Felix Nadar was a French photographer and balloon enthusiast who took the first aerial photograph from a balloon in 1853. Ten years later, he commissioned the construction of the world’s largest balloon, and enormous project that kept nearly 200 women busy sewing silk for a month. Le Géant (the Giant) stood 60 meters (196 feet) high when inflated, and could lift at least 30 people, as was once demonstrated. The elaborate wicker carriage comprised two storys and several furnished rooms, plus an observation deck on top. The balloon flew well, but had trouble landing. Its first outing ended in the carriage being dragged along the ground, but the balloon survived. On its second outing, Le Géant lifted off with nine people aboard in front of a crowd estimated at half a million people. It flew 400 miles, to Hannover, Germany, when Nadar decided they should land.
Unfortunately, as he approached the ground, he found a strong wind blowing. The aeronauts could not re-ascend having valved the gas when descending. Nadar threw out anchors, but they dragged never catching hold and then they broke. To the horror of the travelers, they realized the balloon was not stopping and they could not rise. The balloon was now being tossed about by the heavy winds in a “giddy” careening fashion that Nadar later referred to, “like an India rubber ball from the hands of an indefatigable player.”
Those inside the balloon were terrified as it flew along at lightning speed in an uncontrollable manner. They survived bump after bump and shock after shock, but each new collision brought new terror. An approaching train increased the danger as Nadar found the balloon was on a direct collision with it. He was immediately “benumbed with fear” and later wrote:
“A few more revolutions of the wheels, and it will be all over with us, for we seem to be fated to meet with geometrical precision at one spot! … we give vent to a shout of terror.”