The Steampunk World

Being the continued explorations of a living steampunk.

The steampunk world is all around us, lying just out of sight, in a continuous thread of steampunk builders and culture that extends from the Victorian era to the present. You'll find no science fiction here: This is real life steampunk.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Crocé-Spinelli & Sivel, First People To Die In The Heavens

Location: Paris, France

Part of our steampunk legacy are the now-marginalized fields of lighter-than-air flight (as well as kite manlifting, see  Indeed it was a motorized kite that the Wright Brothers flew and, in a less well known but ultimately more impactful event, demonstrated as a mobile gun platform for military officials on the grounds of what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio (also home to America's Retired Aircraft Parking Lot, go see it, they have blimps and stuff).  A dude shot a rifle from the dang thing and the generals and majors said, "Hmmm... this could be used to bomb the shit out of brown people and take their resources" and thus this became one of the many pivotal events that transformed our world from what it should have been (Jules Verne-like futuristic paradise) to what it is (strip malls and parking lots and Starbucks and global war).  Other such events might include the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Haymarket Riots (also Chicago, these are reasons I live there), the Great American Streetcar Scandal, and so on.  As much as I sympathize with the lofty goals of bicycle builders, these are the events that steampunk aim to undo and thus set the world back on the right course.

Thus naturally I am interested in the origins of lighter-than-air flight as are many of you.  A particularly macabre moment in this field occurred in April 1875 when two Frenchmen, Joseph Crocé-Spinelli and Henri-Théodore Sivel, ascended to 8500 meters in a hot air balloon and became the first humans to die in the sky.  Plenty of people had perished *trying* to fly, but they usually died when they hit the ground.

Imagine the times:  Paris in the spring of 1875.  Monet and Cezanne are so last year.  Carmen has just opened in March.  It's been twenty years since the Industrial Revolution was born in the urban redesign of the city.  It's been five since that rascally Otto Von Bismark laid siege to the city and the Empire of Germany was formed out of Prussia and others.  During that siege a meteorologist named Gaston Tissandier had escaped via balloon with the Minister of the Interior, and so let it be said that there was considerable government- ahem- interest in the field.

Joe and Henri-Ted- patriots, educated, and lovers- were working to overcome the effects of altitude sickness by inhaling oxygen.  The current recordholders- two Englishmen- had survived 8,000 meters only when one passed out and the other- a dentist, his hands frozen- bit the valve-release rope and yanked.  Using decompression chambers the couple put themselves through all sorts of low-pressure tests wherein they discovered that it was lack of oxygen and not low pressure that caused altitude sickness.  So they got themselves some ox-gut oxygen bags and called up M. Tessandier.  They launched from the La Villette Gasworks, gasworks being a favorite hangout of steampunks to this day.

As scuba-divers and schoolyard-self-asphyxiators know, oxygen deprivation can cause you to feel funny... happy... giddy... sleepy.  Euphoric even.  Makes you make bad decisions.  They got loopy, forgot to breathe the oxygen, and all three passed out.  But they all came to when the balloon, running out of fuel, descended enough to wake them.  In Joseph's loopy state he threw out the aspirateur, an instrument weighing nearly 80lbs., which M. Tissandier had taken for the purpose of making observations and up shot the balloon, up to the "icy desert in the heavens"...  M. Tissandier later wrote:

It was as if at the bottom of a well, whose walls were formed by cirrus clouds and the vapour below, the surface of the earth which appeared in the abysses of the atmosphere.  The sky, far from being dark or black, was a clear and limpid blue; the glowing sun burned our faces...

Once again the balloon ran out of fuel enough to sink.  M. Tissandier came to to find the couple "crouched in the basket, with their heads hidden under rugs.  Sivel's face was black, his eyes dull and his mouth full of blood.  Crocé-Spinelli's mouth was bloody and his eyes half closed."

In a sad but sweet ending, Joe and Henri-Ted were buried together in the Lachaise Cemetery, the one where Jim Morrison's grave is.  There is a marble monument of them lying side by side, hand in hand, under a blanket.  It is a "tribute to their comradeship in life and death".

For further reading:

Pioneering the Balloon, 1783-1900

Cosmos magazine, October 2005

Read the report in The New Zealand Tablet, March 1876:

Afterthought:  Isn't there a movie in which a seige is escaped via balloon?  Was this event depicted in film or am I thinking of Baron Munchausen?

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