Biographies & Memoirs


Balloonists in Heaven


Herschel’s international success was a great encouragement to Joseph Banks at this time. He was still privately suffering from the loss of his friend Solander, and was being harassed by internecine intellectual feuds at the Royal Society (particularly among the unworldly mathematicians). It was with no little relief that in August 1783 he began to receive secret reports in Soho Square of strange rumours from Paris about the possible existence of a French flying machine.

The dream of flight had haunted men-especially poets, satirical writers and impractical fantasists-since the myth of Icarus. European literature was full of unlikely bird machines, flapping chariots, flying horses and aerial galleons. None of them were remotely practicable. But this was something quite different: a giant ‘aerostat’ powered by ‘inflammable air’. What was more, it was being seriously investigated by the French Academy of Sciences, under the redoubtable Marquis de Condorcet.

Banks’s most reliable informant was the wily old American Ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin, a corresponding member of the Royal Society, and now aged seventy-seven, a shrewd judge of both men and machines. After seven years at the Embassy in Paris, Franklin was still a francophile and an enthusiast, and had just delivered a sparkling report on the craze for mesmerism, or ‘Animal Magnetism’. He had noted that Anton Mesmer had earned 20,000 louis d’or ‘by this pretended new Art of Healing’.1

Franklin now wrote to Banks describing something even more fantastic: a series of aerial experiments involving very large paper bags. These bags had apparently been flown in the open air to a considerable height by a paper manufacturer near Lyons in June that year. The paper-maker, whose name was Joseph Montgolfier, was bringing his bags to Versailles to give a public demonstration before King Louis XVI. It was scheduled to be held in the large courtyard in front of the palace that September.

All this sounded fantastical enough. But then Franklin reported that a member of the Académie des Sciences, Dr Alexandre Charles, had stolen a march on Montgolfier by inflating a silk bag with the newly discovered ‘inflammable air’ and launching it in public from the Champs de Mars on 27 August. What was astonishing was the lifting power of this simple device. The silk bag or ‘balloon’, although it was only six feet in diameter, had quickly risen so high that it could no longer be seen. It had crossed the Seine and travelled fifteen miles outside Paris before it burst. This was a distance which a horseman could barely cover in a hour at the gallop.

Then Franklin reported that Montgolfier and his brother Étienne had successfully launched their own balloon from Versailles on 11 September. Unlike Charles’s gas balloon, it was powered by hot air, it was very big, and it was beautifully decorated with heraldic symbols. Moreover, its lifting power was spectacular. In a wicker cage attached to the neck of the bag it had carried a sheep, a duck and a cockerel (the French national symbol) right over the rooftops of Versailles, and had stayed aloft for seven minutes. All the animals had returned to earth alive and well.

It was clear what would happen next. Either the Montgolfiers or Charles would try to send a man up in a balloon. The prospect was amazing, and nothing else was talked about in France. Franklin thought that balloons might eventually ‘pave the way to some discoveries in Natural Philosophy of which at present we have no conception’. He instanced the examples of ‘magnetism and electricity, of which the first experiments were mere matters of amusement’.2

Initially Banks wrote back sceptically. ‘I see an inclination in the more respectable part of the Royal Society to guard against the Ballomania until some experiment like to prove beneficial either to society or science is proposed.’ Nevertheless, he conceded by mid-September 1783 that with the Montgolfiers’ ‘Aerostatic Experiment’ at Versailles, the French had ‘opened a Road in the Air’, and this might mark a new ‘Epoch’. If further experiments proved successful, then ‘The immediate Effect it will have upon the Concerns of Mankind [will be] greater than anything since the invention of Shipping.’3

Paradoxically enough, Banks’s first conception of balloon transportation was a thoroughly earthbound one. 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 need only two horses 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.4


Banks was very conscious that the discovery of a lighter-than-air gas had actually been achieved by two English chemists, Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley. They had called it ‘inflammable air’ because of its lightness and explosive properties. Priestley’s Experiments on Different Kinds of Air had been translated in France in 1768. All the experiments had then been repeated and refined by their rival, the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, in Paris. He had measured the buoyancy of this ‘gaz’ (a word not yet coined in English) more accurately, and renamed it ‘hydrogen’. But no one had manufactured it on a large scale, or realised its dramatic practical applications.

The Montgolfier brothers were commercial paper manufacturers from Annonay, near Lyons, in the Ardèche. They were an effective business team. Joseph was the shrewd entrepreneur, and Étienne was the madcap inventor. They were interested in chemistry for commercial reasons. They had followed Priestley’s and Lavoisier’s work, and had speculated about putting lighter-than-air gas into paper containers. As early as 1782, Joseph had humorously suggested the theoretical possibility of flying an entire French army into Gibraltar, and seizing it from the English. The troops would fly suspended beneath hundreds of huge paper bags.5

Lavoisier’s ‘hydrogen’ was produced by passing sulphuric acid over iron filings. It was one-thirteenth of the weight of common air, and consequently could produce a powerful lift if sufficiently concentrated in a light container (Cavendish had used soap bubbles). But it was slow and dangerous to produce, potentially explosive, and easily escaped from containers made of silk or animal bladders. Hot air, on the other hand, was easily produced by any kind of controlled fire, and could be temporarily contained in inflated silk or paper. It produced a short-term lift, as heat agitates the air molecules, making them move apart and become more buoyant than the surrounding cooler, denser air (and at best about half its weight). This lift was however less powerful than that of hydrogen, was easily dissipated, and consequently required much bigger balloons to sustain the same power of ascent, or carry the same payload.

Joseph Montgolfier later said he had tried Lavoisier’s ‘gaz’ unsuccessfully, but discovered the principle of hot air by watching his wife’s chemise inflating when she hung it over the hearth to dry.6 He made several small experimental ‘aerostats’, finally adopting a pear-shaped balloon, with a wide neck that could be lowered over a fire. The Montgolfiers described it memorably as ‘putting a cloud in a paper bag’.

On 5 June 1783, they successfully launched their first large paper balloon in open country outside Annonay. It was probably intended as a piece of advertising for their paper business, and it was a dazzling sight. When inflated, their balloon stood thirty foot high, 110 feet in circumference, and took eight men to hold it down. It was crudely constructed of painted silk sections backed with coarse paper and simply buttoned together. In fact it contained no hydrogen gas at all, but simply 22,000 cubic feet of hot air collected from braziers burning straw and damp wool. French hot air proved to have enormous lifting power. When released it rose gracefully to an estimated 6,000 feet, barely visible, and remained aloft for ten minutes.7

Perhaps most significant of all, it drew an enormous crowd of onlookers. This ability of the balloon to attract attention and pull large numbers of people has always remained part of its mystique, and an important part of its history. Montgolfier had discovered a scientific principle quite as interesting as that of aerial buoyancy. With ballooning, science had found a powerful new formula: chemistry plus showmanship equalled crowds plus wonder plus money. Reports of the flight travelled throughout France, and the Montgolfiers were soon invited to give official demonstrations, first at Versailles and then in Paris. The Marquis de Condorcet, the head of the Académie des Sciences, appointed a committee to investigate the invention and consider sponsoring its development. It assembled France’s leading men of science, including Lavoisier and Claude Berthollet.8

Now there was the feeling of urgency, even of a race. People began contacting the Montgolfiers, applying to the Académie, or publicly volunteering to be ‘the first aerial traveller in the world’. One was a young inventor from Normandy, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who had already been experimenting with a number of winged flying machines, most notably a flying tricycle. He announced boldly in the Journal de Paris: ‘Within a very few days I shall be ready to demonstrate my own aerostatic machine, which will climb and dive on command, and fly in a straight line at a constant altitude. I shall be at the controls myself, and have sufficient confidence in my design to have no fear of repeating the fate of Icarus.’9

Another, better-connected but no less enthusiastic candidate, was a young Parisian doctor, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier. Pilâtre was a professor of natural philosophy who ran a private science museum and college in the rue Saint-Honoré. He was twenty-nine years old. He had invented a gasmask, a hydrogen blowtorch, and a new theory of thunder-all of which seemed equally relevant to ballooning. A small, neat, energetic figure of infectious charm, he was a considerable ladies’ man. He had good contacts within the Académie des Sciences and the Ministry of Finance, and some said particularly with ‘Madame’ (the Comtesse de Provence, Louis XVI’s sister-in-law). He would soon be pursued by a number of intellectual aristocrats, such as Madame de Saint-Hilaire. But with his charm went extraordinary sangfroid-and of course a head for heights. Pilâtre proved himself fearless and precise during the most alarming experiments, and soon made himself indispensable to the Montgolfiers. He had, in effect, invented the new profession of test pilot. He had the right stuff.10

On 21 November 1783 the first manned Montgolfier balloon was launched from the hill of La Muette. This was a commanding site just above the river Seine at Passy, opposite the Champs de Mars (where the Eiffel Tower now stands). The hot-air balloon was enormous, a monster: seventy feet high, and gloriously decorated in blue, with golden mythological figures. It was powered by a six-foot open brazier burning straw. Its chosen ‘aeronauts’-another new French term-were Pilâtre de Rozier and an elegant infantry officer, the Marquis d’Arlandes, a major in the Garde Royale. D’Arlandes was selected for his court connections, his enthusiasm and his wealth; and also simply because the Montgolfiers needed a ‘counterweight’. Since Pilâtre was to be carried aloft in a circular gallery slung around the open neck of the balloon (and not in a basket), his weight had to be constantly balanced by a second aeronaut on the opposite side. D’Arlandes became therefore, by default, the first co-pilot as well as the first aerial stoker.

