Amazon's 'The Aeronauts': The true story of James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell's 7-mile-high near-fatal balloon ride in the 1800s

Amazon's 'The Aeronauts': The true story of James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell's 7-mile-high near-fatal balloon ride in the 1800s

“I believe there are answers in the sky, Up there is where I have found the greatest happiness,” said the fictional Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a pilot and a wealthy widow, in the trailer of Amazon Prime Video’s upcoming film ‘The Aeronauts’. The adventure film starring Jones and Eddie Redmayne is not just a work of fantasy. It dramatizes James Glashier’s 1862 balloon expedition with fellow-aeronaut, Henry Coxwell.

Imagine, reaching out to the heavens in the mid-nineteenth century. Well, Glaisher and Coxwell did and succeeded. On September 5, 1862, James Glaisher, a British meteorologist, aeronaut and astronomer, and Dr. Henry Tracey Coxwell, a British dentist and aeronaut took a hot air balloon ride.

Only it was no ordinary ride. The duo took the balloon to an altitude of almost 11,000 meters above sea-level (almost seven miles). At that time, it was the highest a manned balloon ever reached.

But Glaisher and Coxwell weren’t doing this for fun, of course. It was a journey undertaken for scientific purposes. Glaisher wanted to take measurements of the atmosphere’s temperature and humidity.

According to the History Channel, within 30 minutes of take-off, the balloon broke the world record as they reached 8,000 meters above sea-level. Glaisher and Coxwell were now in uncharted territory -- very little was known about the effect of flying at such an altitude at the time.

And that made the journey as dangerous as it could have been. In fact, as the balloon continued to rise through the atmosphere, the two men had considerable difficulty breathing and were almost unable to disentangle a cord used to release gas and begin their descent. 



Their journey could have easily proven fatal. According to the BBC, on his journey, Glaisher took a compass, thermometers, bottles of brandy and, for some reason, six birds.

“One was thrown out at the height of three miles,” he wrote. “When it extended its wings it dropped like a piece of paper; the second, at four miles, flew vigorously round and round, apparently taking a dip each time; a third was thrown out between four and five miles, and it fell downwards as a stone.”

What they experienced became known as "balloon sickness" at that time. And the duo was not immune to it. Glaisher's arm failed to respond when he tried to lift it. “In an instance darkness overcame me... I believed I would experience nothing more as death would come unless we speedily descended,” wrote Glaisher.

That wasn't all. According to the BBC, as they rose beyond five miles, the temperature dropped below -20 degrees celsius. He began to notice difficulties with his vision. He wrote: “I could not see the fine column of the mercury in the wet-bulb thermometer; nor the hands of the watch, nor the fine divisions on any instrument.”


Fortunately, according to the History Channel, after losing and regaining consciousness, Coxwell managed to grip the cord with his teeth and the balloon finally began its descent back to Earth. 

Glaisher and Coxwell's journey could be seen as a pioneering flight for space travel, after all, they had, in the 1880s, reached where no man had reached before.

While Coxwell's character has been replaced with the fictional Amelia Wren in the upcoming film, the female aeronaut does have some basis in history as well. Speaking to Parade magazine, actor Jones said, "The character is inspired by Sophie Blanchard, an extraordinary aeronaut. She was one of the first women to fly solo in a balloon. She was a fantastic character who set fireworks off from the basket. She’s an inspiration for Amelia Wren, the character I play."


'The Aeronauts' had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival August 30. The film will be released in theaters December 6 and will be available on Amazon Prime Video December 20. 

Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article belong to the writer and are not necessarily shared by MEAWW.

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