August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
BEING HAP-HAZARD ACCOUNTS OF THE Perils and Pleasures of Aerial Navigation.
The spectacle will long be remembered as the I finest… in this region,” the reporter wrote. I “The lady was dressed in a jaunty suit of blue flannel trimmed with gold braid, her short skirts revealing neat-fitting gaiters. A nobby sailor’s hat of plaited straw crowned the whole and gave her face a boyish piquancy. She stepped lightly into the frail contrivance which serves Carlotta in lieu of a basket. This consists of a thin wooden platform suspended by hammock twine to the concentrating ring of the balloon, and as the Aerial gently arose, the entire proportions of her youthful figure could be plainly seen, apparently standing on the very air itself as she waved her hat in salute. The Aerial glided slowly northeastward rising to a height of about a mile, then it retraced its path, passing quietly directly over the public square, and drifting westward toward Lake Ontario.”
The reporter, writing for the Watertown, New York, Daily Times on a July day in 1882, was apparently so carried away by the lady’s “proportions” that he failed to realize what an extraordinary scientific feat he had witnessed. In order to make a balloon ascent and bring the craft safely down again (which she did, out of sight of reporters), Carlotta had to estimate and control with split-second accuracy wind drift, rate of fall, and amount of sideways glide, and make them all come out even at just one point. She was not only daring and pretty; she was something of a genius.
Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut, would never have gotten off the ground if a lively young New England girl named Mary Breed Hawley (a descendant of the Breeds of Boston’s Breed’s Hill) had not fallen in love with an itinerant photographer, inventor, and selftaught scientist named Carl Myers. The two were well matched in their interests and enthusiasms; in November, 1871, they were married and within a short time settled down in the little town of Mohawk, New York. After a few years as a portrait photographer, Carl turned to a new interest: aerial navigation. It was a challenge that held many separate problems to be solved, just the kinds of problems he liked: how to make a balloon fabric that was impervious to hydrogen gas, exceedingly light in weight, flexible so it could be rolled up and packed, and riot gummy, so it would not stick together; how to make a portable hydrogen generator to inflate the balloon, so that a flight might start from any point desired; and lastly, how to make a basket that was even lighter than the usual wicker kind.
After many experiments, with Mary helping by keeping records, sewing and testing fabric segments, and studying the rather meager literature on meteorology and ballooning, Carl patented a process for making a light but durable balloon that could weather hundreds of ascensions and rough landings. The balloon fabric was dipped three or four times in a mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine, so that every pore was sealed and yet the fabric remained thin and flexible.
At first Mr. and Mrs. Myers hired a professional aeronaut to take up their balloons. Then, one day in 1880, Carl decided to see whether a tapered, pearshaped balloon would go through the air more easily than a sphere and hold its shape when travelling very rapidly. As the hired balloonist declined to take part in this experiment, Carl went aloft himself. He sat astride a folded band of cloth below the gas bag, with the balloon neck tied down beside him. At a height of two miles, he opened a valve and within one minute he had plummeted halfway to earth. About a thousand feet from the ground, he dropped ballast and released the balloon neck, which flew upward and checked his speed. He then (as he described it later) “slid downward into a cornfield without shock.” The experiment convinced Carl that a properly tapered gas bag, provided with motive power of light weight, would be an ideal solution to the problem of aerial navigation. On this basis he started experiments on horizontal movement.
Having seen her husband careening through the heavens, Mary Myers was determined to emulate him. On the Fourth of July, 1880, àcrowd of 15,000 gathered in Little Falls, New York, to witness her maiden flight. “Mary” seemed too dull a name for so daring a young woman, and, for the occasion, she called herself “Carlotta.” From that day on, few knew Carlotta’s real name. Carl made a change that day, too: he supplied himself with the title of Professor.
In a now-rare pamphlet called Sky-Larking in Cloudland , Carlotta described this first flight. She rose to an altitude of about a mile, where a brisk wind carried her eastward. For a while she was lost in a cold, damp cloud—“the lonesomest place I was ever in.” After emerging, she dispatched several homing pigeons which she had taken along in a basket, with a message to the folks back home in Mohawk, telling of her good flight and where she was about to land. As far as she knew, she said, this was the first time pigeons had ever been dispatched from a balloon aloft to report the progress of the flight. After floating in the air for thirty-five minutes, she made her descent and landed on the farm of a Mr. Davis, about twenty miles from her starting point. Farmer Davis remarked that she was “most too young a girl to be trusted so far from home,” and sent her back to Little Falls by horse and buggy.
