From Paris to the Sea: Remembering a Pioneering Astronomer’s ‘Night in a Balloon’

Dorothea Klumpke. Photo: Wikipedia

By Korena Di Roma Howley

Just before 1 a.m. on November 16, 1899, an American astronomer named Dorothea Klumpke began her voyage over Paris and northwest France in a balloon called La Centaure, from which she hoped to witness the Leonid meteor shower as nearly no one had done before. Handpicked for the journey by the French Society of Aerial Navigation, she would become the first woman to witness the display while airborne.

“I do not know what good fairy overheard my wish to take a trip in the blue sky,” Klumpke wrote in her account of the voyage, “A Night in a Balloon,” published the following year in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. “I am fond of traveling and passionately fond of lofty heights,” she wrote. “Towers, hills, mountains, have always been for me places of pilgrimage. Now I had the mysterious and alluring anticipation of an ascent in a balloon.”

Mapping the Stars

Born in San Francisco on August 9, 1861, Klumpke was educated in Europe, earning a bachelor of science from the University of Paris in 1886. While posted at the Paris Observatory following her degree, she worked with astrophotographers Paul and Prosper Henry and contributed significantly to the international star-mapping project Carte du Ciel.

In 1893, she completed a dissertation on the rings of Saturn and became the first American woman to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy. That same year, she was selected to be the director of the Paris Observatory’s Bureau of Measurements, and she became the first woman to be honored by the Paris Academy of Sciences as an Officier d’Académe.

In August 1896, she traveled to Norway to witness the total solar eclipse that would fall on her 35th birthday. Clouds obscured the viewing, but it was there that she met 67-year-old Welsh astrophotographer, Isaac Roberts. The two scientists wrote to each other for the next five years, finally marrying in 1901. Roberts specialized in photographing nebulae, and after their marriage, Klumpke collaborated with him on a project to photograph William Herschel’s 52 nebulous regions. Roberts died in 1904, but Klumpke continued the work, and in 1929—the hundredth anniversary of her husband’s birth—published Isaac Roberts’ Atlas of 52 Regions: A Guide to William Herschel’s Fields of Nebulosity.

In 1934, Klumpke was elected Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, which was bestowed by the president of France. Soon after she returned to San Francisco, where she continued pursuits in astronomy and welcomed artists, scientists, and musicians to the home she shared with her sister, artist Anna Klumpke. She supported young scientists and students through financial gifts to the Paris Observatory, the University of California, the American Astronomical Society, and other institutions. The Dorothea Klumpke Roberts Prize in Mathematics, established by Klumpke in honor of her parents and husband, is to this day awarded to students at Berkeley. Klumpke died in San Francisco in 1942, at the age of 81. “One cannot associate the idea of death with such a warm and living personality,” wrote astronomer Robert G. Aitken in an appreciation published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. She was, he wrote, a “loyal-hearted, generous woman.”

A Worthy Pilgrimage

By the time La Centaure launched with Klumpke, the pilot, and a secretary in its five-by-three-foot basket, those aboard had already heard discouraging reports from another flight—the much-anticipated event was proving far inferior to the spectacular meteor storms of previous decades. A hundred years earlier, German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt had observed the phenomenon from Cumaná in what’s now Venezuela, writing of the “most extraordinary luminous meteors,” with “thousands of bolides and falling stars [succeeding] each other during the space of four hours.”

In contrast, Klumpke reportedly observed just 30 meteors during the seven-hour flight, only about half of which were Leonids. Yet we can appreciate the excitement the astronomer felt as, bundled against the cold, she and her companions rose above the fog and drifted under a nearly full moon toward the coast of Normandy. When they set down near the sea at dawn, they celebrated with a breakfast of cold chicken and champagne. They were all, she wrote, “inwardly enriched a thousandfold by the wonderful experiences of the past night.”

It was the cusp of a new century, and scientific innovation had pressed on through war, natural disasters, and relentless imperial maneuvering. Earlier that year, Guglielmo Marconi had successfully sent a radio signal over the English Channel, and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had patented his airship in the U.S. The previous decade had seen the discovery of the electron, the x-ray, and radioactivity. The one to follow would bring Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Then, as now, scientific pursuits may be undertaken in service to pressing societal issues, or they may appear to have only an abstract value for future researchers. But arriving at an ultimate conclusion isn’t necessarily the point of scientific inquiry. Further investigation will always reveal more about the way the universe works. The truest value of scientific exploration is that it encourages people to engage with the world, to ask it questions, and then to journey toward the answer.

Klumpke’s night in a balloon didn’t deliver on the promise of earlier Leonid displays, but she vividly recalls the earnest excitement she felt in the hours after they landed. “I found myself,” she wrote, “safe back in my little student’s room at the Observatory of Paris … The morning stars in the southeast were beaming through my wide-open window. From my divan I gazed into the calm blue. Had I just awaked from a beautiful dream in which a balloon had carried me heavenward? No, no, it was not a dream. Here were the charts, the note-books … My body seemed lighter than ever, and I had the sensation of floating in the air, and my heart was overflowing with gratitude.”

The history of science must be replete with such stories, of ostensible failures that nevertheless brought joy or insight in the attempt. They paved the way for further discovery and the moments we’ve come to know best. It’s worth remembering these seemingly small contributions to our shared experience—even within the lives of otherwise accomplished scientists—because they remind us that exploration begins with curiosity and excitement. And because they put us, if only for a few minutes, in a balloon flying over Paris, dreaming of what the future might bring.

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