Falling upwards, p.4
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       Falling Upwards, p.4

           Richard Holmes

  Sophia also had an eye for many of the more eccentric examples of balloon propaganda. One set of this type was ‘Mr Ensler’s Wonderful Air Figures’, in which balloons were constructed in various animal and mythological shapes, such as the ‘Flying Horse Pegasus’. Some of these figures were intended to be provocative, like the giant ‘Nymphe coiffée en ballon et habillée à la Polonaise’. The Frenchified style of this description suggests sexual mockery. Then there was the bluffly patriotic ‘Mr Prossor’s Aerial Colossus’, showing an enormous ‘Sir John Falstaff’ floating defensively above the Dover cliffs.3 Such inventions were probably pure design fantasies, or at the most models, never actually manufactured full-size. But they suggest how balloons would become powerful forms of imaginative propaganda later, in the nineteenth century.fn8


  The first actual military balloon regiment, as Franklin had prophesied, was indeed French. The Corps d’Aérostiers was founded at the château of Meudon outside Paris on 29 March 1794. Less than three months later, on 26 June, the French army first made use of a military observation balloon at the Battle of Fleurus, against an Austrian army, and again a few weeks later at the Battle of Liège (where it was witnessed by the galloping Major Money). The balloon, manned on both occasions by a daring young officer, Captain Charles Coutelle, provided vital information prior to successful cavalry charges, and both battles were won by the fledgling French Revolutionary army.

  The balloon school at Meudon was immediately expanded, and Coutelle showered with medals and appointed its commanding officer. He rapidly drew various lessons about military aerostation. First, that it was difficult to inflate a balloon with hydrogen on the battlefield. (Lavoisier was immediately coopted to invent a simpler method of generating hydrogen.) Second, that it was extremely hazardous to launch a tethered balloon if anything more than a light breeze was blowing. Held, kite-like and unnaturally on its cable against the force of the wind (instead of moving tranquilly within it), the balloon canopy would often thrash about and sometimes tear. Moreover, instead of gaining height it would fly horizontally and low. Above all, the basket would become highly unstable as an observation platform. Coutelle also remarked that it was not always easy to transmit really accurate and continuous observations from an airborne basket to a ground controller. Signal flags, scrawled messages or maps were rarely adequate. In most cases the aeronaut had simply to be winched back down, so he could deliver his appreciation verbally to a commander, in person and on the ground. Interestingly, it proved very difficult to get any commander to go up to see for himself.

  But overall Coutelle believed that balloons promised considerable military value. He argued that, under the right conditions, a balloon would give an immense intelligence advantage to an army on the move, whether defending or attacking. It provided a wholly new tactical weapon, a ‘spy in the sky’ which could supply vital warning of troop build-ups and defensive positions, as well as preparations for attack or (equally vital) for retreat. Such observations could give a commander a decisive initiative in the field.

  More subtly, a balloon was also an extraordinary psychological weapon. Because of its height, every individual soldier could see an enemy balloon hovering above a battlefield. By a trick of perception, this gave the impression to every soldier that he, in turn, could always be seen by the balloon. So everything he did was being observed by the enemy. There was no hiding place, no escape. The very presence of such a balloon above a battlefield was peculiarly menacing and demoralising. The enemy might certainly read an enemy soldier’s intentions, and even seem to read his thoughts. This alone made it a powerful military instrument. An Austrian officer was reported, after his army’s defeat at Fleurus, as murmuring, ‘One would have supposed the French General’s eyes were in our camp.’ His troops complained more angrily, ‘How can we fight against these damned Republicans, who remain out of reach but see all that passes beneath.’4

  There was one unforeseen consequence of this. The French balloons quickly came to be universally hated by the opposing allied armies. As a result, they immediately attracted intense and sustained enemy fire, with every weapon that could be mustered, from pistols and muskets to cannon and grapeshot, directed at the observers’ basket. This, concluded Coutelle, made the military aeronaut’s position both peculiarly perilous and peculiarly glamorous.