D’Arlandes subsequently published a laconic account of their historic voyage, which took them low over Paris for about twenty-seven minutes. The Montgolfier (as the balloon was now known) initially rose to some 900 feet, drifted across the Seine, and then began a series of slow swoops across the rooftops of Saint-Germain, narrowly missing the towers of Saint-Sulpice, rising again over the wooded parkland of the Luxembourg, and finally sinking rapidly onto the Buttes aux Cailles (near the present Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement), narrowly missing two windmills.

Because of the circular structure of the gallery, with the neck of the balloon (and the brazier) in the centre, the aeronauts could barely see each other during the flight. This produced a kind of black comedy which was to become familiar in later ascents. Pilâtre spent much of his time calling to the invisible d’Arlandes to stop admiring the view of Paris and stoke the brazier. ‘Let’s work, let’s work!-If you keep gaping at the Seine, we’ll be swimming in it soon.’

In fact d’Arlandes seems to have been increasingly (and not unnaturally) overcome by nerves. First he thought the balloon was on fire, then that the canopy was separating from the gallery, and finally that one after another the balloon cords were breaking. He constantly shouted back at the unseen Pilâtre, ‘We must land now! We must land now!’ When the whole balloon shook with a sudden gust of wind above Les Invalides, d’Arlandes screamed at Pilâtre: ‘What are you doing! Stop dancing!

Characteristically, Pilâtre ignored these protests, and calmly went on telling d’Arlandes to work at feeding the brazier. He himself took off his bright green topcoat (put on for the crowd), rolled up his sleeves, and went on throwing on straw till his wooden fork broke. Once, when d’Arlandes was desperately shouting at him, ‘We must go down! We must go down!’, Pilâtre called back soothingly: ‘Look d’Arlandes. Here we are above Paris. There’s no possible danger for you. Are you taking this all in?’ Many witnesses later said that they could hear the two men shouting excitedly to each other as they passed overhead. They assumed they were describing the glories of flight.

Nonetheless, it was d’Arlandes who had the courage and honesty to record all these exchanges, and to describe his companion, in a phrase that became celebrated, as ‘l’intrépide Pilâtre, qui ne perd point la tête’-the intrepid Pilâtre, who never loses his head. When they landed, d’Arlandes vaulted out of the circular gallery, expecting the huge collapsing canopy to burst into flames at any moment. As he ran anxiously round the outside of the balloon, he found Pilâtre standing quietly contemplating the great gold and blue dome as it finally settled back to earth. ‘We had enough fuel to fly for an hour,’ was all he said. Pilâtre was holding their basket of provisions, with his green topcoat neatly folded and placed on top. A few moments later a wild, cheering crowd of le petit peuple de Paris (not yet citoyens) gathered round them. Pilâtre handed them the basket of provisions to celebrate, but they also seized the green topcoat, and tore it into little pieces as souvenirs.11


This was all very picturesque, and is the ‘first flight’ that has gone down in the history books. But in fact the Montgolfier was a crude and virtually uncontrollable monster. A far more significant ascent followed just ten days later, when Dr Alexandre Charles made the first ascent in a true hydrogen balloon.

Charles pioneered a number of technical breakthroughs. They included an elongated wickerwork basket safely suspended on ropes beneath the canopy; an impermeable balloon skin made of silk coated in rubber and enclosed in netting; a controllable gas-valve at the top of the balloon for venting; and, most important of all, a finely tuned system of ballast bags filled with sand which could be jettisoned by the kilo or by the gram, precisely as required by the aeronaut. Dr Charles had in effect invented nearly all the features of the modern gas balloon in a single brilliant design.

He launched from the Tuileries Gardens in Paris on 1 December 1783, with a scientific assistant, M. Robert. They attracted what has been estimated as the biggest crowd in pre-Revolutionary Paris, upwards of 400,000 people, about half the total population of the city.12 It was a glorious pink-and-yellow, candy-coloured balloon, thirty feet tall, and the crowd loved it. The wickerwork basket, a sort of chaise longue for two, was completely festooned with flags and bunting. Dr Charles had a full payload of scientific equipment aboard-mercury barometer (which was used as an early form of altimeter), thermometer, telescope, sandbags and several bottles of champagne. In a nice gesture, he handed the release cord to Joseph Montgolfier: ‘Monsieur Montgolfier, it is for you to show us the way to the skies!’

Dr Charles later recalled his feelings as the balloon lifted above the trees of the Tuileries and across the Seine. ‘Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles for ever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstasy. My companion Monsieur Robert murmured to me-I’m finished with the Earth. From now on it’s the sky for me! Such utter calm. Such immensity!’13 Benjamin Franklin, American Ambassador in Paris, watched the launch through a telescope from the window of his carriage. Afterwards he remarked: ‘Someone asked me-what’s the use of a balloon? I replied-what’s the use of a newborn baby?

Two hours later they landed twenty-seven miles away at Nesle, skimming across a field and chased by a group of farm workers, ‘like children chasing a butterfly’. Once the balloon was secured, in a moment of euphoria Dr Charles asked M. Robert to step out of the basket. Released of his weight, and with Charles alone aboard, the balloon rapidly relaunched and climbed into the sunset, reaching the astonishing height of 10,000 feet in a mere ten minutes. One thousand feet per minute: a truly formidable and terrifying ascent. Dr Charles kept calmly observing his instruments, and making notes until his hand was too cold to grasp the pen. ‘I was the first man ever to see the sun set twice in the same day. The cold was intense and dry, but supportable. I had acute pain in my right ear and jaw. But I examined all my sensations calmly. I could hear myself living, so to speak.’

He began gently to release the hydrogen gas-valve. Within thirty-five minutes he was safely back on terra firma-a term that took on new meaning-alighting a mere three miles from his first landing point. His ascent had been almost vertical. It was the first solo flight in history. ‘Never has a man felt so solitary, so sublime,-and so utterly terrified.’ Dr Charles never flew again.14

Public excitement was huge in France that winter. The Musée de l’Air now at Le Bourget has many display cabinets of balloon memorabilia: plates, cups, clocks, ivory draughts pieces, snuffboxes, bracelets, tobacco pipes, hairclips, tiepins, even a porcelain bidet with a balloon design painted on the interior carrying a flag marked ‘adieu’. Many sexually suggestive cartoons soon appeared: the inevitable balloon-breasted girls lifted off their feet, monstrous aeronauts inflated by gas enemas, or ‘inflammable’women carrying men off into the clouds.15

The science writers Faujas de Saint-Fond and David Bourgeois both published handbooks to the science of flight in 1784. Bourgeois opened ecstatically: ‘The idea of taking to the air, of flying through sky, and navigating through the ether, has always appealed so strongly to mankind, that it has appeared in numerous classical legends and folktales from the remotest antiquity. The wings of Saturn, the eagle of Jupiter, the peacocks of Juno, the doves of Venus, the winged horses of the Sun all bear witness…’ He did not mention Icarus.16 His list of the innumerable benefits of ballooning included weather prediction, telescope observation of the stars, geographical exploration (’he will cross burning deserts, inaccessible mountains, impenetrable forests, and raging torrents’), military reconnaissance and heavy cargo carrying.17

All sorts of ingenious theories about how a balloon might be steered were also proposed: by enormous oars, by wings, by hand-cranked propellers, spinning ‘moulinets’, silk-covered paddles, and even giant bellows.


In England, George III formally wrote to the Royal Society asking if research into ‘air-globes’ should be sponsored by the British Crown, or left to private individuals. An enterprising Swiss chemist, Aimé Argand, had released an eighteen-inch hydrogen balloon from the terrace at Windsor Castle on 26 November 1783, first getting the King himself to hold the string and feel the tug. Intrigued, George offered to put up money from his own funds to finance some early experiments.18 He received a cautious reply from Sir Joseph Banks, who still felt that there was inadequate experimental evidence for balloons’ utility. The French, he seemed to imply, were always inclined to mistake novelty for real science.19 This reaction was very unlike that of the French Académie des Sciences, who were determined to sponsor Pilâtre de Rozier in further ascents and larger balloons, seeing all sorts of possibilities, both commercial and military.

In fact Banks could see the revolutionary nature of the science, but still doubted the technological application. A week after he had received reports of Dr Charles’s spectacular demonstration of the first hydrogen balloon, he wrote privately to Franklin in Paris. ‘Dr Charles’s experiment seems decisive…Practical Flying we must allow to our rivals. Theoretical Flying we claim ourselves…Mr Cavendish when he blew soap bubbles of his Inflammable air, evidently performed the [same] experiment which carried Dr Charles on [his] memorable flight.’ Banks thought that when the French-‘our Friends on your side of the water’-had ‘cooled a little’ in their naïve enthusiasm for ballooning, they would realise what advances the English were making in the penetration of the skies through another method-astronomy. Astronomy promised a far greater knowledge of ‘the repositories of stars and meteors’. Franklin-‘the old fox’-must have thought this an oddly evasive response; but then he did not know Herschel’s plans for the giant forty-foot telescope, whereas Banks did.20

Banks said the Royal Society would keep a watching brief, while remaining closely informed of developments in ‘the new Art of Flying’ by its corresponding Fellows such as Franklin and the English Ambassador to Paris, the Duke of Dorset.21 Yet Banks himself, still the Romantic explorer, was secretly intrigued and excited. He alerted Henry Cavendish and commissioned his confidant and Secretary, Charles Blagden-a decided francophile-to keep a close eye on developments. Banks also noticed that his sister Sophia had begun to keep an album of balloon cuttings. It included an early street ballad, ‘The Ballooniad’, which eloquently complained: ‘Ye Men of Science! How ye stood aloof/Nor gave of all your Knowledge one kind proof.’22

English opinion was generally divided about ballomania. Samuel Johnson had written a ‘Dissertation on the Art of Flying’ in Chapter 6 of Rasselas in 1759. His approach was satirical-his Flying Artist flaps his wings and falls off a cliff into a lake-but he recognised the power of flight over the human imagination: ‘How easily shall we trace the Nile through all its passages; pass over to distant regions and examine the face of Nature, from one extremity of the Earth to the other.’23 Yet when Johnson was asked his opinion by a female correspondent, he at first described the balloon in as deflating a manner as he could muster.

