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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf American Prose: 1830-1930
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                                             Isaac H. Benedict

Born in New York City in 1825, Benedict was educated at the New York Institution for the Deaf at Fanwood. He later became an educator for nineteen years at Fanwood and while there, married Sarah D. Stelle, a former classmate. Entering government service in Washington, DC, Benedict worked with the auditor’s office in the Treasury Department for thirty-six years. He resigned so that he could better devote himself to the study of languages, and according to The Silent Worker, he became conversant with seven languages and later became an “expert advisor” in Esperanto. His nonfiction account of a hot-air balloon journey, “Aerial Navigation by a Deaf-Mute,” was published in the American Annals of the Deaf in 1855.[7]

Aerial Navigation by a Deaf-Mute

NOTWITHSTANDING THE deprivation of the faculty of hearing in consequence of which we are incapable of the perception of harmony and the charms of music, the Supreme Being has bestowed on us a sense of sight, through the medium of which we can perceive the dangers encompassing us, or form a just idea of the magnificence of the celestial bodies in the vast boundless blue expanse, the charming beauties of the country and the innumerable pleasing objects with which the earth abounds; or acquire knowledge of visible language, through which we can carry the cultivation of the mind to any degree of perfection of which its natural susceptibilities render it capable. When our minds were totally wrapped in the darkness of ignorance, our merciful Maker placed us in a benevolent institution, in which our dormant faculties were awakened in which new light dawned upon our souls, and in which, for the first time, we were introduced to the Author of Nature, whose works we had gazed upon without recognizing his hand. It was here we first learned those written characters and those written forms, through which now we can express our thoughts in different languages, and meet our fellows on something like equality.

Among the blessings which education has conferred upon us, is the conversion it has made of the pity of others into appreciating sympathy, leading them to furnish us with facilities for happiness, observation and improvement, which are not always possessed by those who hear. This thought was suggested by the extreme kindness with which the writer was treated by the managers of the Crystal Palace, whither he often resorted, not merely for the purpose of witnessing the chef-d’oeuvres in art of the different nations of the earth which were there collected, but also for the opportunity of practicing conversation in different languages to which he had previously paid some attention. For this purpose, he was introduced, among others, to Monsieur Eugene Godard, a distinguished French aeronaut, who had made his two hundred and twenty-sixth ascension, and who was then exhibiting a new form of balloon, which combined in a remarkable degree the advantage of safety and ease of management. After a short acquaintance, the writer received an unexpected invitation from him to accompany him on an aerial tour which was to be made on Thursday the 27th of October.

As the writer entered the Hippodrome at half-past three o’clock on the appointed day, he saw that the balloon was nearly filled with hydrogen gas, which was introduced into it by means of an oil-cloth tube. Several men were standing round the balloon holding many cords that were united with the net covering the summit of the balloon, in order to prevent it from rising up. Mons. Godard expressed his great exultation by shaking hands with me, and asked me by pantomime, if I would take an expedition with him through the air. He then placed the basket car under the balloon, and fastened them together by means of the cords; and at twenty-seven minutes past four o’clock, Mons. Godard conducted into the car, Mons. Charles Lassalle, editor of the “Courrier des Etats-Unis,” and myself. The balloon on rising up from the Hippodrome, floated over many houses, on the roofs of which stood a great many spectators, fixing their eyes upon it, and waving their handkerchiefs and hats. Mons. Godard, whose countenance beamed with cheerfulness, exultation and fearlessness, climbed up, with remarkable agility, from the car to the hoop above our heads, and saluted the assembled metropolitans by waving an American flag. When we had risen up to an immense height, we had an inexpressibly magnificent view of the panorama of New York, the great emporium and the most commercial metropolis in America, which seemed gradually to move from under the eye. The avenues and streets, broad and convenient, crossing each other at right angles, presented a beautiful appearance. The city seemed principally built of brick; but in Fourteenth-street, I noticed two long beautiful rows of buildings constructed of brown stone. We noticed also many edifices both private and public, which were characterized by very considerable elegance. The thousands of inhabitants and of horses and carriages, in the long straight avenues, passing each other in different directions, appeared to be small in size like a great multitude of ants. As the panorama of the city gradually glided away from under our eyes, our favorite Institution, in the centre of Manhattan Island, seemed to become as small as my little finger-nail; and the Latting Tower, to be only as high as my little finger is long. The Croton High Bridge, that magnificent work of art, with its lofty arches spanning the Harlem River, more than one thousand four hundred feet long, at the distance of many miles from the balloon, was just visible to the naked eye. The Receiving Reservoir covering thirty-two acres and containing one hundred million gallons of water, at the same distance, seem like a small mirror, and all the visible objects on our island seemed to grow smaller and smaller as we ascended higher and higher.

On passing over the Hudson River, at the height of one thousand seven hundred yards, Manhattan Island, at the junction of the above mentioned river and the Easter River, on which many vessels were passing each other in various directions, looking as if they were toy-boats floating on a little brook, seemed to be about eight feet in length, but, by degrees, it diminished more and more in apparent size as we went farther and higher. As we ascended, the horizon gradually expanded and its diameter grew sensibly greater. We had a very wonderful panoramic view of Long Island, covered with many white villages, extending from the East River to the verge of the eastern horizon, of the vast expanse of the majestic deep, of the Narrows, of our harbor, of Newtown Creek in Long Island, of Staten Island, and of the picturesque and romantic Highlands through which the Hudson winds its way as far as the eye could reach.

7. American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb 10, no. 1 (1858); “Isaac H. Benedict Dies in His Ninetieth Year,” The Silent Worker 28, no. 5 (February 1916): 96.

“Aerial Navigation by a Deaf-Mute” is from American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb 7, no. 3 (April 1855).

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