RogerBW's Blog

Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes 29 November 2015

2013 non-fiction, an informal history of the rise and fall (sorry) of the man-carrying balloon.

Holmes has mostly written biographies, and his emphasis here is on personalities rather than technical details. He skips for the most part past the Montgolfiers (I gather they're mentioned more in his earlier The Age of Wonder), but describes Charles Money's flight to raise money for a hospital from Norwich to the North Sea in 1785. Immediately following this is an account of the Strelzyks' and Weltzers' escape from East Germany in 1979, and then it's back to 1783 and the first flight by hydrogen balloon. After this the narrative becomes generally chronological, but it tends to give all the details of the career of a single aeronaut before mentioning the next.

So we have the American entrepreneur John Wise who hoped to start a balloon mail service across the USA; Félix Nadar, the French photographer and gifted self-publicist; Sophie Blanchard and her firework-carrying flights. There are also tales of the Napoleonic Corps d'Aérostiers, the American Civil War where observation balloons were heavily used in war for the first time (although, bizarrely, none of the aerial photographs has survived), and the balloons built in Paris to allow mail and a few select people to escape the Prussian siege of 1870-1871. The last major story is of Salomon Andrée's attempt in 1896 to reach the North Pole by balloon, and while this lost some of its impact because I already knew the outcome, some rare moments of technical explanation show why he thought his system of sails and drag-ropes would in fact be able to steer his balloon (and how quickly it all went horribly wrong). There's very little after the turn of the 20th century, and certainly nothing about observation balloons in the World Wars.

But in many ways Holmes seems to be more interested in the mental effects of balloons on those who flew them and those who witnessed their flight. Jules Verne was inspired to write Cinq semaines en ballon, an account of a balloon flight across Africa, which by its huge success changed his literary direction towards tales of futuristic adventure. Victor Hugo was a tireless enthusiast and booster of Nadar, and his republican sympathies made ballooning in France a republican cause. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a detailed account of a balloon-trip to the moon, with horrific images quite possibly inspired by the alien vistas reported by real aeronauts. And the idea of flight was seized upon by visionaries, seeing freedom from gravity as a workable analogue to freedom from tyranny.

There's a broad division between the "horizontal" balloonists, who saw the balloon as a means of transport and communication, and the "vertical" ones, who attempted to build a science of meteorology and to explore the unknown heights above the levels of conveniently-accessible mountains (in an era well before anything like usable oxygen equipment had been produced). Even as the ability to produce hydrogen in the field was increasing, the steam engine was making balloons obsolete; plans for a balloon passenger service across America, or indeed across the Atlantic, came to nothing in the face of slower but distinctly more reliable craft.

This book is just about balloons; there's a brief mention of Ferdinand von Zeppelin, and an even briefer one of Henri Giffard who made the first controlled powered flight (by dirigible) in 1852, but mostly as context to show how the balloon had quickly reached the limits of what was possible without making it into something other than a balloon. Through the nineteenth century its popularity seems to have waxed and waned primarily as a result of publicised successes and failures.

If I didn't have Wikipedia and other such sources to look up the technical details, this would be a tremendously frustrating book. As it is, Holmes clearly had access to plenty of unusual records, and while he's good about attribution I'd have loved more of that side of things here. Even so, this is essentially a book of love for the idea of the balloon, of quiet flight for a few hours, coming to rest who-knows-where, not in a hurry and not for any special reason but purely for the joy of it.

Recommended to me by Phil Masters.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:07am on 30 November 2015

    I've been on a balloon flight once. This was over Luxor at dawn, flying over the mortuary temples, Collosi Of Memnon and the Valley Of The Kings before landing near some village who knows where. Breakfast in the desert before hand, catered by the Hilton. Best scrambled eggs I've ever had, as the sun came up over the Nile.

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