Falling upwards, p.3
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       Falling Upwards, p.3

           Richard Holmes

  Baldwin was one early pioneer of the existential attitude to ballooning, in which the idea that the ‘Prospect’ itself – the free ascent, the magnificent views, the whole ‘aerial experience’ – was the real point of flight. He believed that ‘previous Balloon-Voyagers have been particularly defective in their Descriptions of aerial Scenes and Prospects’. Consequently he took with him a battery of recording equipment: a variety of pens and red lead pencils, special ‘Ass Skin Patent Pocketbooks’, paints and brushes, drawing blocks and perspective glasses, telescopes and compasses. Airopaedia contained the first ever paintings of the view from a balloon basket, an analytic diagram of the corkscrew flight path projected over a land map, and a whole chapter given up simply to describing the astonishing colours and structures of cloud formations.

  Baldwin also notices how the balloon responded to air currents arising from the earth beneath. His careful flight-mapping shows how it was constantly drawn downwards to follow the cool, curving airflows above the meanderings of the river. Similarly, the heady act of leaning directly over the side of the basket to paint, observe and measure makes him sensitive to shifts in shade and colour and perspective on the ground below.

  One typical observation reads: ‘The river Dee appeared of a red colour; the city [Chester] very diminutive; and the town [Warrington] entirely blue. The whole appeared a perfect plane, the highest buildings having no apparent height, but reduced all to the same level, and the whole terrestrial prospect appeared like a coloured map.’13

  Baldwin also writes wonderfully well about clouds, and the prismatic effects of light. He clearly perceives a whole new world opening out around him, and expresses a euphoric emotional reaction. Indeed, to keep these feelings within bounds, he writes of himself throughout his flight in the third person: ‘A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture!’ For him, ballooning instinctively combined both scientific discovery and aesthetic pleasure. But perhaps it should provide more? He could imagine the time when ‘aerostatic ships make the Circuit of the Globe’.14


  The essential mystery of ballooning – the enigmatic meaning of the original dream – was there from the start. Almost a decade after its invention by the Montgolfier brothers, with flights recorded in many nations, including Germany, Italy, Russia and America, it was still not clear, either to the Royal Society in London or the Academy of Sciences in Paris, what the true purpose or possibilities of ballooning really were. Don Paolo Andreani had flown from Milan in February 1784; Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries had traversed the Channel in January 1785; Pilâtre de Rozier had died attempting the same crossing in the opposite direction with a composite hydrogen and hot-air balloon in June 1785 (thereby becoming the first scientific balloon martyr); Baron Lütgendorf had ‘partially’ flown at Augsburg in August 1786; and Blanchard had gone on to demonstrate ballooning in virtually every major city in Europe, finally crowning his international career with what he claimed was the first ever American ascent, from the city of Philadelphia in January 1793, carrying an ‘aerial passport’ endorsed by President George Washington, and successfully crossing the Delaware river into New Jersey.15

  Yet all these ascents were essentially public spectacles and entertainments. ‘Flight’ itself remained a novel and surprisingly unexplored concept. What, in practice, could balloons actually do for mankind, except provide a hazardous journey interspersed with the fine aerial ‘Prospects’ that men like Dr Charles and Thomas Baldwin recorded so eloquently?

  According to Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, the Parisian promoter of the Montgolfier balloons, they might, for example, provide observation platforms: for military reconnaissance, for sailors at sea, for chemists analysing the earth’s upper atmosphere, or for astronomers with their telescopes. It is notable that most of these applications were based on the notion of a tethered balloon. In fact many of the Montgolfiers’ early experiments were made with tethered aerostats, held to the ground by various ingenious forms of harness, guy ropes or winches.fn5