Happy are you, Madam, that have ease and leisure to want intelligence of air balloons. Their existence is, I believe, indubitable, but I know not that they can possibly be of any use. The construction is this. The chemical philosophers have discovered a body (which I have forgotten, but will enquire) which dissolved by an acid emits a vapour lighter than the atmospherical air. This vapour is caught, among other means, by tying a bladder compressed upon the bottle in which the dissolution is performed; the vapour rising swells the bladder, and fills it. The bladder is then tied and removed, and another applied, till as much of this light air is collected, as is wanted. Then a large spherical case is made (and very large it must be) of the lightest matter that can be found, secured by some method like that of oiling silk against all passage of air. Into this are emptied all the bladders of light air, and if there be light air enough, it mounts into the clouds, upon the same principle as a bottle filled with water, will sink in water, but a bottle filled with aether would float. It rises till it comes to air of equal tenuity with its own, if wind or water does not spoil it on the way. Such, Madam, is an air balloon.24

William Herschel’s friend William Watson witnessed one of Pilâtre’s preparatory unmanned test flights at Versailles in October 1783. Even though the great wallowing Montgolfier canopy had got caught in some nearby trees, Watson was thrilled by the prospect of regular manned flight, and wrote enthusiastically to the earthbound astronomer, proposing a joint ascent as soon as possible. ‘Don’t you expect to fly soon? I expect to make many a pleasant flight to Datchet. I forgot to say the machine was 70 foot high and 46 wide.’ Herschel immediately thought of the possible use of balloons as observation platforms, carrying telescopes into the clear upper air. It was a development which would eventually lead to the launch of the great orbiting Hubble Telescope in 1997.25

Surprisingly, balloons did not appeal to the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, though perhaps at sixty-six he was a little old for such perilous novelties. He thought balloons might be sinister: ‘Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race-as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying, or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.’ It was an ominous prophecy.26

Some considered that there might be an arms race in balloon technology. Franklin could see that balloons might easily be adapted for military purposes. Reconnaissance was the obvious one: ‘elevating an Engineer to take a view of an Enemy’s army, Works etc. or conveying Intelligence into, or out of, a besieged Town’. Much more menacing, however, especially for the British Isles, was the possibility that they could support an airborne invasion army from France. ‘Five thousand balloons capable of raising two men each’, Franklin calculated, could carry a force of 10,000 troops rapidly into the field, crossing rivers, hills or even seas with speed and impunity. ‘They could not cost more than five Ships of the Line…Ten thousand Men descending from the Clouds might in many places do an infinite deal of mischief, before a [regular] Force could be brought together to repel them.’27

Nevertheless, neither Benjamin Franklin, nor Dr Johnson, nor Horace Walpole could prevent the balloon craze reaching England by summer 1784. Small unmanned gas balloons began to sprout everywhere in the summer sky. Herschel saw them over the Thames Valley, Parson Woodford saw them in Suffolk. Gilbert White wrote a beautiful description of seeing an early manned balloon drifting serenely over his beech wood one idyllic October evening at Selborne in Hampshire: ‘From the green bank at the S.W. end of my house saw a dark blue speck at a most prodigious height…In a few minutes it was over the maypole; and then over the fox on my great parlour chimney; and in ten minutes behind my great walnut tree. The machine looked mostly of a dark blue colour; but sometimes reflected the rays of the sun, and appeared a bright yellow. With a telescope I could discern the boat, and the ropes that supported it. To my eye this vast balloon appeared no bigger than a tea-urn.’

White’s initial moment of excitement and pure wonder soon altered to a more reflective mood, as the great balloon drifted southwards across Hampshire: ‘I was wonderfully struck at first with the phenomenon; and, like Milton’s “belated peasant”, felt my heart rebound with fear and joy at the same time. After a while I surveyed the machine with more composure, without that awe and concern for my two fellow-creatures, lost, in appearance, in the boundless depths of the atmosphere! (for we supposed then that twowere embarked on this astonishing voyage). At last, seeing with what steady composure they moved, I began to consider them as secure as a group of storks or cranes, intent on the business of emigration.’28

Unmanned and then manned ascents took place in almost every large city in the kingdom-London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh. Dr Johnson’s friend the musicologist Dr Charles Burney, father of the novelist Fanny, had a typical reaction: ‘I tell my grandchildren they will live to see a regular Balloon Stage [coach] established to all parts of the Universe that have ever been heard of.’29

The Morning Herald asked its readers to ‘laugh this new French folly out of existence as soon as possible’. But the normally conservative Gentleman’s Magazine described ballooning as ‘the most magnificent and most astonishing discovery made-perhaps since the Creation’.30 Horace Walpole thought it as puerile as schoolboy kite-flying, but then ordered his servants to alert him whenever a balloon flew by, and rushed out into his garden to cheer and wave. ‘How posterity will laugh at us one way or the other! If half a dozen break their necks, and Balloonism is exploded, we shall be called fools for having imagined it could be brought to use. If it should be turned to account, we shall be ridiculed for having doubted.’31


The man who popularised ballooning in Britain more than any other was a twenty-five-year-old Italian, Vincent Lunardi (1759-1806), a young man on the staff of the Neapolitan Legation in London.

Lacking official sponsorship, Lunardi’s first remarkable achievement was to launch a successful public subscription. He had his gorgeous red-and-white-striped balloon put on display for several weeks before the launch, hung from the roof of the Lyceum Theatre near The Strand, and charged an ambitious entrance fee. Two shillings and sixpence would purchase a single visit; one guinea would purchase four visits and a front-row seat during the actual launch. Over 20,000 people were said to have visited it, though after payment for balloon equipment, inflation materials and hire of the Lyceum, Lunardi claimed to be penniless.

As interest grew, ballooning quickly became fashionable, and there was talk of an unofficial British Balloon Club, headed by the Prince of Wales and the ultra-progressive Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Several members of the Royal Society also subscribed, and significantly the subscription was headed by none other than Joseph Banks, though in his private capacity. (A guinea entrance ticket is preserved in the Banks Collection, marked number 34.) His sister, the independent-minded Sophia Banks, also admitted to mild ballomania.32 She made a collection of balloon prints and letters about ballooning, including several from Franklin and Joseph Priestley.33

Lunardi’s second achievement was to invent for the English the figure of the Romantic aeronaut. Lunardi was a natural showman. He was foreign, of course, but not French. Small, mercurial, and absurdly handsome in the new, almost feminine style, with a fresh face and long, unpowdered hair, he moved lightly and bubbled with infectious enthusiasm. He was a man for whom the adjective ‘intrepid’ seemed specially invented. He had his portrait painted with his pet dog and cat, both of which he then took on his flight, a sporting gesture calculated to appeal to the English. (Though not, as it turned out, to Horace Walpole.34) He was also an incorrigible flirt and ladies’ man, as the English naturally expected of an Italian. He once mildly shocked a salon of supporters by proposing a toast to himself: ‘I give you me, Lunardi-whom all the ladies love.’

His first historic ascent was made from the Artillery Grounds, Moorfields, London, on 15 September 1784. It captured the nation’s imagination almost as completely as had the ascents in France. After delays that almost led to rioting, 150,000 people watched the launch at 2 p.m., just two hours late. Led by the Prince of Wales, the gentlemen in the reserved one-guinea seats rose to their feet, and stood gazing upwards in astonished silence. Then they solemnly doffed their hats.

Lunardi drifted north-westwards across London and into Hertfordshire, eating legs of chicken and drinking champagne, and occasionally trying to ‘row’ his balloon with a pair of aerial oars. One of the oars broke and dropped overboard, starting a rumour that he had jumped out to his death. It was said that the King broke off a cabinet meeting with his Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, to watch ‘poor’ Lunardi float overhead, while a jury in north London hastily brought in a not-guilty verdict so it could run out of the courthouse to watch.

After some time Lunardi’s little cat appeared to be suffering from the cold, and he claimed to have briefly ‘paddled’ his balloon back to earth at North Mimms (now on the M1 motorway). He gallantly handed the shivering animal to a young woman in a field, before releasing ballast and re-ascending. This is a mysterious claim, as unlike Dr Charles, Lunardi had not designed his first hydrogen balloon with a release valve at the top of the canopy, so he could not descend at will (and certainly not by rowing). He had however designed a system of throwing out handfuls of feathers, to tell if the balloon was rising or sinking, and perhaps he had simply lost gas.

