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Adventures in a Silver Cloud

‘Mr. Glaisher insensible at the height of seven miles’; engraving from Travels in the Air, edited by James Glaisher, 1871. Glaisher’s pilot Henry Coxwell is shown climbing into the ­balloon’s hoop to untangle the line of the gas-release valve ­during their 1862 flight over the West Midlands; they survived, and ‘their altitude record,’ writes Richard Holmes, ‘stood for the rest of the century.’

Nine years before, two French scientists, having no aeronautical experience, shot off into the air from the Paris Observatoire, intending to study the atmosphere and to challenge the altitude record, which was held by the British. The balloon appeared to have a mind of its own. (“You can never tell with balloons,” says Holmes.) Expanding alarmingly, it squashed the scientists, almost asphyxiated them when they tried to open a valve in its bulging fabric, and when they awoke from their torpor, they found that the recalcitrant craft had deposited them gently “in a vineyard on the edge of the champagne region in Lorraine.” The expedition had not been a total waste of time: they returned to Paris with no new scientific data, but with “some very good wine.”

Glaisher himself, a meticulous meteorologist who could hardly be described as light-headed, flew with a bottle of brandy. In 1862, after landing in deepest Shropshire, he and his companion “stoically walked ‘seven or eight miles’ to the nearest village inn at Cold Weston for a pint of beer.” This was after reaching a height of 32,000 feet—“very nearly the limit of human existence”—where it was hard to breathe or to “take a decision.” Intoxication was apparently the natural state of balloonists.

Presumably, not all “balloonatics” who entrusted themselves to the wind in a wicker basket had a death wish, but there is something increasingly eerie about these tales of exhilaration, and something pied-piperish about Holmes’s fascination with those “mysterious, paradoxical objects.” Many of the aeronauts who were borne away by uncontrollable balloons showed the same amazing nonchalance as the aerial acrobats. Even in a state of sobriety, they seem to have embraced their fate like martyrs ascending into heaven.

The French scientist-adventurer Gaston Tissandier made an attempt on the altitude record in 1875. He and two associates weighed anchor at the gas factory of La Villette on the outskirts of Paris in a balloon called Le Zénith. The balloon rose swiftly into a cloudless sky and reached such a high altitude in such a short space of time that the crew became confused. Instead of slowing the balloon’s ascent, they threw out more ballast. Tissandier described the physiological and psychological results:

The condition of torpor that overcomes one is extraordinary. Body and mind become feebler. There is no suffering. On the contrary one feels an inward joy. There is no thought of the dangerous position; one rises and is glad to be rising. I soon felt myself so weak that I could not even turn my head to look at my companions. I wished to call out that we were now at 26,000 feet, but my tongue was paralysed.

It gives Tissandier’s account a particular pungency to know that, while he continued to “fall upwards” into the strange serenity of the upper air, his two companions were either dead or about to die from lack of oxygen.

There is, inevitably, a certain sameness in the ascending and descending, and it takes all of Holmes’s skill as a biographer to keep the story bobbing merrily along. One starts to look forward to the deaths, as though they were the point of the whole adventure. Some of Holmes’s balloon deaths are quite beautiful, and the tone of narrative is admiring, amused, and elegiac. For all the paralyzed acrobats, there is nothing in Falling Upwards quite as horrible as the brutal coming-down-to-earth described in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, in which the fatal plunge of a young Englishman in 1786 functions as a metaphor of visceral grief, applied not to the beloved wife who died but to the grief-stricken husband stuck on earth:

He was one of those who held the balloon’s restraining ropes; when a gust of wind suddenly shifted the airbag, his companions let go, while he held on and was borne upwards. Then he fell back to earth. As one modern historian puts it: “The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground.”

(Ironically, though, the “modern historian” referred to in this passage is Richard Holmes himself: the quotation comes from his previous book, The Age of Wonder.)

The deaths in Falling Upwards, in accordance with the title, tend in the other direction. In 1870, when Paris was besieged by the Prussian army, balloons were the only means of communicating with the outside world. One of the mail balloons was piloted (if the verb can be used for the passenger of a wind-driven bag of air) by a patriotic sailor called Alexandre Prince. After taking off from the Gare d’Orléans in Paris on November 28, it sailed over the German lines and headed for the coast. The balloon was last seen from a British fishing vessel, thirty miles west of the Scilly Isles. At that moment, it was flying “exceptionally high.” Neither the balloon nor the pilot was seen again, though some of the mailbags were later found at the Lizard, the rocky promontory at the southwestern tip of Britain. Looking down on the last possible landfall before the ocean, Alexandre Prince must have heaved the heavy mailbags over the side of the basket, knowing that he was dooming himself to rise ever higher.

