In this splendid follow-up to his acclaimed The Age of Wonder (2010), Richard Holmes tells the story of the world’s early balloonists, enthusiastically sharing with us a fascination that he first discovered as a four-year-old at a Norfolk village fete. As he readily admits, his book is not a conventional history of ballooning. He spares us much technical detail, focusing more on the motives, exploits and reactions of these pioneers of ballooning, and discussing what their contemporaries made of them.
“What’s the use of a newborn baby?” was Benjamin Franklin’s response to someone who questioned the use of balloons. Their unpredictability meant that they had little future as a means of public transport, but the military recognised their value. One of the book’s many illustrations, a cartoon of 1784, depicts a kind of aerial Trafalgar with four balloons, two British, two French, bombarding each other with cannon from their wicker baskets, but in the event balloons were adopted by armies for reconnaissance rather than combat. Fittingly, it was Revolutionary France that made first use of these new devices, enraging their more conservative enemies who considered them unsporting and dishonourable. During the American Civil War, the Union army deployed a corps of observation balloons, while in 1870-71 more than 60 balloons managed to fly out of Paris during the siege of the city by the Prussians.
Consummate biographer that he is, Holmes is at his best when writing about the eclectic mix of adventurers, scientists, entrepreneurs, showmen and women who risked their lives in order to take to the air, and the (sometimes fatal) adventures that they had when they did. He presents us with an unforgettable cast of characters.
John Money took off from Norwich on a fundraising stunt for a local hospital in 1785, was blown out 20 miles over the sea and was rescued after more than five hours in the water. Fifty three-year-old meteorologist James Glaisher ascended more than seven miles without oxygen. Sophie Blanchard, timid on the ground, fearless in the air, was appointed Aéronaute des Fêtes Officielles by Napoleon and entertained Paris with fireworks set off from the silver gondola of her balloon. Eventually, the inevitable happened: a firework ignited the hydrogen in her balloon. She crashed on to a roof and slid to her death on the cobbles below. The last – and, for this reader, most compelling – chapter tells the tragic story of Salomon Andrée and his doomed attempt to reach the north pole by balloon in 1897. The bodies of the three expedition members were finally found in 1930, along with journals and images providing poignant details of their 190-mile hike across the ice in a vain attempt to reach safety.
It is a little disappointing that, because Holmes explored them in his previous book, there is hardly anything on the early trials of the Montgolfier brothers and the historic first balloon flight of Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes. This otherwise excellent book seems slightly incomplete without them. Julian Humphrys is the author of Clash of Arms: Twelve English Battles (English Heritage, 2007)
Julian Humphrys is the author of Clash of Arms: Twelve English Battles (English Heritage, 2007)