Farm labourers harvesting in the fields recalled him shouting through his silver speaking-trumpet. They answered: ‘Lunardi, come down!’ He threw out several letters, tied with long streamers, one of which was tactfully addressed to ‘Sir Joseph Banks, Soho Square, London’.

After two and a half hours, Lunardi finally descended near Ware in Hertfordshire. He tried to land by securing a grappling anchor, but bumped heavily and inelegantly across the fields. With no release valve, he could not deflate the balloon, and his situation became perilous. He called out to some nearby farm workers to help him secure the balloon. But seeing him bounding over hedges and fences, they shouted out that he was riding ‘the Devil’s horse’, and refused to approach. Then happily he spotted a young woman among the group. Graciously raising his hat, he begged for her assistance. Ignoring her terrified menfolk, she gathered up her skirts and darted forward, seized the edge of the errant basket, and saved both balloon and aeronaut. Lunardi climbed out and embraced her tenderly. She was a strong girl, he recalled: ‘Elizabeth Brett, a very pretty milkmaid…So I owed my deliverance to the spirit and generosity of a young female.’35

A stone monument was raised at this landing place, at Long Mead (field or farm) in the parish of Standon, just outside Ware. It still exists on what is now the village green.

Let Posterity know, And knowing be astonished! That on the 15th day of September 1784, Vincent Lunardi of Lucca in Tuscany, the First Aerial Traveller in Britain, Mounting from the Artillery Ground in London, and traversing the Regions of the Air, For two hours and fifteen minutes, on this Spot revisited the Earth. On this rude Monument, for [future] Ages be recorded that Wondrous Enterprize, successfully achieved by the powers of Chymistry and the Fortitude of Man, that improvement in Science which the Great Author of all Knowledge…hath generously permitted.

Immediately on Lunardi’s return to London, a curiously modern publicity machine began to roll. He sold exclusive rights to his story, and an in-depth interview, to the Morning Post. It was headlined ‘Lunardi’s Aerial Excursion’.36 He was guest of honour at the Mansion House, and gave lectures in various public halls. Newspaper articles, popular songs (many ribald) and fashion accessories followed. Cups, snuffboxes and brooches were especially popular, but the Lunardi ladies’ garter was the succès de scandale.Lunardi was introduced to the King, and invited to dine by the Duchess of Devonshire-he tactfully arrived wearing the duchess’s own jockey colours of blue and chocolate,37 and was soon a favourite in her progressive Whig circle. He was given a watch by the Prince of Wales, and had a bronze medallion struck with his profile on one side and his balloon on the other. The Windsor stagecoach was renamed ‘The Lunardi’. A master of publicity, he arranged to have a new and bigger striped balloon hung on display at the Pantheon, London, throughout the winter season of 1784, promising further aerial adventures in 1785. The effect of sudden celebrity was as heady as the actual ascent. Lunardi wrote wildly to his Italian guardian: ‘I am the idol of the whole nation…All the country adores me, every newspaper honours me in prose and verse…Tomorrow I shall put two thousand crowns in the Bank of England.’38

Among the more serious opinion-formers, many like Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles Burney and the MP William Windham (all members of Dr Johnson’s Club) were impressed by Lunardi’s achievement. Burney wrote a charmingly over-enthusiastic letter to his son Charles junior on 24 September. ‘If I had wit enough, or energy of mind sufficient to be mad about anything now it would be about Balloons. I think them the most wild, Romantic, pretty playthings for grown Gentlemen that have ever been invented, and that the subject, as well as the thing, lifts one to the Clouds, whenever one talks of it.’39

Others were less dazzled. Banks wrote privately that Lunardi was ‘a charlatan’. Horace Walpole was wittily underwhelmed by the whole thing: ‘I cannot fill my Paper as the [newspapers] do, with air balloons; which, though ranked with the invention of Navigation, appear to me as childish as the flying of kites by schoolboys. I have not stirred a step to see one; consequently, have not paid a guinea for gazing at one, which I might have seen by looking up into the air. An Italian, one Lunardi, is the first Airgonaut that has mounted into the Clouds in this country. So far from respecting him as a Jason, I was very angry with him: he had full right to venture his own neck, but none to risk the poor cat’s.’40

In the end Dr Johnson himself became strangely fascinated by ballooning, though critical of the surrounding showmanship and the lack of scientific rigour. He wrote several letters on the subject in autumn 1784. Two days before Lunardi’s flight, he was advising a friend that it was not worth paying for a place in the launch enclosure at the Artillery Ground (Lunardi was charging a guinea a seat), because ‘in less than a minute they who gaze at a mile’s distance will see all that can be seen’. But he took a surprising and critical interest in technical matters. He thought (rightly) that Lunardi’s aerial oars would prove useless in directing flight or altering altitude. ‘About the wings, I am of your mind they cannot at all assist it, nor I think regulate its motion.’41

Immediately after Lunardi’s flight of 15 September, Johnson was amused, and then irritated, to receive no fewer than three long letters or ‘Histories’ recounting the details of the ‘Flying Man in the great Balloon’. He wrote ironically to Sir Joshua Reynolds that he would have been content with just one. ‘Do not write about the Balloon, whatever else you may think proper to say.’42 He was glad that the British were now doing as well in flying matters as their French neighbours, though he continued to be critical of the unscientific approach. ‘Lunardi, I find, forgot his barometer and therefore cannot report to what height he ascended.’43

On further reflection, he feared that ballooning would not fulfil its first promise, putting his finger with unerring Johnsonian logic on its two apparent shortcomings: ‘In amusement, mere amusement I am afraid it must end, for I do not find that [a balloon’s] course can be directed, so as that it should serve any purpose of communication; and it can give no new intelligence of the state of the air at different heights, till they have ascended above the height of mountains, which they seem never likely to do.’44

A week later, as his last illness drew upon him (dropsy and heart failure, which made him obese and fearfully breathless), Johnson added wistfully: ‘To make new balloons is to repeat the jest again. We now know a method of mounting in the air, and I think, are not likely to know more…I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.’45 But this was not to be his last word on the subject.


There were other excitements. The actress Mrs Sage, renowned for her Junoesque figure, left a vivid account of being the ‘First Aerial female’ after an eventful ascent in Lunardi’s balloon in June 1785. The launch was made from Hyde Park, attended by a huge and increasingly raucous crowd. Mrs Sage, in a low-cut silk dress presumably designed to reduce wind resistance, was to be accompanied by Lunardi and the dashing Mr George Biggin, a young and wealthy Old Etonian. The gondola was draped in heavy swags of silk, and had a specially designed lace-up door which allowed its occupants to be seen more clearly, as if they were installed in a luxurious aerial salon.46 But the combined weight of the fixtures and fittings, and the three passengers, proved too much for the balloon, which began wallowing dangerously on its moorings, to the whistles and suggestive jeers of the crowd.

Lunardi made a rapid, though perhaps surprising, decision. Realising that Mrs Sage was the star attraction, after a hasty conference with Mr Biggin, he himself sprang from the gondola, allowing the balloon to make a safe launch with its reduced payload of two. He apparently had no qualms about leaving the control of the balloon (and Mrs Sage) in Mr Biggin’s sole care. Unfortunately, in his haste to depart, Lunardi failed to do up the lacings of the gondola’s door. As the balloon sailed away over Piccadilly, the crowd were treated to the provoking sight of the beautiful Mrs Sage on all fours in the open entrance of the gondola. The crowd assumed that she had fainted, and was perhaps receiving some kind of intimate first-aid from Mr Biggin.

In fact she was coolly re-threading the lacings to make the gondola safe again. As she later cheerfully admitted, she felt largely responsible for the launching difficulties, as she had omitted to inform Lunardi that she made up ‘200 pounds of human weight’ (over fourteen stone), and he had been far too gallant to enquire. Finally getting to her feet as the balloon floated over Green Park, Mrs Sage trod on Lunardi’s barometer and broke it, thus depriving Mr Biggin of any instrument with which to measure their height. Nevertheless, in due course the two of them were lunching peacefully off sparkling Italian wine and cold chicken, occasionally calling to people below through a speaking-trumpet.47

The flight followed the line of the Thames westwards, at one point passing through a snowstorm (surprising for mid-June, remarked Mr Biggin nonchalantly), and landed heavily near Harrow on the Hill, smashing through a hedge and dragging across an unharvested hayfield. The infuriated farmer began threatening Mr Biggin and abusing Mrs Sage-she later described him succinctly as ‘a savage’. But the honour of the ‘first female aeronaut’ was unexpectedly saved by the young gentlemen of Harrow School, who rushed out across the fields to greet her, put together a cash collection to pacify the farmer, and carried her bodily (she had hurt ‘a tendon in her foot’) and in triumph to the local tavern, where everyone evidently got gloriously drunk. Later there was much speculation at Mr Biggin’s London club as to whether he had been the first man to board a female aeronaut in flight. Gallantly, Mr Biggin refused to comment. The members of Brooks’s Club were said to be laying bets on who should first have ‘an amorous encounter’ in a balloon. The cry ‘Lunardi, come down!’ now became a kind of catchphrase, with a suggestive double-entendre implied.48

Mrs Sage herself felt she had achieved true celebrity, writing modestly to a friend: ‘I suppose when I go out I shall be as much looked at as if a native of the Aerial Regions had come down to pay an earthly visit.’ She added that the views were magnificent, and that at no point had she needed to open her bottle of smelling salts.49

Clearly such ascents remained hugely popular, and even inspirational. But they were also recklessly dangerous, and without any obvious justification beyond entertainment and novelty. It is not surprising that Lunardi’s demonstrations were severely criticised by Tiberius Cavallo, FRS, as scientifically useless.50

Mockery took other forms. In 1784 the young writer Elizabeth Inchbald (aged thirty-one) managed to get her first play produced at the Haymarket Theatre. It was entitled A Mogul Tale, or the Descent of the Balloon. The same year, William Blake wrote and engraved ‘An Island in the Moon’, a satirical fragment in prose and verse, mocking ideas of flight and pouring scorn on self-deluded ‘philosophers’, including ‘Inflammable Gas’ Joseph Priestley. One of his later illustrations shows a spindly ladder leaning against the face of the moon with the caption, ‘I want, I want.’

