Monday, December 31, 2012

Up in the Intrepid

Hello, readers! It has been many a moon since Simon & Ivan put up a new post. I wish I could say we had been traveling to distant lands, investigating curious places, and documenting varied and marvelous sights with very expensive photographic equipment in order to report back on our wondrous adventures. Unfortunately I have just been sitting at my desk writing and researching, and Ivan has been sitting in her editing bay pondering important life decisions. Someday I hope to get her to post about her past and future wondrous adventures, but for now you will have to make do with my decidedly localized day trips, sojourns to not-very-distant lands, and moderately decent approximations of time travel.

When we last saw our heroine (this is of course how I refer to myself in my head), she had just been to Vermont in mid-July. At the end of July, she went back some hundred and fifty years to the period of the Civil War to take her first ever balloon ride. This should raise a number of questions, the foremost being, how is it possible that Simon had never been up in a balloon before? Sadly, this is unanswerable. The second question may be: what have balloons to do with the Civil War? I will tell you. Please proceed to the next paragraph, wherein I shall pontificate on this subject from memory and get most of my facts wrong.

Self-made scientist, inventor, and (apparently) inveterate risk-taker Thaddeus Lowe had been playing around with balloons for a few years already when the Civil War broke out. It occurred to him that they would be great for reconnaissance missions, and after pitching the idea to Lincoln (whom he impressed by sending a telegram to him from a balloon over Washington), he was allowed to form the Union Army's Balloon Corps. The balloon they used was called the Intrepid, and it made thousands of flights over the course of the war.

A hundred and fifty years later, someone at the Genesee Country Museum thought it would be pretty cool to make a replica of the Intrepid and let people go up in it. This person deserves a medal. Not only is it pretty cool, it is quite frankly the coolest thing in the entire world. I was very excited to go up in it, and talked about it for nearly a month beforehand. Almost without exception, the conversation went like this:

Me: I'm going up in a Civil War-era balloon!
Other Person: Are you insane?
Me: It's not actually from the Civil War. It's a replica.
Other Person: ::stares::

I maintain that you'd have to be insane not to want to go up in this beauty.



As you can see, this is totally safe, because the balloon is tethered. All but a few of Thaddeus Lowe's missions used tethered balloons because all they wanted to do was go up really high and see what was around them. Flying over enemy territory wasn't very helpful because the balloon was not filled with hot air, but hydrogen. It was very difficult to raise, lower, and steer.

Brief aside: I first encountered Thaddeus Lowe and his balloons in a Miriam Monfredo novel, in which Glynis's historically implausible niece Bronwyn makes a rather magnificent entrance by crashing a balloon in Seneca Falls. When I read that scene in high school, I thought it was completely ridiculous. In fact, it was entirely possible -- especially the crash -- but very unlikely. Thaddeus Lowe did not do much traveling by balloon, and certainly didn't use them as taxis.

You can see in this picture the gas generators that Lowe used to make hydrogen to fill his balloons.


Hydrogen is pretty easy to make. Lowe did it by mixing water, iron filings, and sulfuric acid in large tanks inside those green wooden boxes. A purifier filtered and cooled the gas before it went into the hose that was fixed to the balloon. Voila: the balloon was lighter than air!

You actually would have to be insane to go up in something filled with hydrogen. Wisely, they filled the balloon replica with helium. Because of the worldwide shortage of helium, the Intrepid nearly never got off the ground, but Macy's (the department store with a strange passion for floating things) kindly donated 50,000 cubic feet of it.

Deciding to go up in a balloon is all well and good, until you are actually up in it. I took this picture without looking because I really wanted to know what the ground looked like straight down, but I absolutely could not bring myself to lean over and check.


As my fellow aeronaut, R. M. Jurnack, Historian, Esq., and I admitted to each other afterward, we did not expect to be as unsettled as we were. Balloons move. That's the thing. You shift your weight and the balloon goes oomph garoomph. A breeze comes up and the balloon goes wheeeee! You become aware, deep in your internal organs, that you are in the middle of the air. All that's between your feet and the hard dirt is the floor of the basket and two hundred and fifty feet of nothing. I was surprised at how frightening it was, even while I completely loved it.

Thaddeus Lowe, who was in the balloon with us, was not bothered in the least. While Historian Esquire and I took pictures with one hand and held the side very firmly with the other, he chatted airily (sorry) about ballooning and what it was like during the Civil War. One thing that struck me was that the balloon was not, as I had assumed, out of the range of bullets. The Intrepid could be shot and often was -- but it could take a lot of damage and not deflate in a dangerous way. The danger was for the ground crew; bullets that missed the Intrepid landed among the soldiers below, making the Balloon Corps an unpopular assignment.

It was a very hot and sunny day, and my camera did not handle the bright light very well. My pictures from the sky did not turn out particularly well, but you can at least get an idea how small everything looks and how far you can see. On an ideal day, Lake Ontario is visible. (You can also see how little it had rained! I'll have to go up again when the grass is green and it's overcast.)



The terribleness of the photos does not convey the wonderfulness of the experience. It is the only Civil War-era balloon replica in the world, and it happens to be thirty minutes from my house. I feel very lucky indeed to have the opportunity to go up in it, and to be insane enough to actually do it!


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

New Posts to Come

santa parade 083

Hello, loyal readers! Simon & Ivan will be posting again starting December 31st. Our new, lazier schedule means that new content (quality not guaranteed) will be put up every Monday. Because Mondays are terrible and why not try to salvage them as best we can. In the meantime, happy Christmas! See you again in a few days.