The dead pigeons should have been James Glaisher’s warning. On 5 September 1862, the scientist was taking one of his first balloon flights – and alongside the compass, thermometers and bottles of brandy, he had decided to bring along six birds.
“One was thrown out at the height of three miles,” he later 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.”
No sooner had he noted these observations than he began to feel the “balloon sickness” himself. His arm had been resting on the table, but it failed to respond when he tried to lift it. Alarmed, he tried to call out to his aeronaut, Henry Coxwell, but the words froze in his mouth and his head lolled helplessly to one side.