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Adventures in a Silver Cloud

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Library of Congress
‘Death of Harris’; a card from a popular French series of balloon collecting cards, 1895, showing, as Richard Holmes writes in Falling Upwards, ‘a glamorous young naval officer’ named Thomas Harris, whose flight over London in May 1824 with ‘a dazzlingly pretty eighteen-year-old cockney girl’ ended in a sudden descent that killed Harris but not his passenger

Readers of Richard Holmes’s biographies and essays will occasionally have caught glimpses of him in autobiographical vignettes, motorcycling along narrow country lanes or yachting on the North Sea. They will not be surprised to learn, from his history of ballooning, that he himself has made several ascents in a basket attached to a “silken cloud.” Once, he landed in a field of “distinctly inhospitable” pigs in his home county of Norfolk in eastern England; on another occasion, he was a passenger in a balloon whose pilot attempted to land “on the trim lawns of the National Parliament building” in Canberra, “until waved away by a genial security officer who threatened to give us a parking ticket.” Holmes shares the sense of wonder of the balloonists whose “dreamlike stories and romantic adventures” he recounts. He also shares their mischievousness. Falling Upwards opens with a premonitory tableau of the four-year-old Holmes at a village fête. His uncle, an RAF pilot, had tied a helium-filled party balloon to the top button of his aertex shirt: “It tugged me impatiently towards the sky, and I began to feel unsteady on my feet. I felt that I was falling—upwards.”

Far from being a straightforward history of the balloon, this is an uplifting celebration of its aesthetic appeal and its “social and imaginative impact,” of the writing it inspired and of the “strangely mesmerising” “dash and eccentricity” of the balloonists themselves. The Montgolfier brothers’ invention of the “Cloud in a paper bag” in 1782 is barely mentioned, since the topic was covered in Holmes’s previous book, The Age of Wonder, and the first hydrogen-filled balloon flits past in a footnote. Instead, while appearing to tell occasionally incredible tales of courage and catastrophe for the sheer pleasure of it, he has written a social history that, flighty but never flippant, touches down as though by accident in some remote and rarely visited corners of the mind.

At 5:45 on the evening of August 27, 1783, the inhabitants of the village of Gonesse, ten miles northeast of Paris, noticed what some of them took to be the moon descending from the sky. It fell vertically at first, then slanted toward the ground. For most eighteenth-century peasants, even those who lived within striking distance of the metropolis, supernatural interventions were everyday events, but this was something without precedent in fairy tale or legend. As the mysterious object blundered earthward, it assumed the appearance of a gigantic, shapeless bag of red and white silk. Though the bag had lost most of the “inflammable air” that had been piped into it that afternoon on the Champ de Mars in Paris, it was still able to pursue its mad journey across the fields. Later versions of the incident state that the terrified peasants of Gonesse deliberately destroyed the unmanned alien craft, but an account published by a scientist less than three years after the event suggests a more varied and practical response: “Some took to their heels; others knelt down and invoked their patron saint; the boldest among them, after pelting the balloon with stones, caught up with it, tied it to the tail of a horse and dragged it back to Gonesse.” Six years before the French Revolution, an outlandish object made from expensive material and coming from the direction of Paris—in fact it was the first hydrogen-filled balloon—was unlikely to be treated gently.

The peasants of Gonesse were probably right to be wary. Many of the “colorful tales” in Holmes’s captivating “cluster of true balloon stories” suggest that, like other exciting new toys, the balloon had an infantilizing effect on its users. Seeing the glories of civilization reduced to dark stains on a Lilliputian earth, and inspired with a sense of humanity’s insignificance, some of the early aeronauts, even those who had serious scientific intentions, behaved like irresponsible superior beings. On a dark November night in 1836, the English balloonist Charles Green, accompanied by an Irish musician and a member of the British Parliament, was floating invisibly over “the unearthly glare of the fiery foundries” of Belgium, close enough to hear the coughing and swearing of the foundry workers. He lowered a Bengal light on a rope until its dazzling flare was skimming over the workers’ heads. Then he urged one of his companions to shout in French and German through a speaking trumpet “as if some supernatural power was visiting them from on high.” He imagined the “honest artizans” trembling like a primitive tribe, “looking up at the object of their terrors.” To complete the effect, he poured half a bag of ballast sand onto the upturned faces.

What Holmes calls the “amazing insouciance” of the first balloonists facilitated the rapid refinement of balloon technology. It was Charles Green—the first man to ascend on a pony instead of in a basket—who invented the brilliantly simple device known as the trail rope. A heavy manila rope several hundred feet long was winched out of the basket. When the balloon dropped closer to the ground, the ballast weight of the trail rope was transferred to the earth and the balloon rose again to a new point of equilibrium. This satisfying invention may have seemed less so to earthbound mortals. Holmes suggests that Green was welcomed wherever he happened to land in the “largely unpopulated countryside” of early-nineteenth-century England, though, as he also observes, while the heedless aeronaut felt his earthly cares evaporate, his trail rope went “crashing through lines of trees and hedgerows, hissing across fields of crops or cattle, and not infrequently lifting the odd tile or slab of stonework from church roofs or isolated barns.”

