The Aeronauts

Fake news only get you into trouble if you’ve offended powerful people who can not only sue you till your pants drop, they can even apply laws that can keep you in prison for up to 10 years. Not so if you’re just a world renowned balloonist.

The movie Aeronauts tells the story of a headstrong scientist James Glaisher and the wealthy and flamboyant Amelia Wren joining hands to mount a balloon expedition to fly higher than anyone in history. Glaisher had a dream of pioneering the science of predicting the weather by taking readings in the upper atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, he was mocked by the scientific community.

Anxious to prove the doubters wrong, he went out of his way to persuade Amelia Wren to fly him into the upper atmosphere and break the French record of 27,000 feet. He needed Wren’s ballooning skills and money to launch the expedition and had been desperately persuading her to get involved. Amelia Wren however, was still having nightmares after a ballooning accident in which her husband jumped off the basket to save her. After a long internal struggle, she finally decided to fulfill her late husband’s dream.

The pair took off to great pomp, drama and colourful personality clashes. They then sailed into the clouds, only to be greeted by a violent storm. Glaisher saved Amelia’s life when she fell overboard. After that, they went on to break the French record, but Glaisher was not contended. He fought with Amelia in order to climb higher. Altitude sickness and hypothermia were setting in and Glaisher virtually lost his mind. The valve was frozen and he went unconscious, still floating upwards until the balloon would eventually explode. Spoiler coming up.

Portrait of James Glaisher (1809-1903), Meteorologist

Thankfully, Amelia was still wide awake. Not only that, she climbed up the net to the top of the iced-up balloon and punctured it with her heels! She almost plunged all the way down, but secured by a rope before her climb, she managed to swing herself back into the basket and revived the unconscious Glaisher (so they’re even). They descended slowly at first, then rapidly – too rapidly until they had to cut the basket and hold on to the ropes. The pair survived and Glaisher went on to win the respect of the scientific community.

The movie says that it’s based on a true story – except that it has completely changed one of the characters!

In real life, Glaisher’s partner on that historic flight was actually the renowned balloonist Henry Tracey Coxwell. The movie turned him into a fictional young widow by the name of Amelia Wren! Here are the facts.

Henry Coxwell

In 1862 the British Association for the Advancement of Science determined to make investigations of the upper atmosphere using balloons. Dr James Glaisher, FRS. was chosen to carry out the experiments, and at the suggestion of Charles Green, Henry Coxwell was employed to fly the balloons.

Coxwell constructed a 93,000 cu ft (2,600 m3) capacity balloon named the Mammoth. On 5 September 1862, taking off from Wolverhampton, Coxwell and Glaisher reached the greatest height achieved to date.

Glaisher had indeed lost consciousness during the ascent, his last barometer reading indicating an altitude of 29,000 ft (8,800 m). Coxwell lost all sensation in his hands, but managed just in time to pull the valve-cord with his teeth before losing consciousness. Nope, only consummate mountaineers like Reinhold Messner could have climbed to the top of that balloon without supplemental oxygen at that altitude.

The balloon dropped nineteen thousand feet in fifteen minutes, landing safely near Ludlow. Later calculations estimated their maximum altitude at 35,000 to 37,000 ft (10,700 to 11,300 m), making it completely impossible for Amelia Wren to have accomplished that heroic feat. A person passes out within minutes even without exertion at that altitude.

Felicity Jones photoshoot

Not knowing the outcome of the expedition at the beginning of the show and being a fan of great heights myself, I found the movie exciting. My son, however, remarked that the special effects were unimpressive and the whole project was even a bit “cheap”. More interested in the story than anything else, I don’t have a problem with that. I only felt something lamentable after doing some research on the facts.

With Wonder Woman and other female heroes emerging, the silver screen is seeing a new feminist movement straining to portray women as strong characters that can hold their own. Aeronauts’ adulteration of history presents a stark irony for both the feminists and the “others”. Interestingly, the producers of Aeronauts saw a need to steal Henry Coxwell’s credit and plant it on a fictional woman. The intention is obviously to make the movie a lot more pleasing – either way.


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