Lunardi used a Union Jack design on all his later balloons, and attracted increasingly large crowds to his launches. In 1785 he took his displays as far north as Edinburgh. But he often had trouble with crowd control, and rowdy disturbances became an important element in the balloon craze. It was dangerous to delay departure beyond the promised hour, even if the balloon was not sufficiently inflated or the wind was adverse. When the newspapers reported a successful launch, it often simply meant that the balloon had lifted off on time and no one in the crowd had been killed.

Lunardi’s reputation was badly damaged the following year, when on 23 August at Newcastle a young man, Ralph Heron, was caught in one of the restraining ropes, lifted some hundred feet into the air, and then fell to his death. The impact drove his legs into a flowerbed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out onto the ground. He was due to be married the next day.


In 1786 Lunardi published An Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Britain, in the form of witty, picaresque, self-vaunting letters to his guardian. He had made ballooning fashionable, and started English people thinking about the possibilities of flight, and the new world above the earth. But many, like Banks, still dismissed him as a charlatan, while others wondered why no home-grown British aeronaut had yet taken to the skies.51

There were in fact several eccentric amateurs and exhibitionists, but the first serious English pioneer came from a university city, and was largely supported by students. James Sadler (1753-1828) was a baker and confectioner in Oxford’s High Street, popular with undergraduates, and also well known as an amateur chemist and inventor. The back room of his bakery was really a laboratory. Sadler had read the work of Cavendish, and followed the news of the Montgolfiers and the French balloon craze of 1783. In spring 1784 he began launching small unmanned balloons, both hydrogen and hot-air type, from the fields around Oxford. He soon attracted financial backing among the undergraduates, and in July 1784 opened a subscription for ‘a large Aerial Machine’. In fact he built two: a large hot-air Montgolfier which stood over fifty feet high, and a smaller hydrogen balloon, now known as a ‘Charlier’.

Unlike the daredevil Lunardi, Sadler was a family man-happily married with two sons and two daughters. At thirty-one he was modest, quietly spoken, undemonstrative, and his wife could never explain why the dangerous passion for aerostation had seized upon him. Puzzled, but not a little proud, she referred to him as ‘the Phenomenon’.52

On 4 October 1784 he made the second ascent in England (after Lunardi’s), from Christchurch Meadows in the large Montgolfier, which was reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal. This ascent was comparatively brief and uneventful, lasting for some thirty minutes, travelling about six miles northwards in the direction of Woodstock. Sadler made a much more dramatic flight in his second ascent, on 12 November. This time he used his hydrogen balloon, and launched before a large crowd from the Physic Garden, with a number of scientific instruments in his boat-shaped basket. By now the soft autumn weather had turned to more wintry and blustery conditions.

The balloon rose rapidly, and it soon became apparent that its speed over the ground was alarmingly swift. Sadler flew southwards towards Aylesbury, travelling at nearly sixty miles per hour (ground speed) in a brisk wind. There was no time to take any scientific readings. After seventeen minutes the balloon envelope tore, and Sadler was forced to hurl out all his ballast and most of his instruments to prevent an immediate crash-landing. The balloon came down in ploughed fields, dragging Sadler a considerable distance along the ground, destroying the rest of his equipment and most of the balloon. Sadler returned to Oxford with torn clothes and many bruises. But he immediately announced that the hydrogen balloon was the superior aerostat, and planned to construct a much bigger one, capable of sustained flight for twelve hours. With this new balloon he intended to fly across the Channel before Christmas.53

Sadler seems to have rekindled the old and ailing Dr Johnson’s interest in ballooning, despite his disappointments with Lunardi. While on his last visit to Oxford in October, Johnson sent his black servant Frank to observe Sadler’s first launch and report back, being too ill and breathless to go himself. One of the very last notes written in his own hand, dated 17 November 1784, to his old friend Edmund Hector, recalls this: ‘I did not reach Oxford till Friday morning, and then I sent Francis to see the Balloon fly, but could not go myself.’ It ends with what may be Johnson’s last joke about flying. ‘I staid at Oxford till Tuesday, and then came back in the common vehicle easily to London.’54 Less than a month later he was dead.

Yet there remained a striking posthumous gesture. Johnson seems to have heard of the disastrous loss of instruments during Sadler’s second Oxford ascent of 12 November. Accordingly he presented (or probably bequeathed) to Sadler an enormously expensive barometer, to be used as a precision altimeter on future flights. It was said to be worth 200 guineas, and though Sadler was often tempted to sell it to raise funds, he kept it for over twenty-five years, and always took it on subsequent ascents. Strangely, Boswell nowhere mentions Johnson’s touching act of support and encouragement in his Life. It was also surely a symbolic gesture from the dying Johnson, who was struggling with his own huge, dropsical, earthbound body.55


By the end of 1784, the second year of the great balloon craze, no fewer than 181 manned ascents had been recorded, mostly in France and England. There was no sign that the craze was diminishing. On the contrary, it was now being exploited by an intrepid French aeronaut, Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809), who had earlier challenged Pilâtre and the Montgolfiers in Paris. Learning from Dr Charles’s success with hydrogen, he had abandoned his aerial tricycle and constructed his own balloons, and made a number of successful short flights in France. He quickly grasped that a key question with balloons was whether or not they could be navigated.

Blanchard conceived of the balloon as essentially a form of aerial ship, moving through the medium of air as a ship moves through water. It must therefore be capable of being steered, if not directly against the wind, then through several points of the compass across it. There were only two ways to achieve this: either the aeronaut could exploit the wind currents themselves at different altitudes, hoping to find (and perhaps map) ones which blew regularly in different directions, on the analogy of ocean tides and continental currents; or else by providing the balloon with its own independent steering and propulsive instruments.

Blanchard chose to concentrate on the latter. He began experimenting with various ingenious forms of guiding equipment: aerial oars, aerial rudders, sets of flapping wings made of silk stretched across a wicker frame, and most astutely the moulinet. This was an early form of handcranked propeller, with eight-foot blades also made of stretched silk. Blanchard’s theory was as follows. He believed that he could first stabilise his balloon at a fixed height by balancing ballast against hydrogen; and once having achieved this critical ‘point of equilibrium’, he could then control both its direction and its altitude mechanically with his hand-operated equipment.

In the autumn of 1784 Blanchard came over to London, believing like many entrepreneurs that he could more easily get private financing there than in France. He built a medium-sized hydrogen balloon and made several successful ascents over the Home Counties (it was one of these that migrated over the head of Gilbert White). One of his first backers was a member of the Royal Society, Dr Sheldon, who paid for a flight with scientific instruments. However, when the balloon struggled to rise above the London rooftops, Blanchard abruptly threw most of these expensive items overboard. This was wholly characteristic of his high-handed attitude to the ‘art of aerostation’. He was a prima donna of the air, brilliant, volatile, temperamental, but also utterly fearless.

Like Lunardi, Blanchard was invited to dine with the Duchess of Devonshire, and arranged for a special ascent of a balloon carrying her colours. He met Joseph Banks and several members of the unofficial British Balloon Club. His most significant encounter, however, was with a wealthy and adventurous American physician, Dr John Jeffries. Jeffries, forty years old, was born in Boston. He had qualified both at Harvard and St Andrews, ran a successful practice in Cavendish Square, and had served as a military surgeon on the British side in the American War of Independence. Anxious to be elected an FRS, he had attended the necessary breakfast with Sir Joseph Banks, and was a keen member of the unofficial British Balloon Club.56

Jeffries regarded balloon ascents as potentially a part of a major scientific project to discover the secrets of flight, the nature of the upper air, and the formation of weather. After Dr Charles in Paris, he was the first truly trained scientific mind to risk an actual balloon flight. He set out his scientific aims in a paper for Banks, and undertook to write up his ascents for the Royal Society.

In November 1784 he and Blanchard made their first successful trial flight together, with a payload of measuring equipment, across the Thames. Jeffries took carefully prepared instruments with him: a mercury barometer, a thermometer, a hydrometer and an electrometer, to measure the much-feared electrical charges in clouds. In addition he packed maps, a compass and special note-making equipment. He strapped aboard special air flasks, to sample the upper atmosphere at different altitudes, intended for analysis by the reclusive Cambridge scientist Henry Cavendish.

