Risk-taking discoveries


Up, up in the air

above the clouds

is no oxygen

no heat

only teeth to hold the rope…

and friend to save my life!


James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell broke the world record for altitude on this date in 1862. Glaisher was a British meteorologist, and he wanted to investigate what happened to water vapor at different altitudes. The country had just been through a period of extended drought, and there was much interest in studying rain in particular, and weather in general. In order to get high enough into the atmosphere, Glaisher needed to go up in a balloon. That’s where Coxwell came in. The son of a naval officer, he was an avid and accomplished balloonist as well as a scientist. He built a balloon especially for Glaisher’s project: it was 55 feet wide and 90 feet high. The men and their instruments rose steadily, but they were unprepared for what they would experience above the clouds. At an altitude of five miles, Coxwell started to feel short of breath, and Glaisher had trouble reading his instruments. At 29,000 feet, Glaisher lost consciousness from lack of oxygen, and the balloon continued to drift higher — they later estimated that it rose to 37,000 feet before Coxwell was able to release gas from the balloon and bring the balloon back to earth. Barely conscious himself, with his hands turning black from the extremely cold temperatures, he pulled the release line with his teeth.

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