  The poet and inventor Erasmus Darwin’s first practical idea of balloon power was, paradoxically, that of shifting payloads along the ground. He suggested to his friend Richard Edgeworth that a small hydrogen balloon might be tethered to an adapted garden wheelbarrow, and used for transporting heavy loads of manure up the steep hills of his Irish estate. This convenient aerial skip would allow one man to shift ten times his normal weight in earth, but also in bricks or wood or stones. In fact it might cause a revolution in the entire conditions of manual labour.17

  Similarly, Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, had the initial idea that balloons could increase the effectiveness of earthbound transport, by adding to its conventional horsepower. He saw the balloon as ‘a counterpoise to Absolute Gravity’ – that is, as a flotation device to be attached to traditional forms of coach or cart, making them lighter and easier to move over the ground. So ‘a broad-wheeled wagon’, normally requiring eight horses to pull it, might only need two with a Montgolfier attached. This aptly suggests how difficult it was, even for a trained scientific mind like Banks’s, to imagine the true possibilities of flight in these early days.18

  Benjamin Franklin, ‘the old fox’, as Banks’s secretary Charles Blagden called him, was quick to suggest various menacing military applications, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to fix Banks’s attention. ‘Five thousand balloons capable of raising two men each’ could easily transport an effective invasion army of ten thousand marines across the Channel, in the course of a single morning. The only question, Franklin implied, was which direction would the wind be blowing from?19

  His other speculations were more light-hearted. What about a ‘running Footman’? Such a man might be suspended under a small hydrogen balloon, so his body weight was reduced to ‘perhaps 8 or 10 Pounds’, and so made capable of running in a straight line in leaps and bounds ‘across Countries as fast as the Wind, and over Hedges, Ditches & even Water …’ Or there was the balloon ‘Elbow Chair’, placed in a beauty spot, and winching the picturesque spectator ‘a Mile high for a Guinea’ to see the view.

  There was also Franklin’s patent balloon icebox: ‘People will keep such Globes anchored in the Air, to which by Pullies they may draw up Game to be preserved in the Cool, & Water to be frozen when Ice is wanted.’20 This contraption would surely have appealed to the twentieth-century illustrator W. Heath Robinson.

  Franklin, who suffered formidably from gout, later suggested that a balloon might even be used to power a wheelchair. When he had returned from Paris to Philadelphia in autumn 1785, he began using a sedan chair lifted by four stout assistants for his daily commute from his house to the Philadelphia State Assembly Rooms. He suggested reducing the requisite manpower by 75 per cent, simply by harnessing the chair to a small hydrogen balloon, ‘sufficiently large to raise me from the ground’. This would make his malady less vexatious for all concerned, by providing a ‘most easy carriage’, lightweight and highly manoeuvrable, ‘being led by a string held by one man walking on the ground’.21 fn6


  In 1785 Tiberius Cavallo, a Fellow of the Royal Society, put together the first British study of ballooning. His A Treatise on the History and Practice of Aerostation studiously adopted the French scientific term for ‘lighter-than-air’ flight, but moved far beyond national rivalries. He wanted to consider the phenomenon of flight from both a scientific and a philosophical point of view. He thought that ballooning held out immense possibilities, less as a transport device than as an instrument for studying the upper air and the nature of weather. This distinction between horizontal and vertical travel would have a long subsequent history.

  Cavallo was a brilliant Italian physicist who had moved to London at the age of twenty-two, and had already written extensively on magnetism and electrical phenomena. Elected to the Royal Society in 1779, he quickly turned his attention to ballooning. He had some claims to be one of the first to inflate soap bubbl
es with hydrogen as early as 1782. Although a handsome portrait is held by the National Portrait Gallery in London, he is now largely and unjustly forgotten. Yet his study emerges as the most authoritative early treatise on the subject of ballooning in either English or French. The copy of Cavallo’s book held by the British Library is personally inscribed ‘To Sir Joseph Banks from the Author’, in severe black ink.