Jeffries drew up a memorandum for the Royal Society, stating the main scientific objectives of the ascents, to be achieved by ‘a variety of experiments’ and ‘not for mere amusement’. He was quite precise: ‘Four points need to be more clearly determined. First, the power of ascending or descending at pleasure, while suspended or floating in the air. Secondly, the effect which oars or wings might be made to produce towards this purpose, and in directing the course of the Balloon. Thirdly, the state and temperature of the atmosphere at different heights above the earth. And fourthly, by observing the varying course of the currents of air, or winds, at certain elevations, to throw some new light on the theory of winds in general.’‘57

On this trip Jeffries made the first truly scientific record of a balloon ascent, recording a mass of data-height, direction, air temperature, electrical charges, appearance of clouds, horizon line-at regular time intervals, and taking atmospheric samples for Cavendish. One of the details which emerged was a ‘profile’ of the characteristic flight path of a hydrogen balloon: not a single smooth parabola, as had been supposed, but a series of looping ascents and descents as the balloon moved above and below its ‘equilibrium point’.

Jeffries also gave the first truly vivid account of the changing appearance of the ground as seen ‘from a bird’s eye view, as it is called’. This too was constantly surprising. As they took off, there was the white sea of upturned faces in the city squares, swiftly reduced to tiny, unrecognisable points. There was the unearthly silence, the sense of their own motion-lessness as the earth seemed to revolve below the basket. Though they did not appear to move, their compass needle steadily turned. Below them, the earth appeared transformed. There was the strange flattening out of hills and buildings, the emergence of previously unsuspected patterns in the foliage of woods, or the cultivation marks in fields, or the branching streets of a town. There was the constantly delusive appearance of clouds, and sudden showers of rain or even snowflakes. (No electrical charges were recorded, much to Jeffries’ relief.) The whole world became ‘like a beautifully coloured map or carpet’.58

After this flight, Jeffries agreed to finance Blanchard in an attempt to fly from Dover to France, for the enormous sum of £700.


Crossing the English Channel-or for the French, La Manche-was an obvious objective for early balloonists. It would be a trial both of balloon technology and of aeronautical nerve. It also carried the distinct under-current of an arms race: which nation could command the new element of the air in the event of an invasion? The challenge quickly became an informal national competition, with attempts from both British and French sides of the water. It was seen simultaneously as a scientific, a diplomatic and a sporting battle.

Three main contenders emerged in the autumn of 1784, in the shape of very different and informal teams. They were lead by Jean-Pierre Blanchard (Dover), Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (Boulogne) and James Sadler (Oxford). Each was struggling to get financial backing for a suitable balloon. Sadler’s balloon never got off the ground. It was destroyed in transit on a Thames barge from Oxford, when a rainstorm soaked the canopy and caused the folds of rubberised silk to stick together.

Pilâtre, who had completed two further epic Montgolfier ascents, was clearly the favourite. He had a large loan of 40,000 crowns from the French Court and the Académie des Sciences, and a big new balloon which aimed to combine the hot-air and the hydrogen principles: a Charlier mounted on a Montgolfier. He was established in Boulogne by November 1784, having built a special hangar for his equipment on the promontory. But he was held up by contrary winds from the north-east, and made up for lost time by making the conquest of a beautiful local convent girl, Susan Dyer, who happened to be English. Romantic trysts alternated with the launching of small test balloons and attempts at weather forecasting, as Pilâtre sat it out with increasing impatience. Rats began to eat the balloon canopy, and his creditors gnawed at his funds.

Meanwhile, Blanchard and Jeffries could not get down to Dover before January 1785, and when they set up in Dover Castle Blanchard quarrelled violently with his American backer. He announced that it would be a solo attempt, and tried to dismiss Jeffries from the entire project. The subsequent arguments, in which the Governor of Dover Castle was forced to intervene on Jeffries’ side, delayed the launch by several days.

At the last moment Blanchard tried to hoodwink Jeffries by constructing a lead-weighted belt which he intended to wear beneath his coat, and then announce that the balloon’s lift appeared to be too weak to carry two people. Jeffries, an observant man with a cool scientific temperament, spotted the ruse and calmly asked Blanchard to dispense with his personal ballast. But the concept must have stuck in Jeffries’ mind, for it would later save both their lives. Blanchard, in return, absolutely refused to take any of Jeffries’ scientific instruments on board, except for a barometer and a mariner’s compass. What they did agree to take were cork jackets, in case of a forced landing in the sea. They also carried bags of publicity pamphlets, thirty pounds of sand ballast, and Blanchard’s patent aerial oars and moulinet. Jeffries wore an expensive beaver flying hat to keep out the cold, and fine chamois leather gloves to improve his grip.

Finally, on 7 January 1785, at one o’clock in the afternoon, Blanchard and Jeffries lifted off from the top of Dover cliff to attempt the first ever Channel crossing. Jeffries’ Narrative of Two Aerial Voyages with M. Blanchard describes the perilous two-hour flight which followed, interspersed with moments of intense comic rivalry between the two men. Quite early on, each accidentally managed to drop the other’s national flag over the side of the basket, and then profusely apologised. Having cleared Dover and its cheering crowds in fine style, the balloon promptly began an easterly drift up-Channel towards the Goodwin Sands. They were soon staring down grimly at its ‘formidable breakers’.

The balloon then swung back, and picking up a gentle southerly airstream began to drift towards Calais, but steadily lost height over the sea. By two-thirds of the way across they had progressively jettisoned all the sand ballast, all their food, and most of their technical equipment, except the precious barometer and one bottle of brandy. But the balloon continued to drop, until it was well below the level of the approaching cliffs of the Pas de Calais. They now began to perform a kind of aerial striptease, as Jeffries recorded in his flight diary. ‘When two-thirds from the French coast we were again falling rapidly towards the sea, on which occasion my noble little captain gave orders, and set the example, by beginning to strip our aerial car, first of our silk and finery: this not giving us sufficient release, we cast one wing, then the other; after which I was obliged to unscrew and cast away our moulinet; yet still approaching the sea very fast, and the boats being much alarmed for us, we cast away, first one anchor, then the other, after which my little hero stripped and threw away his coat (great one). On this I was compelled to follow his example. He next cast away his trowsers. We put on our cork jackets and were, God knows how, as merry as grigs to think how we should splatter in the water. We had a fixed cord, &c to mount into our upper story; and I believe both of us, as though inspired, felt ourselves confident of success in the event.’

With nothing remaining as ballast except the bottle of brandy, they were left standing in their underclothes, wearing only their cork jackets. But this made the crucial difference. Less than 120 yards above the sea, the balloon steadied and then began to rise again. As they caught the onshore wind, their ascent turned into a great triumphant arc, taking them high over the cliffs of Calais and twelve miles inland. Blanchard now revealed that he had concealed a small sack of publicity letters, and these were thrown out, to become the first ever airmail delivery. Jeffries calmly noted how the stream of fluttering paper seemed to race across the fields far below them, and took ‘exactly five minutes in reaching the surface of the earth’.59

Once clear of the coastal updraught, the balloon began an even faster final descent towards the heavily wooded region of Guines forest. A violent and possibly fatal crash-landing in the trees seemed imminent and inevitable. Jeffries, however, maintained a detached, scientific assessment of the situation. He pointed out to Blanchard that there was still one last way of throwing out personal ballast: ‘it was contained within ourselves’. Seizing the leather bladders hung in the balloon’s rigging as flotation devices, they carefully urinated into them, and threw the contents over the side. In his Narrative Jeffries apologised for introducing this ‘trivial and ludicrous detail’, but pointed out that it was precisely the sort of information that a scientific writer should record.

At all events, this ‘evacuation’ sufficiently checked the rate of their descent, so that the gondola bounced roughly across the tops of the trees instead of plunging violently through the canopy. Jeffries, who was still wearing his chamois leather flying gloves, was able to seize on passing branches until the balloon’s progress was gradually halted. It took twenty-eight minutes to release enough hydrogen for the balloon to become manageable. Together Jeffries and Blanchard then carefully hand-manoeuvred the gondola down through a gap between two trees, until at last it safely reached terra firma, with the balloon canopy hanging in the branches overhead, gently deflating. They had achieved a first historic crossing.

Jeffries says they staggered around the wreckage of the gondola for several minutes, too stunned and shaking with cold even to congratulate each other. But soon they were surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers, many of whom had followed their course on horseback (like a new form of fox-hunting), and carried them off in triumph to Calais. There is a monument where they touched down, and their balloon car was preserved in the Calais museum until 1966. The local auberge owner also put up his own quaint but oddly moving sign to commemorate the great crossing.60

Later they were rapturously received in Paris, presented to the King, applauded by the Académie des Sciences, and received a standing ovation at the Opéra. They were personally congratulated by Pilâtre (a particularly generous gesture), and asked to give a lecture at his science museum in the rue Saint-Honoré. At one glittering reception, several young ladies rushed up to the aeronauts and crowned them with bay leaves. In between the celebrations, Jeffries spent several quiet evenings with Benjamin Franklin at Passy discussing the future of flight, and the beauty and intelligence of French women.

The English Ambassador, the Duke of Dorset, promised Jeffries that he would be made a Fellow of the Royal Society (’free of all expenses’) on his return to London. Jeffries noted in his journal: ‘The Duke told me that he was well pleased that I did not suffer the Frenchman to pass over alone.’61 Despite all the lionising, Jeffries had sent a summary report of the flight to Banks within a week, in a letter dated 13 January 1785. He regretted that it could not yet be sent by aerial post. His report emphasised their remarkable good luck in getting across at all, and made it clear that Blanchard had by no means solved the central problem of navigating a balloon.