  The Corps d’Aérostiers eventually fielded four balloons, complete with special hangar tents, winches, mobile gas-generating vessels (designed by Lavoisier) and observation equipment. Coutelle would write a racy history of the Meudon balloon school, with modest emphasis on both the tactical and the amorous successes of the French military aeronauts. Wilfrid de Fonvielle later observed: ‘The favour of the ladies followed the balloonists wherever they went, which was not an unmixed blessing, and seems in the end to have contributed to the suppression of the corps.’5

  With the declaration of war against Britain in 1794, many plays, poems and cartoons imagined an airborne invasion – both French and English – across the Channel. The Anti-Jacobin published invasion-scare cartoons featuring the French guillotine set up in Mayfair, and also extracts from a play purportedly running at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris: La Descente en Angleterre: Prophétie en deux actes.6 There were some remarkable fantasy drawings of entire French cavalry squadrons mounted on large, circular platforms sustained by enormous Montgolfiers, sailing over the white cliffs of Dover. Nevertheless, the much-feared aerial invasion of England by Napoleon’s army never quite materialised.

  In 1797 Napoleon triumphantly took the Corps d’Aérostiers with him to Egypt, counting on the very sight of balloons to put terror into the heart of his Arab enemies, as Hannibal’s elephants had once done in Italy. On 1 August 1798 Coutelle was preparing to unload all his gear outside Alexandria from the French fleet’s mooring at Aboukir Bay when Nelson sailed in at dusk. At the ensuing three-day Battle of the Nile, half of Napoleon’s ships were destroyed, and with them the entire Corps d’Aérostiers. The surviving aeronauts stayed on in Alexandria as technical advisers, like melancholy cavalry officers deprived of their horses. On his return home Napoleon disbanded the corps and the school at Meudon.

  Nevertheless, rumours of a French airborne army invading Britain continued to be cultivated, and remained a powerful element in both French and British propaganda long into the nineteenth century. It was the aerial dream turned nightmare.


  Civilian balloons and a different kind of competitive showmanship reappeared in France at the time of the Peace of Amiens in 1802. They were promoted by André-Jacques Garnerin (1770–1825), who launched his career by performing a spectacularly dangerous first parachute drop from a balloon over Paris’s Parc Monceau in 1797, when he was twenty-seven. As a young man, Garnerin had fought in the French Revolutionary armies, but he had been captured and incarcerated in the Hungarian castle of Buda for three desperate years. He spent his time there designing imaginary balloons to lift him out of the prison courtyard, or parachutes with which he could leap from the castle battlements.7 Finally released and returned to Paris, he turned his ballooning escape-fantasies into a full-time profession, and became head of the first of the famous French ‘balloon families’ (a role later inherited by the Godards).

  Garnerin pioneered a new kind of balloon event: not merely the conventional single ascent, but a whole series of acrobatic displays, parachute drops and night-flights with fireworks. To add to the excitement, his dashing young wife Jeanne-Geneviève made the first recorded parachute jump by a woman in 1799. These shows attracted enormous crowds, and soon the Garnerins became famous throughout European capitals. Garnerin had numerous posters made of their flights, often showing him in heroic, eagle-like profile. Napoleon himself began to see that the balloon had a potential propaganda value even greater than the military one.8

  The Peace of Amiens was barely signed when Garnerin daringly took his balloon show and parachute drops to London. His reception was surprisingly friendly, perhaps b
ecause he was joined not only by Jeanne-Geneviève, but also by his pretty niece Lisa. Garnerin’s first London ascent, from Chelsea Gardens on 28 June 1802, attracted a huge audience: ‘Not only were Chelsea Gardens crowded, and the river covered with boats, but even the great road from Buckingham Gate was absolutely impassable, and the carriages formed an unbroken chain from the turnpike to Ranelagh Gate.’9

  Fearlessly launching in a near-gale, Garnerin flew along the line of the Thames, from the West End to the East End, directly over the City, and then out north-eastwards over the Essex marshes. He was effectively seen by half the population of London. Forty-five minutes later he crash-landed in Colchester, but came back the same day in a coach, gallantly announcing that his balloon had been torn to pieces – ‘we ourselves are all-over bruises’ – but that he would fly again within the week. Indeed, he next ascended from the old Lord’s cricket ground (on the site of the present-day Dorset Square) on 5 July. Advertising his flights with sensational engravings, Garnerin popularised night-ballooning and parachuting in England, and also the dangerous attitude that ‘the balloon show must go on’ whatever the weather.