  Cavallo carefully adopted a considered and even sceptical tone, well calculated to appeal to Banks. Much had been made of Vincenzo Lunardi’s historic first flight in Britain, in September 1784, when he flew from London to Hertfordshire with his pet cat. The newspapers of the day all declared Lunardi a heroic pioneer, a patriot and an animal lover, although the gothic novelist Horace Walpole – author of The Castle of Otranto – roundly criticised him for risking the life of the said cat. But Cavallo noted: ‘Besides the Romantic observations which might be naturally suggested by the Prospect seen from that elevated situation, and by the agreeable calm he felt after the fatigue, the anxiety, and the accomplishment of his Experiment, Mr Lunardi seems to have made no particular philosophical observation, or such as may either tend to improve the subject of aerostation, or to throw light on any operation in Nature.’23 fn7

  Cavallo analysed and dismissed most claims to navigate balloons, except by the use of different air currents at different altitudes.24 He emphasised the aeronaut’s vulnerability to unpredictable atmospheric phenomena such as down-drafts, lightning strikes and ice formation. He deliberately included the first alarming account of a French balloon caught in a thunderstorm, during an ascent from Saint-Cloud in July 1784, and dragged helplessly upwards by a thermal:

  Three minutes after ascending, the balloon was lost in the clouds, and the aerial voyagers lost sight of the earth, being involved in dense vapour. Here an unusual agitation of the air, somewhat like a whirlwind, in a moment turned the machine three times from the right to the left. The violent shocks, which they suffered prevented their using any of the means proposed for the direction of the balloon, and they even tore away the silk stuff of which the helm was made. Never, said they, a more dreadful scene presented itself to any eye, than that in which they were involved. An unbounded ocean of shapeless clouds rolled one upon another beneath, and seemed to forbid their return to earth, which was still invisible. The agitation of the balloon became greater every moment …25

  Yet for all this, Cavallo was a passionate balloon enthusiast. He recorded and analysed all the significant flights, both French and English, made from Montgolfier’s first balloon at Annonay in June 1783, to Blanchard and Jeffries’s crossing of the Channel in January 1785. He distinguished carefully between hot-air and hydrogen balloons, and their quite different flight characteristics. He looked in detail at methods of preparing hydrogen gas, noting that Joseph Priestley had come up with one that used steam rather than sulphuric acid. He also examined the different ways of constructing balloon canopies from rubber (‘cauchou’), waxed silk, varnished linen and taffeta.

  In a longer perspective, he stressed the astonishing speed of aerial travel over the ground – ‘often between 40 and 50 miles per hour’ – combined with its incredible ‘stillness and tranquillity’ in most normal conditions.26 This he thought must eventually revolutionise our fundamental ideas of transport and communications, even if the moment had not yet arrived. But he was less impressed by the horizontal potential of ballooning than by its vertical one. The essence of flight lay in attaining an utterly new dimension: altitude.

  He pointed out that in achieving altitudes of over two miles, balloons opened a whole new perspective on mankind’s observations of the earth beneath. Man’s growing impact on the surface of the planet for the first time became visible. As did the vast tracts of the earth – mountains, forests, deserts – yet to be traversed or discovered. Above all he stressed that the full potential of flight had not yet been remotely explored. The situation has perhaps some analogies with the space exploration programme, in the years following the Apollo missions.

  Cavallo considered the whole range of possible balloon applications. But he finally and presciently championed its relevance to the infant science of meteorology:

  The philosophical uses to which these machines may be subservient are numerous indeed; and it may be sufficient to say, that hardly anything of what passes in the atmosphere is known with precision, and that principally for want of a method of ascending into the atmosphere. The formation of rain, of thunderstorms, of vapours, hail, snow and meteors in general, require to be attentively examined and ascertained.

  The action of the barometer, the refraction and temperature of air in various regions, the descent of bodies, the propagation of sound etc are subjects which all require a long series of observations and experiments, the performance of which could never have been properly expected, before the discovery of these machines. We may therefore conclude with a wish that the learned, and the encouragers of useful knowledge, may unanimously concur in endeavouring to promote the subject of aerostation, and to render it useful as possible to mankind.27

  Cavallo’s work was both a challenge and an intellectual landmark in the early history of ballooning. He was largely responsible for the historic first article on ‘Aerostation’, which appeared in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with notable illustrations, in 1797. This was a signal date. From then on, flight was officially established as a new branch of scientific knowledge, rather than an old backwater of mythology.