The subsequent careers of the two aeronauts were very different. Jean-Pierre Blanchard was awarded a royal pension, and the freedom of the city of Paris. He went on to make sixty-three flights in total, and became the most famous French aeronaut of the first generation. But many of his accounts are unscientific, almost resembling Baron Munchausen-like mixtures of fact and fiction. He founded a Balloon Academy on the Stockwell Road in Vauxhall, and provided balloon entertainments, flying violinists, female aerial acrobats and parachuting animals. Angry crowds eventually wrecked his equipment, and he departed on a global exhibition tour, making ascents in Germany, Holland, Poland, Czechoslovakia and America.

John Jeffries wrote a longer official report to Joseph Banks at the Royal Society, which was published in the Society’s Transactions in 1786. He never flew again, and his private diary records several exclamations of ‘thank God’ that he survived. It also includes an almost mystical experience of ‘awful stillness and silence’ that may be similar to Dr Charles’s.62 He received no honours (except being made ‘Baron of the Cinque Ports’), no prize, no pension and no Copley Medal from the Royal Society, but he was at least elected a Fellow. Two months after the flight he revisited Dover in sober and thoughtful mood. ‘At noon visited the cliff and spot of our departure on our late aerial voyage into France. The recollection of it was awfully grand and majestick, and my heart filled, I hope, with sincere and grateful acknowledgments to the kind protections of that day. Oh, Gracious Father, may I be influenced by it as I ought, through my life!’63


This dramatic crossing was soon followed by ghastly tragedy, when the unflappable Pilâtre de Rozier attempted to fly across the Channel in the opposite direction, from Boulogne to Dover, on 15 June 1785. His intention was to recover ‘the glory of France’, and also perhaps to prove that England could be invaded from the air.

His huge aerostat was not a single balloon but two harnessed together, one on top of the other. The idea was to combine the stable lifting power of the hydrogen balloon (on the top), with the more dynamic and controllable power of the hot-air balloon (below). In appearance this multiple aerostat was oddly menacing, like a warlike mace or club with a short handle. The handle was formed by a thin, tubular-shaped Montgolfier, and the head by a fat, spherical Charlier. Pilâtre and his new co-pilot Pierre Romain stood beneath this contraption in a circular gallery, feeding fuel into an open brazier that could be lowered or jettisoned for landing or in emergencies. The brazier would of course emit a constant stream of sparks.

In theory this dual design combined the best lifting characteristics of hydrogen and hot air. Pilâtre also believed that by allowing him to climb or descend rapidly and at will, it would enable him quickly to find different air currents at different elevations. So he would finally be able to solve the problem of navigation, not by artificial wings or oars, but by naturally harnessing the winds and staying in air currents blowing in the required direction. In this way he would navigate steadily northwards, and easily conquer the Channel and knit together La Manche (’the sleeve’).

In practice, of course, he had designed a lethal combination of highly inflammable gas and naked flame. He may have had his own misgivings. There was considerable evidence that, being deeply in debt to his sponsors, and forced to carry ‘the honour of France’, he launched against his better scientific judgement. Certainly he set out in bad meteorological conditions, and with damaged balloon fabric, and persuaded a third passenger to get out of the basket at the last minute. Pilâtre’s English fiancée, Miss Susan Dyer, pleaded desperately with him to postpone the attempt.64But Pilâtre responded with a dramatic and highly emotional letter. ‘For God’s sake don’t mention such a thing! It is now too late. Give me encouragement. I would rather pierce my heart with a knife than give up this attempt. Even if I were certain of meeting death.’65

At 7 a.m. Miss Dyer watched as the cannons fired, and Pilâtre’s double balloon rose splendidly in the dawn light to 5,000 feet. It floated out to sea, then seemed to hesitate, and began to drift back over the French coast. It was losing height, and clearly something was wrong. Accounts differ as to what happened next. Using telescopes, witnesses saw Pilâtre-still apparently calm-repeatedly pulling the rope that operated the hydrogen gas-valve at the top of the balloon. It appeared to have jammed in the open position. At the same time his companion Romain was seen frantically lowering the brazier as far below the gallery as possible. The air around the balloon was full of twinkling sparks.

A small, bright crown of yellow flame now began to appear at the top of the balloon, where the hydrogen gas was venting. For a moment the balloon looked to one observer like a heavenly gas lamp, suspended triumphantly above the French cliffs. Then it folded up upon itself, and began to drop to earth, slowly at first, like a long, smoking shroud. According to some farm workers, Pilâtre shouted a warning to them through his speaking-trumpet to keep back. Then he attempted to leap clear at the last moment, possibly to slow the descent of his companion. Both aeronauts were killed, their bodies so horribly broken and ruptured that they were buried the same evening in the little local church at Wimereux.

These were the first recorded deaths of balloonists, and the event shook the scientific community across Europe, and changed the public perception of manmade flight. It seemed all the more shocking because the ascent was a semi-official one, and Pilâtre was a young and glamorous national hero, his name known throughout the Continent.

His fiancée Susan Dyer collapsed, and was taken back to her convent. Records show that she died soon afterwards. It is possible that she was pregnant with Pilâtre’s child, and committed suicide. Pilâtre de Rozier’s fate was even mourned by the English poet Erasmus Darwin:

Where were ye, Sylphs! When on the ethereal main

Young Rozier launch’d, and called your aid in vain?…

Higher and yet higher his expanding Bubble flies,

Lights with quick flash, and bursts amidst the skies.

Headlong he rushes through the affrighted air

With limbs distorted, and dishevelled hair,

Whirls round and round, the flying crowd alarms,

And Death receives him in his sable arms!…

So erst with melting wax and loosen’d strings

Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings!66


Hitherto, ballooning in England had been largely dominated by foreigners, French and Italians. This was partly due to the lack of encouragement from the Royal Society, despite the best efforts of Dr Sheldon and Dr Jeffries. But it was also due to the general feeling that ballooning was not a serious scientific pursuit, and was best left to commercial showmen or wealthy private eccentrics. The death of Pilâtre de Rozier in 1785, and Lunardi’s accident at Newcastle in August 1786, which resulted in the death of young Ralph Heron, also discredited ballooning with the British public for a generation. From 1790 virtually any balloon sighted in English skies would be assumed to be French and hostile. The aeronaut would find the ground even more dangerous than the skies.

The much-feared aerial invasion by Napoleon’s army never materialised. Nonetheless, the French Revolutionary army experimented with a gas observation balloon at the battle of Fleurus against Austria in 1794, and the first Corps d’Aerostation and balloon school was formed at Meudon. Lavoisier came up with a cheap method of producing hydrogen for the military, by passing water over red-hot iron, and two young scientists, Charles Coutelle and Nicolas Conte, were appointed to lead the balloon teams and the school. Gaston Tissandier, in his Histoire des Ballons et Aeronauts Célèbres (1890), recounts that the young military balloonists took local girls up with them for joyrides and thrilling aerial love-making over the side of the basket, so the first Mile High Club was also formed.

The Corps d’Aerostation eventually fielded four balloons, complete with special hangar tents, winches, gas-generating vessels and observation equipment. Napoleon took the Corps with him to Egypt in 1798, but their equipment was destroyed by Nelson at the battle of Aboukir Bay in July of the following year. Napoleon disbanded the Corps and school at Meudon in 1799, and the rumours of a French airborne army invading Britain remained confined to the realms of fantasy and propaganda. Military balloons were not used again in any conflict until the American Civil War.

In 1810 James Sadler (as inexplicable as ever to his wife) returned to more carefully planned and extended balloon flights, in a series of ascents from Oxford and Bristol. He planned to use his theory of ‘oceanic air currents’ to navigate across the Irish Sea, a much longer and greater challenge than the English Channel crossing.67 He believed that these fixed currents existed at various altitudes, flowing steadily in different directions, and could be mapped and used for navigated flight by altering the height of the balloon and so changing direction. On 24 September Sadler made a preliminary ascent over the Bristol Channel, but was baffled by rising and contrary winds, and forced to ditch in a rough sea just off Combe Martin cliffs, when blown perilously towards them without sufficient height to clear them.68 He said that the worst thing about the entire flight was that he threw overboard Dr Johnson’s barometer, in a last futile attempt to lighten the balloon and clear the cliffs. However, the experience he gained of ditching in the sea may subsequently have saved his life.

In July 1811 Sadler continued his experiments by making an ascent from Trinity College Great Court, Cambridge, and landed in a gale near the little village of Stansted. Another, calmer, ascent, from Hackney on 12 August, was made with a scientific observer on board, Henry Beaufoy. Beaufoy kept a minute-by-minute log of the flight, using an array of instruments and carefully noting his physical sensations and impressions. This ascent was also recorded in a beautiful engraving.69

Sadler attempted a crossing from Dublin to Liverpool on 1 October 1812, a distance of over a hundred miles, by far the longest balloon flight yet attempted in the British Isles. After a 200-mile dogleg which took him off course north-easterly almost to the Isle of Man, he was swept back safely southwards over Anglesey, where he could have landed. However, he determined to find the direct easterly current to carry him all the way to Liverpool, threw out ballast and climbed again.