Little more than a decade after the Montgolfiers’ balloon trials and the first ascent of living creatures (a sheep, a duck, and a cockerel at Versailles in 1783), balloons carrying human beings were rising over many European cities. The first American flight was made from Philadelphia in 1793 by the French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, with an “aerial passport” endorsed by George Washington. Vast crowds were entertained by acrobats parachuting from balloons. (The neck-craning spectators must have been a pickpocket’s dream.)

Blanchard’s protégée, an excruciatingly shy young woman called Sophie, turned herself into an airborne circus act and so impressed Napoleon that he appointed her “Aéronaute des Fêtes Officielles.” Sophie Blanchard flew—and sometimes fell asleep—in a small gondola, which Holmes likens to “a flying champagne bucket.” She specialized in firework displays that she ignited from the balloon, a “small white figure…suspended several hundred feet overhead in the night sky, above a sea of flaming stars and coloured smoke.” It was not until 1819, after fifteen years of dizzying pyrotechnics, that she set fire to the balloon and crashed to her death in a Paris street.

Despite the balloon craze, says Holmes, the “purpose or possibilities of ballooning” remained unclear. It was as though the balloon really had arrived from another planet with no explanation of its use. Among the crowd that witnessed the launch of the balloon that crash-landed in Gonesse was Benjamin Franklin. Asked afterward, “What’s the use of a balloon?” he replied, cannily, “What’s the use of a new-born baby.” It took the inventive genius of Benjamin Franklin to find work for the miraculous toy: a messenger lightened by a small balloon would be able to run in a straight line over hedges and lakes; a balloon might be yoked to an invalid’s chair or used as an aerial refrigerator; a fleet of balloons could carry an invasion force across the English Channel.

For some time, the practical advantages of the balloon seemed to be primarily military. Tethered balloons were used by Napoleon, and, later, in the American Civil War, as observation platforms. Apart from providing strategic intelligence—and a very obvious target for the enemy’s muskets—the “spy in the sky” was a formidable psychological weapon. An Austrian officer complained of a demoralizing impression that “the French General’s eyes were in our camp.”

However, for most balloonists, the main purpose of what Victor Hugo called “the floating egg” was to feed the imagination and to fill the mind with awe. Like a wonderful hallucinogenic cloud, the balloon was capable of generating seemingly endless novelties. It became possible, as Holmes recounts, to see the sun set twice on the same day, to hear the orchestra of sounds that the earth sent up to the heavens, to navigate under the stars by the smellscape of crops, pine forests, ponds, and chimneys, to explore the realm whose skies were a dark Prussian blue and where butterflies fluttered past as though in a field of flowers.

“Pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture” was the experience of Thomas Baldwin, whom Holmes calls a “pioneer of the existential attitude to ballooning.” Baldwin’s Airopaedia, or Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester in 1785 contains the first aerial drawings and an absorbing diagram of his balloon’s corkscrew flight path superimposed on a map. Baldwin’s basket was an artist’s studio of “paints and brushes, drawing blocks and perspective glasses.” With this panoply of recording equipment, he entered a waking dream. Far below, the river Dee was red, the town of Warrington was blue, and all “appeared a perfect plane, the highest buildings having no apparent height.” Baldwin’s ecstatic observations might not count as scientific discoveries, but they show a human mind encountering a new world for the first time, and it is one of the many delights of Holmes’s book that it gives these evanescent moments their place in history.

To follow these ecstatic pioneers is to discover the distant and alien world of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The balloonists were, of course, tethered to their time, and the subjective landscape that floats into view is pleasantly disorientating. “Intrepid,” says Holmes, is a word “automatically…but almost always thoughtlessly” applied to balloonists. “Hapless” or “too drunk to care” would be nearer the mark. For at least the first hundred years of ballooning, one of the commonest forms of ballast was bottled champagne—an odd choice of drink since, at high altitude, the champagne shot out of the bottle, which is probably why it was often supplemented with brandy. While hydrogen expanded the envelope of the balloon, bubbles of champagne had a similar effect on the pilots’ brains.

Even when the balloon had become what the British meteorologist James Glaisher called “an instrument of Vertical Exploration,” champagne appears to have been the one essential piece of equipment. In 1859, eighteen hours into its flight from St. Louis, Missouri, the balloon that was supposed to prove the feasibility of a trans-American mail service was descending rapidly over a storm-lashed Lake Ontario. The basket was bouncing off the wave tops and there was no sight of land. Yet it was only when every instrument, every piece of furniture, and the lifeboat had been jettisoned that the bottles of champagne were finally sacrificed along with the mailbag.

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