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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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‘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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