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The Irresistible Elevation of Balloons



Rob Hardy


When the enormous red-and-white striped balloon, the Royal Vauxhall, filled with coal gas, ascended from London's Vauxhall Pleasure Garden in 1836, it bore around its circumference a motto from Ovid: "Caelum certe patet, ibimus illi." The proud Latin display nicely describes the romantic allure the balloonists found in their aspirations: "Surely the sky lies open; let us go that way!" It is the attitude to be found throughout Richard Holmes's grand history of ballooning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (Pantheon). It is not technically a full history; the Montgolfier brothers are, for instance, barely mentioned, probably because Holmes covered them in his The Age of Wonder. What is here are fabulous stories of adventure as people tried to understand what balloons could do for humanity. Was the grand new toy also a new tool? There are adventurers here, and scientists, and humanitarians, and show-offs. Holmes's well-illustrated and lively recounting of their stories as they entered hitherto-unknown regions of atmosphere and endeavor is a delight. 




People loved balloons. Not many actually ascended on them, but many enjoyed the spectacle of their ascents as well as imagining what balloons might do. Victor Hugo was inspired by them, and wrote, "'Let us deliver mankind from the ancient, universal tyranny! What ancient, universal tyranny, you cry. Why, the ancient, universal tyranny of gravity!" Like so many revolutionary inventions (such as the telegraph, the telephone, or the internet), balloons were predicted to make geography and national boundaries negligible, producing peace and universal love. Nothing like that happened, of course, but there were some scientific advances the balloons brought. The idea of flight was so novel that the questions to be answered sound naive to us. How high could one go and still be able to breathe, for instance, or keep from being frozen? If an aeronaut sailed closer to the sun, would he experience extreme heat (remember Icarus)? The secretary to the Royal Meteorological Society, James Glaisher, who laconically described the balloon as "an instrument of Vertical Exploration," was a meticulous observer who had correlated weather information from volunteers all over Britain. When his assistant "declined to ascend" on a first balloon trip, Glaisher himself had to go as the on-board scientist in a balloon with a pilot, Henry Coxwell. Glaisher had many subsequent ascents, taking many instruments up and gathering data. The most significant was in 1862, when a valve got stuck and they could not stop ascending, going seven miles up (an altitude record that stood for the rest of the century) and suffering oxygen deprivation and cold. Coxwell took heroic efforts to get the balloon down, but saw Glaisher losing consciousness, recollecting, "I began to fear that he would never take any more readings." Coxwell roused him by urging him to keep track of the data coming in. Eventually they banged down in an isolated area and had to walk seven miles to a pub to get beer. 




The French scientist Camille Flammarion had similar goals of getting to the higher regions in order to better understand the weather and to predict it. He delighted in seeing anything unusual, like the dust kicked up by crowds visiting an exhibition in Paris, or insects. He wrote, "Butterflies hover around the car of the balloon. Until today I imagined that those little things passed their short existence among the flowers of the fields, and that they never rose to any great height in the air." He also wondered that the high-flying insects never seemed to be frightened by the balloon, but the birds were. To make his observations at night he took a little glass jar with glow worms in it. He liked the eccentricity of this arrangement, and although he went aloft to bring back scientific observations, it is clear from his writings that he got a romantic thrill from flying. 




We humans seem to be unable to avoid using our inventions for warfare, and this was certainly true of the balloons. During the Civil War, the Union used balloons for observation, although often the observer could see little but dust and the smoke from the field guns. Communicating with the balloonist proved difficult; telegraph equipment was heavy and the cable could break. Putting reports into canisters and dropping them to the ground worked, but sometimes the balloon just had to be cranked down so an oral report could be given. None other than Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer was invited to go up, and "With an attempt at indifference, I intimated that I might go along." He was distressed at how fragile the wicker basket seemed, and even more distressed when the pilot "began jumping up and down to prove its strength." The Confederacy didn't have many resources to put balloons aloft, but triumphed in a way by creating an undying legend that the gallant women of the South donated their silk dresses to make a beautiful multicolored balloon. Recently records have shown up that such a balloon was not mere legend but existed in fact. Incidentally, there was a visiting Prussian officer observing the battles and the balloons of the Civil War; his name was Zeppelin. Holmes also describes how in 1870 - 1871 during the siege of Paris by the Germans, balloons were used for the first successful civilian airlift ever, a entirely new way of breaking a siege. Victor Hugo wrote, "Paris is surrounded, blockaded, blotted out from the rest of the world! - and yet by means of a simple balloon, a mere bubble of air, Paris is back in communication with the rest of the world!" 




There are disasters here, like the loss of the doomed crew of the Swedish balloon Eagle who tried to make it to the North Pole in 1897, or the "Balloon Priest," Father Adelir Antonio de Carli, who went up on helium balloons for charity in 2008, floated away over the sea, and was probably eaten by sharks. But there was Charles Green who went up in a balloon over five hundred times, and in 1836 traveled from London to Hamburg, 480 miles in 18 hours. There were trapeze artists, and parachutists, and many, many dreamers. Holmes takes to the air by balloon himself now and then, and his enthusiasm is apparent on every page. People tried to make balloons practical, reliable, and efficient; the railways came and did a far better job of any such commercial endeavors. The balloon proved to be better for pleasure and novelty and romance. Holmes writes that he is mesmerized by the "dash and eccentricity of so many of those who have flown balloons since the first Montgolfiers of 1783." He relates the stories with plenty of dash and eccentricity of his own in a hugely entertaining history.



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