Early hot-air balloonists ascended to previously unimaginable heights, stirring humanity’s sense of perspective and possibility
By Toby Lester
September 5, 2013
Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, By Richard Holmes, Pantheon, 416 pp., $35
On December 1, 1783, in the company of some 500,000 admiring spectators, Benjamin Franklin watched a balloon called La Charlière lift off from the Jardin des Tuileries, in Paris. Carrying two passengers, it drifted out of the city on a southeasterly breeze, in the process making the first manned flight ever in a hydrogen balloon. Asked later what practical use such a craft could possibly be, Franklin famously responded, “What’s the use of a newborn baby?”
Less famously, but just as characteristically, Franklin soon proposed some ideas. Why not hitch a small balloon to a footman, he suggested, so that the fellow could run “as fast as the Wind,” leaping and bounding with ease “over Hedges, Ditches & even Water”? Why not send a tethered balloon up into the chilly upper atmosphere and then winch a private refrigerator up to it, to make ice and keep game cool? For that matter, why not use balloons as instruments of war? A fleet of 5,000 balloons, Franklin wrote to Joseph Banks, the president of London’s Royal Society, could be used to ferry an entire invasion force speedily across the English Channel.
What Franklin had no sense of, and indeed what almost nobody could appreciate that day, was the emotionally transformative experience of flight itself. For millennia, people had dreamed of taking to the air—and now, astonishingly, the dream had become a reality. As La Charlière rose magnificently, its pilot, Dr. Alexander Charles, found himself feeling giddy in the extreme. “Nothing,” he later wrote, “will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles and persecutions for ever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical rapture … I exclaimed to my companion Monsieur Robert—‘I’m finished with the Earth. From now on our place is in the sky!’ ”
So began a balloon mania that would last in fits and starts until the advent of heavier-than-air flight a century or so later. Balloonists of all sorts now took to the air, and in Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes gleefully and sympathetically recounts some of their most memorable exploits, ambitions, and misadventures. The book is full of surprises. Early on, for example, Holmes tells the story of the aerial exhibitionist Sophie Blanchard, who starting in 1810 decked herself out in arresting outfits, flew in designer baskets, and entertained audiences all over Europe with daring stunts. These included evening flights, airborne fireworks displays, and on one occasion an entire night spent sleeping at 12,000 feet in an upholstered chair. Needless to say, things didn’t end well for Madame Blanchard. Her death, in 1819, brought the early, exhibitionist phase of the balloon mania to a close. But as Holmes tells it, a new generation of balloonists soon emerged: recreational “aeronauts” who took paying customers aloft.
Growing numbers of the leisure class were now treated to the kind of bucolic aerial experiences that are still the staples of balloon tourism today. There’s the disorienting, rapturous moment of initial uplift. There’s the lazy, almost aquatic drift above a slowly changing patchwork of fields, roads, forests, and human habitation. There are the gleeful exchanges of greetings with the earthbound population, who look and point up at the balloon with surprise and delight. There’s the surreal ability to skim the tops of trees, houses, and church steeples. There’s the ascent thousands of feet into the sky to take in the majesty of the surroundings—and, at last, there’s the thrill of landing, at a destination impossible to predict, so often followed by a festive impromptu gathering of locals.
Holmes notes, however, that the early aeronauts also soon found themselves confronting a very different prospect: a vision of the dramatic transformations being wrought on the countryside—and on society—by the Industrial Revolution. That’s what the celebrated aeronaut Charles Green and two colleagues witnessed in the fall of 1836, when during the maiden voyage of the giant and lavishly outfitted Royal Vauxhall, they made a pioneering 18-hour flight from London to Germany. Floating over France in the middle of the night, they arrived at the outskirts of Liège, Belgium, where ironworkers had recently begun to toil in shifts around the clock. “The balloonists,” Holmes writes, “silently approaching through the night and flying very low, were transfixed by the unearthly glare of the fiery foundries moving swiftly towards them out of the darkness … [and] were gradually overwhelmed by the thunderous machine noise, the choking industrial smells, and the haunting sound of men below still working on the night shifts.”
Balloon-enabled perspectives widened rapidly in the decades that followed, and Holmes surveys an engrossing variety of them. Aeronauts flew over cities and mapped them. They brought scientific instruments aloft and studied the weather. They launched quixotic schemes to fly across continents, to compete with railroads, and to carry the mail. They took the first aerial photographs. Enlisted by the Union in the Civil War, they spied on Confederate forces, sending real-time reports of troop movements to the battlefields below, via telegraph wires strung alongside their tethers. Ingeniously, fantastically, improbably, they broke the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870—a remarkable episode to which Holmes devotes almost an entire chapter. His eye-opening account of it alone makes Falling Upwards a book to seek out.
The aeronauts flew straight up, too. Ascending to ever-greater heights as the century progressed, they studied the nature of air and probed the upper limits of the atmosphere, in effect discovering the stratosphere, bringing space travel tantalizingly within reach, and awakening humanity to the perilously thin swaddling of air that makes life on Earth possible. Holmes recounts the unforgettable story of the vertical explorers James Glaisher and Henry Tracy Coxwell, who in 1862 ascended to the record-breaking altitude of more than 29,000 feet. What happened next, as the Times of London would later report, “deserves its place among the unpatrolled junctures and critical and striking moments of war, politics or discovery.”
Suffering the effects of extreme altitude, Glaisher passed out. Coxwell, himself weakened and disoriented, decided to stop the balloon’s ascent by tugging open a vent at the top of the balloon designed to release hydrogen, only to discover that it was stuck shut. Suddenly, terrifyingly, with the balloon still rising at about a thousand feet a minute, he found himself confronting the frightening idea that he was falling upwards to his death. To try to open the vent, he clambered up into the rigging, where, suspended alone more than six miles above the planet, in a realm of creation never before visited by a human being, he tried desperately to yank open the vent—as apt a metaphor for the glorious absurdity of the human condition as one is ever likely to encounter. After six or seven harrowing minutes, he succeeded. As the balloon at last began its descent, Holmes reports wryly, he shook Glaisher and tried to revive him as only a Victorian scientist could. “Do try to take temperature and barometer observations,” he said. “Do try.” After the two had landed, in a remote spot in the English countryside, Glaisher proved himself a model of the stiff-upper-lipped British explorer by trudging seven or eight miles to the nearest village for a restorative pint.
Holmes describes Falling Upwards in his epilogue merely as a “cluster of balloon stories.” But the book is more than that. Holmes himself goes on to say as much. What it’s really about, he writes, is not so much the history of ballooning as it is “what balloons gave rise to.” And what is that? Simply put: wonder. (No surprise, coming from the author of The Age of Wonder.) Just like gas fills a balloon, wonder fills the mind and the spirit, and then tugs you irrepressibly aloft on flights of imaginative fancy. Open yourself up to wonder, Holmes suggests, in a balloon or in a book, in science or in art, and who knows where you’ll end up, or what you’ll discover.
Toby Lester is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and Boston and the author of Da Vinci's Ghost and The Fourth Part of the World.