Carlotta had now found her forte, and she was at once in great demand at fairs and expositions. In August, she made her second flight, staying aloft in a calm blue sky for more than an hour. A third flight, in September, proved more eventful than the first two. In her haste to ascend before an approaching storm should cause a large crowd of fair-goers to scatter, she took off as the clouds rolled in. The storm breeze sucked her higher, and before she knew it she was borne up into a turbulence so dense that she could not see even the balloon above her head. She was tossed boisterously upward in a vertical current and was alarmed to notice that her barometer showed a very rapid rate of ascent. Fearing her balloon might expand to the bursting point, she valved out gas, hoping to slow down her giddy rise, but the balloon kept climbing until it broke through the top of the overcast into the calm, clear sky above the storm, and she saw with amazement below her “the snow-white mountains of cloudland.” To return to earth, she valved more gas until the balloon started to descend. The downward plunge into the storm renewed all the discomforts of the ascent, but she controlled her speed by watching her barometer and releasing ballast. She relates: “I was much longer coming down than going up, and I was just beginning to think the world had lost itself, when, through an opening in the mist, the earth suddenly jumped at me, and I found myself swiftly driving just above a woods of several miles extent. I threw over everything dispensable—ballast, ulster, rubbers—but a heavy gust of rain made the balloon too heavy and it bounded across the treetops, the basket collecting leaves, twigs, and acorns at every plunge.”
Carlotta threw out her anchor, which caught in a large basswood tree and halted the balloon. “The air ship was at anchor, in sight of land, but there was no little boat to go ashore.” She was eighty feet above the ground. Fortunately a hunter discovered her predicament and went to get help. Several men soon came with rope and ladder and made ready to get her down, but Carlotta, like a good sea captain, would not desert her ship. For more than two hours she directed the men below in cutting down small trees until they had cleared a space large enough for balloon, basket, and Carlotta to be lowered to the ground without damage. “We were all much fatigued,” she wrote afterward, “and glad to shake hands together, as we felt quite like old friends. The men said they never knew a woman could engineer a job so well before, but I guess that may be because they never caught one up a tree!”
The following spring, Carlotta gave birth to a daughter, who was christened Elizabeth Aerial. Motherhood failed to ground the lady aeronaut for long, and on the Fourth of July she opened the balloon season by making two ascensions in one day—the first at Hamilton, New York, and the second at Utica, about thirty miles away. That evening she and Carl were at home with their baby, in Mohawk; the most strenuous part of their day had been making the train connections.
Carl was now so proficient in preparing for his wife’s flights that he could move all his equipment onto a fairgrounds at noon, generate the hydrogen, inflate the balloon, send Carlotta into the sky, and after her descent pack up everything and leave the grounds neat and clean and ready for a band concert in the evening.
Carlotta, too, was sharpening her skills. She could predict where she was going to land even before taking off. A carriage would then drive to that point and await her descent. She was very knowledgeable about the winds at all different altitudes, and she had equipped her hammock-netting basket with tillable bottom so that she could guide her descent with great accuracy. Carlotta herself had developed and patented this feature, and it gave her a mastery that made some of her feats seem well-nigh impossible.
Little Elizabeth Aerial went on a flight with her mother at the age of three and again when she was seven. On the second flight, unfortunately, Carlotta miscalculated in judging the weight of the child against the necessary ballast. She ran short of ballast, and the balloon descended into a steep-sided little lake, near Syracuse, known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl. But this was not the worst. Large trees overhung the shore all about, so that Carlotta could not get the balloon near enough to the edge to reach dry land. Little Bessie, though pretty well frightened, saved the day by climbing out of the basket onto a half-submerged log and wading ashore under the branches with the anchor rope; she then pulled Carlotta and the basket to safety after her. There was no damage except to Carlotta’s pride, but the experience made a lasting impression on Bessie, for she never again went up in a free balloon.∗
∗ As a grown woman she redeemed her name “Aerial,” however, by making exhibition flights at the St. Louis Exposition in 1903 with a foot-pedalled dirigible, an invention of her father’s which he called the “Sky Cycle.” The flights were made inside a large auditorium, and Bessie was so adept that she could maneuver the craft without hitting the walls or roof of the hall. But she left the great outdoors to her mother.