  The following year, 1803, Garnerin published Three Aerial Voyages, describing his London flights and including an amusing account, evidently intended for English readers, supposedly written by his wife’s cat: ‘Brought up under the care of Madame Garnerin, I may be said to have been nursed in the very bosom of aerostation, and to have breathed nothing but the pure air of oxygenated gas since the first moment of my birth. Hearing of my mistress’s intended ascension, I determined to share the danger …’10

  Scientific ballooning was not entirely forgotten in France. In August 1804 the mathematician Jean-Baptiste Biot and the chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac made a high-altitude scientific ascent, in the one war balloon Coutelle had succeeded in bringing back from Cairo to Paris. They tested the composition of the air in the upper atmosphere, and the strength of the magnetic field, but found no significant alteration from ground level in either. Biot passed out during the descent, so Gay-Lussac went up again alone in September, climbing to 22,912 feet, a new altitude record which would stand for over half a century. Here, in the tradition of Dr Alexander Charles, along with his instrument readings he calmly recorded his breathlessness, fast respiration and pulse, inability to swallow and other symptoms, and concluded that he was very close to the limit of the breathable atmosphere. In the historical section of his classic book Through the Air (1873), the great American aeronaut John Wise later reflected on the courage of these early scientific ascents into the absolute unknown: ‘It is impossible not to admire the intrepid coolness with which they conducted these experiments … with the same composure and precision as if they had been quietly seated in their scientific cabinet in Paris.’ Wise also raised the prophetic possibility of using such high-altitude balloons unmanned for weather observations: ‘Balloons carrying “register” thermometers and barometers might be capable of ascending alone to altitudes between eight and twelve miles.’ But such experiments would have to wait for a time of international scientific cooperation, ‘when nations shall at last become satisfied with cultivating the arts of peace, instead of sanguinary, destructive and fruitless wars’.11

  Indeed, it was the celebration balloon, used for propaganda and patriotic rather than scientific purposes, that most readily held the public’s attention in France. In December 1804 Napoleon commissioned Garnerin to construct and launch a massive, decorated but unmanned balloon to celebrate his coronation as emperor in Paris. It was festooned with silk drapes, flags and banners, and carried an enormous golden imperial crown suspended from its hoop on golden chains. Having been successfully launched above Notre Dame during the coronation ceremony, this fantastic contraption flew southwards right across France, and amazingly crossed the Alps during the night. The following day it was spotted symbolically descending upon Rome, the imperial city, a triumph for Garnerin’s craftsmanship.12

  The huge balloon veered towards St Peter’s and the Vatican Palace, then swooped down low across the Forum. But here the symbolic triumph was turned into a propaganda disaster. The enormous golden crown became hooked on the top of an ancient Roman tomb and broke off, leaving the balloon to disappear, with its banners flapping, over the Pontine Marshes. By unbelievable coincidence, or thoroughly appropriate bad luck (you can never tell with balloons), the tomb upon which Garnerin’s prophetic balloon had deposited Napoleon’s golden crown was that of the infamous tyrant and murderous pervert, the Emperor Nero. Napoleon’s name was hooped like a deck-quoit over Nero’s.fn9 Once this ill-starred news was efficiently relayed back to Paris by Napoleon’s diplomatic service, Garnerin and his balloons began to fall out of imperial favour.14


  Garnerin was replaced, almost at once, by the most justly famous of all the French Revolutionary balloonists. She was a woman – the small, fearless and enigmatic Sophie Blanchard. Born at the sea port of La Rochelle in March 1778, Sophie somehow became involved with the experimental balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who had first crossed the Channel with Dr Jeffries in 1785, when Sophie was only eight. How their romance began remains a mystery, since Blanchard was already married with children, and spent much of the 1790s touring the cities of Europe and America. But it was rumoured that he first saw her when she was still a child, standing in the crowd at one of his launches, and vowed to return and marry her when she came of age in 1799.