  Yet there always remains the most enduring early dream or fantasy of flying, which is a metaphysical one. The ultimate purpose is to fly as high as possible, and then look back upon the earth and see mankind for what it really is. This idea has persisted since the beginning, and still continues, sometimes in a satirical form, and sometimes in a visionary one.

  The seventeenth-century French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac (a fearless duellist and also an intellectual provocateur) convincingly reported a secret flight to the moon, undertaken sometime before his death in 1655. It appeared in his posthumously published work Histoire comique des états et empires de la Lune (Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon). Cyrano’s flight is powered by glass cluster balloons, filled with dew and drawn skyward as the droplets are heated by the sun and evaporate: ‘I planted myself in the middle of a great many Glasses full of Dew, tied fast about me, upon which the Sun so violently darted his Rays, that the Heat, which attracted them, as it does the thickest Clouds, carried me up so high, that at length I found myself above the middle Region of the Air. But seeing that Attraction hurried me up with so much rapidity that instead of drawing near the Moon, as I intended, she seem’d to me to be more distant than at my first setting out …’

  After an initial power failure and crash-landing, the final approach, made with the additional aid of gunpowder and a lunar force-field, is memorably disorientating: ‘When according to the calculations I had made, I had travelled much more than three-quarters of the way between earth and moon, I suddenly started falling with my feet uppermost, even though I had not performed a somersault … The earth now appeared to me as nothing but a great plate of gold overhead.’

  When Cyrano eventually lands, he is captured and cross-questioned by various lunar inhabitants. One, more kindly than the others, remarks: ‘Well, my son, you are finally paying the penalty for all the failings of your Earth world.’28 Presented before the Lunar Court, he narrowly escapes being condemned to death for impiety. He has maintained the ridiculous notion that ‘our earth was not merely a moon, but also an inhabited world’. He returns in sober mood, crash-landing near a volcano in Italy.29

  Some three hundred years later, on 24 December 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft came round from the dark side of the moon. The astronaut Bill Anders later recalled: ‘When I looked up and saw the earth coming up on this very stark, beat-up lunar horizon, an earth that was the only colour that we could see, a very fragile-looking earth, a very delicate-looking earth, I was immediately
almost overcome by the thought that here we came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own planet, the earth.’

  The trip produced one of the most famous colour photographs ever taken. It has become universally known as ‘Earthrise’. The small, beautiful planet earth is sliding above the bleakness of the cratered moon surface, and hanging against the blackness of outer space. From this vision arose the whole modern concept of planet earth as the ‘small blue dot’ of life, amid a dark and mysterious universe.30

  The dream of flight is to see the world differently.


  Fiery Prospects


  Just like space flight, early balloon flight offered military as well as metaphysical prospects. Cavallo’s dream of scientific ballooning was soon displaced by prospects of a more warlike kind. Benjamin Franklin had warned Sir Joseph Banks of this possibility, and such signs of the times were recognised by many contemporaries, including Banks’s clever younger sister, Sophia. She had begun to make a collection of balloon memorabilia, which she stuck into an enormous red-leather folio scrapbook especially purchased for the purpose. It would eventually run to over a hundred items.1 One of her earliest specimens was a British cartoon, dated 16 December 1784, entitled ‘The Battle of the Balloons’.

  This shows four balloons, two flying the French fleur de lys and two the British Union Jack, manoeuvring for aerial combat. Their crews are armed with muskets, but also, more menacingly, with broadside cannons. Their muzzles point through portholes cut in the balloon wickerwork.2 Here the balloon is already conceived of as a weapon of war, comparable to the navy’s ships of the line.

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