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Friday, 7 August 2009

Gas for Balloons - The Artillery Ground

In 1800 coal gas had been made and investigations into its’ properties had been undertaken for some time. Some of the earliest experimenters were those who wanted a gas which was lighter than air for use in balloons. Much of this research took place in mainland Europe and often had a military purpose. In particular, Jean Pierre Minkelers had set up a small gas lighting scheme as part of research into ballooning at Louvain University in the early 1780s.

Research into suitable gases for ballooning was a serious business and it is very likely that such research would have also have been of interest to the British military authorities. Machinery to make gas for this purpose would need to be portable so it is not suggested that anything like a ‘gas works’ was involved - but it could be that coal gas was used for some ballooning experiments. Is this likely to be true?

This section is based on an account of a balloon flight which took off from one of several venues in London which were used for such a purpose in the late eighteenth century. The use of coal gas to lift the balloon is purely conjectural.

It has been suggested that as early as 1785 a balloon flight from the Artillery Ground, Bunhill Row, north of Moorgate, used gas made from coal. The evidence for this is flimsy and based on the known interest in the subject by one of the people present. This was Dr. George Fordyce, a physician and chemist with a known interest in experiments of this sort. In fact, it is more likely that the gas used was hydrogen.

The Artillery Ground was, and is, a large open space to the immediate north of the City of London. The Honourable Artillery Company had received requests for use of it as a place to launch balloons from as early as 1721 - although what was meant by ‘balloons’ at that stage is not clear, nor is the gas used known. In 1763 they turned down a request to use it for an experiment with a ‘machine to sail against the wind’. Montgolfier ascended from the Artillery Ground in a hot air balloon in 1782 while a number of other applications were turned down by the Honourable Company.

Lunardi's celebrated air balloon at the Artillery Ground, 15th September 1784. The Artillery Ground survives in what appears, from the outside, a relatively unaltered state, behind a Gothic folly frontage onto City Road.

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