  However, the first definite record of them together is not until December 1804, when Blanchard took Sophie on her first balloon flight, above Marseille. According to him she was immediately smitten, breaking her customary painful silence to gasp, ‘Sensation incomparable!’ Pictures show her to be petite and pretty, with large eyes and a dark fringe. But she was also said to be frail and ‘bird-like’, abnormally nervous on the ground, terrified of crowds, loud noises, horses and coach travel, and shy to the point of self-effacement. Yet all this changed completely once she was in the air. In a balloon she became confident and commanding, a natural entertainer and a provoking exhibitionist, daring to the point of recklessness.

  Blanchard, who was ageing and nearly bankrupt, evidently saw the possibilities of reviving his aeronautical career with this fearless young woman, who could instinctively control a balloon, manage aerial fireworks, do acrobatics, and wear eye-catching hats and dresses to please a crowd. He married Sophie when she was twenty-six, and she became his balloon partner for several years, taking over all the arrangements as his health gradually failed. Blanchard died from a heart attack in 1810, while landing in a damaged balloon near The Hague.15 Immediately after his death, Sophie gave her first major solo balloon display in Paris. Like Garnerin, she specialised in night ascents and firework displays, but with much greater daring and eventually recklessness. She deliberately set herself up to rival the other famous female aeronaut of the time, Garnerin’s niece Lisa. Both seemed to vie for official recognition, though Lisa suffered from the waning popularity of the Garnerin name with Napoleon.

  Sophie Blanchard seems to have caught the Emperor’s attention during a midsummer ascent from the Champ de Mars in Paris on 24 June 1810. Soon after, she was asked to contribute to the celebration mounted by the Imperial Guard for Napoleon’s marriage to the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. From then on she became a fixture at the imperial court, with propaganda as well as entertainment duties. On the birth of Napoleon’s son in March 1811, she took a balloon flight over Paris from the Champ de Mars and threw out leaflets proclaiming the happy event. She again performed at the official celebration of his baptism at the Château de Saint-Cloud on 23 June, with a spectacular firework display launched from her balloon. In the same year, in an ascent above Vincennes, she climbed so high to avoid being trapped in a hailstorm that she lost consciousness, and spent 14½ hours in the air as a result.

  Napoleon now made Sophie’s position official. He appointed her Aéronaute des Fêtes Officielles, a position especially created for her, and gave her responsib
ility for organising ballooning displays at all major events in Paris. It was also said that he made her his ‘Chief Air Minister of Ballooning’, with secret instructions to draw up plans for an aerial invasion of England. However this seems more like English counter-propaganda, as Napoleon’s idea for an invasion of England had long since been displaced by the ultimately disastrous invasion of Russia, which began in the spring of 1812.

  Sophie had by now developed her own peculiar free-style of ballooning. She abandoned her husband’s large canopy and unwieldy basket, both of which were by this time much battered. To replace them she commissioned a much smaller silk balloon, capable of lifting her on a tiny, decorative silver gondola. This was shaped like a small canoe or child’s cradle, curved upwards at each end but otherwise quite open. It was little more than three feet long and one foot high at the sides. One end was upholstered to form a small armchair (in which she sometimes slept), but otherwise the gondola offered astonishingly little protection. When she stood up, grasping the balloon ropes, the edge of the gondola did not reach above her knees. It was virtually like standing in a flying champagne bucket.

  She also began to adopt distinctive outfits, which could be seen at a considerable distance. For this purpose her dresses were always white cotton and narrowly cut, with the fashionable English Regency style of high waist and low décolletage. Her sleeves were long, coming right down to her knuckles, presumably to keep her hands warm at high altitudes. Most important of all, she wore a series of white bonnets extravagantly plumed with coloured feathers, to increase her height and visibility. The combined effect of these dramatic clothes and the tiny silver gondola was to make her look both flamboyant and vulnerable. She also appeared terrifyingly exposed, an effect she evidently cultivated.

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