Some of the high-altitude pioneers who explored what James Glaisher called the “nameless shores” of “the aerial ocean” seem to have been “half in love with easeful Death.” The Swedish engineer and polar explorer Salomon Andrée, to whom Holmes devotes most of his final chapter, “Extreme Balloons,” was almost studiously ill-prepared when he set off for the North Pole from Spitsbergen in July 1897.* His balloon contained some impressive but ineffectual technical innovations, as well as the inevitable champagne. Andrée had managed to convince the Swedish Royal Academy, which funded the expedition, that there was a “steady summer breeze towards the Pole.” No such breeze existed. The bodies of Andrée and his two comrades were eventually discovered in 1930, and the whole sad affair now looks like a very complicated and expensive suicide.

Holmes’s fascinated accounts of these poignant disappearances convey a sense that, if only observers on the ground had had sufficiently powerful telescopes, they might have seen exactly what it is to leave the land of the living. In a wicker cradle stocked like a pharaoh’s tomb with luxuries and works of scientific art, an aeronaut could come close to experiencing his own death.

Holmes frequently refers to the inherent implausibility of balloons. In ballooning, “the boundaries between fact and fiction remain curiously porous.” Perhaps this implausibility is also the inconceivability of death, or the improbability of human existence itself: “There is some haunting analogy between the silken skin of a balloon…and the thin atmospheric skin of our whole, beautiful planet as it floats in space.”

The balloon tales themselves often verge on the incredible, and Holmes evidently relishes this twilight zone of historical narrative, in which one can sometimes hear the faint sound of gas escaping from an overinflated fantasy. Before and after Edgar Allan Poe’s hoax news story of 1844, “The Balloon Hoax” (“Astounding Intelligence by Private Express from Charleston via Norfolk!—The Atlantic Ocean crossed in three days!!”), balloons and the tales attached to them had an air of unreality. In 1804, an unmanned balloon was launched from Notre-Dame to celebrate Napoleon’s coronation. An enormous golden crown hung from its hoop. It sailed across the Alps in a night and, as though wafted by a subversive wind, descended on Rome before depositing the crown very neatly on the monument that was then believed to be the tomb of the tyrant Nero. Was this propaganda disaster an “unbelievable coincidence,” asks Holmes, or “thoroughly appropriate bad luck”? For that matter, was it even true? The source of the story appears to be Italian newspapers that had eluded the French censor.

As Holmes points out, Coleridge’s term “suspension of disbelief” “takes on a new, strangely literal meaning.” Even today, while a helicopter or a jet fighter plane is scarcely more remarkable than a passing bird, a balloon standing almost motionless against the clouds is still a startling sight. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta celebrates and exaggerates this effect of joyful estrangement. When Holmes attended the fiesta in 2010, he saw “everything from a Pepsi-Cola can to Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader and Airabelle the Cow with her Beautiful Udder.” “A humorous innocence seemed the most favoured mode, as if [the balloons] had broken free from an illustrated children’s book.” In its own nostalgic but analytical fashion, Falling Upwards generates the same willing credulity that Holmes enjoys in the balloonists he admires: “Indeed, I find it difficult not to fall for them.”

The mail balloon that almost plunged into Lake Ontario in 1859 eventually struggled on to the eastern shore of the lake. Near the township of Henderson in upper New York State, it crashed into some elm trees at over sixty miles an hour. It finally came to a stop fifty feet above the ground. Amazed to be alive, the four occupants descended from the treetops on ropes. They had set a new world distance record of 809 miles (or, according to John Wise, the leader of the expedition, “about twelve hundred miles”).

Some homesteaders came to see what had happened and stood about while the aeronauts tried to assemble the wreckage. According to Wise, “an elderly lady with spectacles” expressed her astonishment at seeing

so sensible-looking a party as we appeared, to ride in such an outlandish-looking vehicle. She anxiously enquired where we came from; and when told from St. Louis, she wanted to know how far that was from there, and when informed it was over a thousand miles, she looked very suspiciously over the top of her spectacles, and said: “That will do now.”

The “elderly lady with spectacles” was the balloonist’s somewhat patronizing caricature of earthbound common sense. Twenty years later, when the seventy-one-year-old John Wise set off to commemorate his record-breaking flight, he might have heard that voice again. A gale blew his balloon, Pathfinder, out over the Great Lakes toward the never-never land of balloonists. He was never seen again. Holmes, the biographer of that master of the tall tale, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, kindly allows the spirit of Wise to sail away into the inscrutable beyond, tactfully omitting the fact that the body of Wise’s passenger, identifiable only by his clothes, was washed up almost a month later on a shore of Lake Michigan.

  1. *

    A study of Andrée was published recently by Alec Wilkinson: The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration (Vintage, 2012). 

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