One of Carlotta’s most notable ascensions was made in 1886 from Franklin, Pennsylvania. It was more a test flight than an exhibition. Professor Myers was anxious to see how his latest lightweight balloon would perform when filled with natural gas instead of hydrogen. The balloon was inflated directly from a gas pipeline. Although natural gas has much less lifting power than hydrogen, it took Carlotta up with ease. She had some trouble, however, with a sticky valve, and before she got it working, she was startled to find the pointer of her aneroid barometer indicating its maximum reading, 21,000 feet, about four miles high. If her barometer was correct, this was a world record for altitude with a natural-gas balloon.
Equally remarkable was the fact that Carlotta suffered no ill effects. At this altitude most persons become dizzy and light-headed from lack of oxygen, and many black out. Today aviators usually do not go this high without a pressurized cabin or an oxygen mask. It was another proof that Carlotta was physically, as well as temperamentally, cut out to be an aeronaut.
During the i88o’s, Myers increased his aeronautical activities. The exhibition ascensions became so popular that he had to hire another aeronaut, a trapeze artist named Dare, who performed gymnastics while in flight. Myers also made weather balloons for the United States Department of Agriculture, captive balloons for fairs and exhibitions, and full-size balloons for aeronauts. And he worked continually on the problem of self-propelled craft, actually non-rigid dirigibles. His sky cycle was a spindle-shaped gas bag propelled by foot power.
In 1889, he bought a thirty-room mansion at Frankfort, New York, and transformed it into one of the most unusual institutions of his day. He called it the “Balloon Farm,” and indeed a passer-by might have thought that the do/en or more half-inflated balloons scattered around the grounds looked like a crop of Brobdingnagian pumpkins or mushrooms. In the late fall the crop was harvested: the balloons were carefully bundled up and stowed away in the attic of the large house for the winter. Each carried its own tag with a list of all its ascents, its good performances, and its bad habits.
When fine weather came again the Balloon Farm was a scene of great activity. Out on the lawn, groups of employees tended the kettles of oil for processing the fabric, then hung out the fabric to dry. Dare might be practicing on a trapeze to keep in trim. Somewhere overhead, Carlotta was apt to be testing a new balloon. And there was usually a tethered balloon bobbing several hundred feet above the farm, in which instruments were keeping track of temperatures and breezes.
Carlotta still performed occasionally in public. One of her greatest feats was performed on July 18, 1888, when she flew her lightest-weight balloon, the Zephyr , on a prearranged course around New York City. The Zephyr weighed only sixty-five pounds, including gas bag, valve, net, concentrating ring, and car. Ascending in Brooklyn, Carlotta swung toward the Brooklyn City Hall, then crossed the river to the Battery, dropped until she was near the water, and moved upstream to Brooklyn Bridge. Thousands of people in the rushhour traffic on the bridge shouted uproariously, and steamers whistled. Gliding over the bridge, Carlotta made for New York’s City Hall. Then she moved across Manhattan to the Hudson, followed the ferry to Jersey City, and landed safely, one hour after starting, in an open space at Secaucus, New Jersey.
Carlotta’s increasing responsibilities, however, kept her close to the Balloon Farm, and in 1891, she formally retired from exhibition flying, though she continued as a test aeronaut at the farm. “She retires from the field,” her husband announced to the public, “with a record of having made more ascensions than all other women combined throughout the world, and more than any man living in America.” She had never had a serious accident.
The Myerses operated the Balloon Farm for many years. Carl was still riding his sky cycle at the age of sixty-eight, and both he and Carlotta lived to be over eighty. By that time the field of aeronautics had taken a sudden turn in favor of aeroplanes, sadly deflating their romantic and silent balloons. So the Myers name and Carlotta’s fame were forgotten, forgotten so completely that now, only two generations later, it is with considerable difficulty that the fragments of their story can be pieced together. But it remains a story of courage, skill, and romance that deserves to survive the eclipse of ballooning.