Chapter one opens with an introduction to the main character of the book, Professor William Waterman Sherman, who has been rescued out of the Atlantic Ocean, where he was found nearly dead in the wreckage of twenty balloons. The captain of the boat which picked him up orders that he be placed on bedrest and nursed back to health. Once Professor Sherman has gained enough strength to talk, the captain wants to know exactly how he came to be stranded in the middle of the Atlantic surrounded by the balloons.
Professor Sherman, despite his weakness, announces that the first telling of his great adventure is reserved for "The Western American Explorer's Club," a fraternity to which he belongs back at home and to which, he is most loyal. Professor Sherman not only refuses to tell his tale to his rescuers on the ship, but when the captain deposits him in a hotel in New York and sells his version of the story to a local newspaper, Professor Sherman further refuses to give any clues to the reporters who show up at his hotel door. The short, one-sided story of the captain makes it all the way to the President of the United States, who's secretary writes a letter to Professor Sherman, personally requesting his presence at the White House to announce his story to the world. Professor Sherman sends a quick and negative reply to the President's secretary. The chapter concludes with a final note from the secretary of understanding, as well as the provision of the Presidential train to transport Sherman back to his home in San Francisco.