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The fatal flight of the Zenith. Library of Congress.
The fatal flight of the Zenith. Library of Congress.

In April 1875, three individuals, including Gaston Tissandier, ascended in a balloon called the Zenith, near Paris, France, to an altitude of nearly 28,000 feet and lost consciousness. A newspaper at that time included the wood engraving featured here, illustrating what happened.

At first glance, students may observe the three men in the basket and wonder why one of them is dosing off. Upon closer investigation, students may notice the scientific instrumentation on the ropes above the basket and speculate what these instruments measure. Encourage additional student observations, reflections, and questions.

In the late 19th century, high-altitude ballooning was much like the space race of the 20th century: there was pride in going the highest, but scientific discovery was an important part of the process, too. Tissandier and his doomed fellow aeronauts had set out on an expedition to collect data at the highest altitude a balloon had ever reached. All three men were aware of the risks of hypoxia on the human body due to low atmospheric pressure; they brought a breathing apparatus on board their flight, but none of them predicted that this investigation could be fatal. Tissandier floated in and out of consciousness, relying on the breathing apparatus to increase his oxygen levels. Somewhere around 28,000 feet, Theodore Sivel and Joseph Croce-Spinelli lost consciousness after being restricted to less than 50% oxygen saturation for nearly two hours. They never regained consciousness. As a result of this tragic event, high altitude ballooning was halted for two decades.

Ask your students if they have ever listened to the safety briefing before an airplane flight. Invite them to consider the relationship between the announcement to use an oxygen mask in the event of cabin depressurization and the discoveries made during the deadly Zenith ascent.

 

About the Source

The “View of journalist Joseph Croce-Spinelli, naval officer Henri Sivel, and Gaston Tissandier in the basket of the balloon, Zenith, after losing consciousness due to lack of oxygen after reaching an altitude of nearly 28,000 ft., near Paris, France, April, 1875” wood engraving is part of the Tissandier Collection at the Library of Congress and is available online at: https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.02198/. The collection contains approximately 975 items documenting the early history of aeronautics with an emphasis on balloon flight in France and other European countries. Subjects include general and technical images of balloons, airships, and flying machines; portraits of famous balloonists; views of numerous ascensions, accidents, and world’s fairs; cartoons featuring balloon themes; pictorial and textual broadsides; and colorful ephemera and poster advertisements. There are also several hundred illustrations clipped from books and newspapers. The pictures, created by many different artists, span the years 1773 to 1910, with the bulk dating 1780–1890.

The online portion of the collection consists of about 420 items, including all drawings and prints and selected photographs. Variant views and clippings from books and newspapers (generally non-pictorial) are not comprehensively represented online.

Related Student Explorations

  • Gaston Tissandier
  • Early ballooning and history of aviation
  • Scientific instrumentation in late 1800s
  • Hypoxia and impacts of pressure loss
  • Convection
  • Inverse relationship between temperature and pressure

Lesley Anderson (landerson@loc.gov) is a 2021–22 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Earth & Space Science Phenomena High School

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