In the Clouds

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 13 June 1887


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.125

On 9 August 1884 the dirigible balloon ‘La France’ flew for twenty three minutes and managed to return to the point from which it had started: this was the first of several flights. The craft, designed by the French army engineers Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs, was 165 feet long and 27 feet in diameter, with a bamboo gondola 108 feet long. It was propelled by means of an electric motor, powered by batteries whose weight required almost the entire lifting power of the hydrogen with which the balloon was filled. Its best speed was 14.5 miles per hour. The craft was technically an excellent design, but the battery-electric system was soon displaced by the internal combustion engine.

This article is the first sign of Kipling’s interest in the possibilities of aeronautics, the best-known expressions of which are “With the Night Mail” (1905), and “As Easy as ABC” (1912). He also, before aeroplanes, foresaw the possibility of airpower in warfare. Dynamite dates from 1867; rack-a-rock and roburite are both later forms of blasting explosive.
John McGivering has drawn our attention to the work of Sir George Cayley (1778-1857) the British engineer who before 1800 had defined the forces that work on a heavier than air aircraft, weight, lift, drag, and thrust. Kipling was evidently unaware of the discoveries of this remarkable pioneer of aeronautics.


The Article

Nearly two years ago, the military and scientific worlds were assured that the problem of aerial navigation had been definitely settled by the Krebs-Reynard self-propelling balloon, an engine that had actually flown, or sailed — whichever may be the correct expression — at a rate of nine miles an hour against the wind, and nineteen miles with it. Since that date, the balloon seems to have dropped quietly out of existence; for no mention of it has appeared later than the enthusiastic report of M. Herve Magnon, who watched the experiments on behalf of the Academy of Sciences. If his testimony, and that of thousands of eye-witnesses can be believed, it is certain that an aerial ship has been made capable of manoeuvring in the face of a moderately strong wind. Where is that balloon, cigar-shaped, one hundred feet long, with a light dynamo-engine? Have the inventors dropped their work, or is the matter in the hands of the French Government? The questions are not so absurd as they seem at first sight.

It is possible to make many improvements in a new machine, in twenty months; and men who have devoted their years to an idea are not willing to throw away their work as children throw away toys. In 1885, the Krebs-Reynard balloon could only carry the weight of three men; but, assuming its specification to be still on paper, it may have trebled its bulk since then. A balloon three hundred and sixty feet long and thirty in diameter can, theoretically at least, support a driving-apparatus of more than fifty-horse power, and a crew of from nine to ten men. A Screw propeller, twenty feet in diameter, revolving at the rate of eight hundred revolutions a minute, should give such a balloon, and on paper always does give it, a velocity of some twenty miles an hour. But, at present, the public mind is not educated up to balloons; believing them to be untrustworthy conveyances at the best; collapsing unreasonably or perversely drifting away. The fact, however, remains that one balloon has been made obedient to the rudder under not too trying circumstances; and in the hour of its triumph was considered to be the stepping-stone ‘to discoveries which will render this means of locomotion of common and practical service’. If it ever reappears, we may be certain that its first employ will not be in the peaceful paths of civilization.

Setting aside for a moment the insular prejudice against ‘this means of locomotion’ — the volatile Gaul is your only aeronaut by instinct — it is startling to contemplate the possibilities of the steerable balloon. The leashed and fettered arrangement, hauled like a huge kite at the tail of a cart, may be valuable for reconnaissance, but it is, even with the most skilful handling, an unwieldy thing and liable to come to extreme grief, as to its guide-rope, among trees or telegraph wires. Moreover, a reconnoitring party suddenly driven back by the enemy would be in an unpleasant and ludicrous predicament. They could not run, for a tethered balloon is as deliberate in its movements as a tethered elephant; and they could not well cut the rope and abandon their comrades in the car, on the off chance of a favourable breeze blowing them into friendly camps, for a balloon of observation carries no provisions. To remain with the balloon would profit nothing, and the balloon would be a most valuable prize to the enemy. Air-reconnaissances in the field, therefore, must be bounded by strict limitations.

With the navigable balloon — with even such an imperfect article as the Krebs-Reynard — the scope of action is infinitely wider. At two thousand feet a balloon is said to be practically safe from rifle-fire, and it is not easy to send shells up to a quick-flying engine of destruction — for this undoubtedly the perfected balloon would be. The hundred varieties of dynamite, rack-a-rock and roburite are light and portable. A half-inch cartridge of the former exploded on a steel rail very effectually puts a stop to traffic for some time; and there is no reason to believe that its effect in a camp or among massed bodies of men would be less striking. Indeed, we may assume that the presence, over head, of an unassailable enemy, dropping explosives on to the heads of a force, already engaged with an enemy on foot, would be singularly disturbing. Even a light article, with a carrying capacity of not more than three hundred pounds, would produce an unprecedented moral effect. It could keep pace with a flying army as a hawk follows a terror-stricken covey of partridges. But there would be no swooping — nothing beyond a steady and continous steaming, and, from time to time, a message in the shape of some explosive compound.

The discipline that could stand against this form of attack has yet to be elaborated. The best troops in the world would break and scatter in the face of a death that literally fell on them from the blue. They would be scattered before they were attacked, exactly — to maintain the ornithological metaphor — as fowls run in all directions from the shadow of the hawk. Once the effect of a sky-dropped shell had been noted, no one would willingly wait anywhere directly under the balloon. Regiments and batteries might retire gracefully and in order, but, while so retiring, they would be useless for offence against the enemy on the ground in front of them. By natural consequence, then, we should in time arrive at the extraordinary spectacle of a battle, where tens of thousands were arrayed on either side, won, almost without bloodshed, by the power which possessed the balloons. It would be the most impressive example of moral effect that the world could offer — an armed host unable to strike, unable to move, because it knew that attack or manoeuvre was the signal for its disruption. Such a vision may be held to be too fantastic. Let us imagine then a flying war-balloon which, sublimely ignorant of frontiers or opposing chains of fortresses, waits, head to the wind, above a populous town or the main arsenal of an army corps, until the ultimatum which is dropped from the car to the earth has been accepted, and the town is abandoned and blown up. The idea is even more impressive than that of balloon attack against an army. The town cannot move. It can only wait while its inhabitants hide, as did the rebels who denied the suzerainty of Laputa, in their cellars. (Laputa was an island in the sky in Gulliver’s Travels (1728) by Jonathan Swift, ruled by a tyrannical king who menaced the peoples below: Ed.). Once, and once only, it would be necessary that the balloon should make a memorable example in order to instruct the enemy in the nature of the weapons at its command. When the chosen town had been reduced to blackened walls, the rest would be easy; for the most patriotic burgh would prefer capitulation to unromantic destruction.