an end, for Glaisher the journey itself was the reward.

His passion seemed to grow stronger with every successful landing, as he eagerly anticipated the next launch.

After an 1844 balloon voyage ended in Ireland, Glaisher frustratedly remarked that he wished they could have floated further through the air to allow more time for observation. His regret at having to land exemplified his unquenchable scientific curiosity.

Glaisher's zeal also led him to set altitude records that no prudent balloonist would attempt.

Despite nearly dying during a five mile-high stratospheric ascent that left him unconscious, Glaisher emerged even more fanatically driven.

His unchecked ardor for rising through the troposphere repeatedly brought him to the brink, all in the name of advancing atmospheric science.

For Glaisher, no height was too high and each balloon voyage fed an insatiable appetite for adventure among the clouds.