Sadler was now steadily swept back out to sea on a northerly airstream, which would eventually have taken him to the Scottish coast or the Isle of Skye-or even to the North Pole. As dusk was coming on, he decided to ‘valve’ and ditch in the sea, so he could be picked up by a passing boat. But once he was down in the water, the boat refused to approach him. ‘I observed that the sailors seemed fearful of coming too near, lest the Balloon should get entangled in their rigging.’70

Undismayed, Sadler performed the extraordinary feat of relaunching from the sea by dropping emergency ballast. He flew on northwards till he found a second boat, and ditched for a second time, now almost in the dark. The ship’s captain saved him by cleverly running his bowsprit through the balloon’s rigging before it sank. Sadler’s extraordinary skill and sangfroid in ditching and relaunching from the sea, and then ditching a second time virtually in the dark, demonstrated his exceptional gifts as a natural aeronaut. But he had not achieved the historic Irish crossing, and the challenge was eventually to be passed to his son Windham. James Sadler published a vivid account of his attempt, ending with an appeal for greater public support of scientific ballooning: ‘Aerostation is too intimately connected with the entire range of Science, its exhibitions are too brilliant and interesting, not to deserve the patronage which a liberal public always confers on desert…It is so well calculated to throw light on the obscure science of Meteorology, to develop many interesting facts in Magnetism, and to assist the progress of Chemistry and Electricity, that its success must be regarded as interesting to Philosophy [science] in general.’71

One Oxford student who responded was Percy Shelley, now aged twenty, who continued to follow Sadler’s career and to pursue his fascination with balloons as symbols of liberty. In the winter of 1812 he sent up a series of silk-covered fire balloons, sewn by his teenage wife Harriet, from the beach at Lynmouth, Devon. Each carried copies of his revolutionary pamphlet ‘A Declaration of Rights’. He also composed a rather good sonnet on the subject:

Bright ball of flame that thro the gloom of even

Silently takes thine ethereal way

And with surpassing glory dimmst each ray

Twinkling amid the dark blue depth of Heaven;

Unlike the Fire thou bearest, soon shalt thou

Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom,

Whilst that, unquenchable, is doomed to glow

A watch-light by the patriot’s lonely tomb,

A ray of courage to the opprest and poor…72

James Sadler’s son Windham made his first solo flight from Cheltenham in 1813, aged only seventeen. He too revealed himself as a natural aeronaut, and four years later, in 1817, he attempted the first Irish crossing that had eluded his father. The flight was again made from Dublin, but this time was better prepared, with careful meteorological planning and the launching of small pathfinder balloons. Windham made the sixty-mile crossing to Wales on a direct easterly course, a journey of five hours. Having learned from his father’s experience, the moment he reached land Windham valved the balloon and came down just south of Holyhead.73

Like his father, Windham Sadler championed the scientific value of ballooning, and decried its shameful neglect by English backers in the years that followed: ‘Strange as it may appear, England, the seat of Science and Literature, has remained satisfied with gazing on the casual experiments of Foreign Aeronauts…although Cavendish first discovered and Priestley first suggested the application of that powerful agent, Hydrogen Gas, to the purposes of Aerostation!’74

But in 1824, at the age of twenty-seven, Windham had a terrible accident when his balloon grapple-line tangled in a chimney during a high-wind landing in the Pennines. He was thrown out of the basket, and hung suspended upside-down by his legs for several minutes, until he finally fell to his death. Devastated, his father James never set foot in a balloon basket again.


The early heroic period of ballooning, between 1783 and 1800, appeared to come to a dead end. Individual balloonists went on flying, but not for long. Dr Jeffries returned to Boston in 1789. Lunardi died poverty-stricken in Lisbon in July 1806. Blanchard collapsed with a heart attack after a forced landing in Holland in 1809, and died a few weeks later while apparently attempting to parachute from his new balloon. A few celebratory ascents continued in Paris, notably by the showman Jacques Garnerin and by Blanchard’s eccentric young wife Sophia, who specialised in aerial firework displays. But she too was killed in 1819, when her balloon was ignited by fireworks. It must have looked as if ballooning was, scientifically speaking, a cul de sac.

Though the hydrogen balloon or Charlier triumphed (temporarily) over the hot-air balloon or Montgolfier, the inability to navigate either form of aerostat appeared to destroy all hopes of finding any immediate technological applications. Balloons simply remained beautiful, expensive and dangerous toys, although the high ascents achieved by the French chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac and others did promise hoped-for advances in meteorology. Gay-Lussac ascended to 23,000 feet above Paris in 1804, establishing the limit at which human beings can breathe. The mysteries of barometric pressure, the function of clouds, the generation of winds and weather systems, were increasingly fascinating.

Interest in meteorology, a nascent science, grew and produced the beautiful cloud classifications of Luke Howard and the valuable wind-scale system of Francis Beaufort. Howard (1772-1864), a Quaker and the first professional meteorologist, published his great study and classification of atmospheric phenomena, On the Modification of Clouds, in 1804. He first proposed the four basic cloud-types, using Latin terms in imitation of Linnaean cataloguing. These were cumulus (heaped cloud), stratus (layer cloud), cirrus (long-hair or high mare’s-tail cloud) and nimbus (raincloud), with various combinations such as cumulo-nimbus (the classic heaped-up rain-carrying clouds of an English summer). All are still in use, with additional combinations such as cirro-stratus(high, thin, fine-weather clouds). Howard was elected to the Royal Society in 1821, but did not achieve a consistent theory of atmospheric pressures and gradients (high-and low-pressure systems), upon which all weather forecasting would ultimately be based, although he outlined this in his last work, Barometrographia (1847). But he called new attention to the formation and transformation of clouds, their seasonal varieties and characteristics, and above all perhaps to their astonishing beauty.75

Ballooning added to this new awareness of the complexity and subtlety of clouds, a growing Romantic preoccupation which can be followed in the paintings of Turner and Constable, the notebooks of Coleridge and the poetry of Shelley. When Shelley refers to ‘the locks of the approaching storm’ in his ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819), he is using Howard’s definition cirrus. ‘The Cloud’ (1820) demonstrates a remarkably accurate and scientific understanding of cloud formation and the convection cycle.76 Goethe wrote a number of essays on clouds, atmospheric pressures and weather, and translated passages of Howard, asking him to compose and send his Autobiography to Germany, and describing him as ‘the first to define conceptually the airy and ever-changing forms of clouds, thus delimiting and fixing what had always been ephemeral and intangible, by accurate observation and naming’.

Clouds became fascinating both as scientific phenomena-the generators of electricity, the mysterious indicators of winds and changing air pressure-and as aesthetic phenomena: the ‘moods’ of the sky reflecting those of the observer, alterations of light over landscape, symbols of change, destruction, regeneration. It could be argued that the Romantics actually invented the idea of ‘the weather’ itself, as it now preoccupies us; as well, of course, as ‘inner weather’.

The first mapping overview of the earth, with drawings made from the balloon basket, revealed the patterns of towns and countryside, the growth of roads, the meandering of rivers, in a new way. Although maps were also the result of trade, exploration, military campaigning and turn-pike-building, the creation of the British Ordnance Survey-the first state mapping programme in the world-was partly inspired by balloons.

Ballooning produced a new, and wholly unexpected, vision of the earth. It had been imagined that it would reveal the secrets of the heavens above, but in fact it showed the secrets of the world beneath. The early aeronauts suddenly saw the earth as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature. For the first time the impact of man on nature was clearly revealed: the ever-expanding relationship of towns to countryside, roads to rivers, cultivated fields to forests, and the development of industry. It was comparable to the first views of the earth from space by the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s, producing a new concept of a ‘single blue planet’ with its delicate membrane of atmosphere. The famous photograph ‘Earthrise’ was taken from lunar orbit in December 1968.

Ballooning proved to have extraordinary theatrical power to attract crowds, embody longing, and mix terror and the sublime with farce. It became showmanship, carnival, pure euphoria. A successful balloon launch, in the hands of one of the early masters like Pilâtre, Lunardi or Blanchard, became a communal expression of hope and wonder, of courage and comedy. The balloon crowd (especially in Paris) foreshadowed another kind of crowd-the revolutionary crowd. It contained elements of prophecy, both political and scientific. It was like a collective gasp of hope and longing.

Curiously, it was not the men of science, so much as the poets and writers, who continued to see ballooning as a symbol of hope and liberation. Erasmus Darwin celebrated the daring of the first balloonists, and the new vision of the world their intrepid flights opened up in the 1780s:

The calm Philosopher in ether sails,

Views broader stars and breathes in purer gales;

Sees like a map in many a waving line,

Round earth’s blue plains her lucid waters shine;

Sees at his feet the forky lightning glow

And hears innocuous thunder roar below.77

Coleridge wrote in his notebooks of the balloon as an image of powerful but mysterious flight. He compared the appearance of a balloon in the sky to that of a flock of starlings climbing and spinning upon itself. It was ultimately an image of human longing and inspiration, both uplifting and terrifying.78

Wordsworth began his poem Peter Bell (1798) with a playful image of flying in a sort of dirigible airship, or balloon boat.

There’s something in a flying Horse,

There’s something in a huge Balloon:

But through the Clouds I’ll never float

Until I have a little Boat

Shaped like the crescent-Moon…

Away we go!-and what care we

For treason, tumults, and for wars?

We are as calm in our Delight

As is the crescent-Moon so bright

Among the scattered Stars.79

Perhaps Shelley put it best, when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1811, and had just witnessed another of Sadler’s balloon ascents one sparkling summer morning from Christchurch Meadows: ‘The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aerial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not yet mounted the rude raft…It would seem a mere toy, a feather, in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist. Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa?-Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate slavery forever.’80

 Ian McEwan, in the famous opening scene from his 1997 novel Enduring Love, describes a similar horrific balloon death.

 Jeffries subsequently claimed that in this manner they lightened the balloon by ‘no less than five or six pounds’. As a pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter, he seems to imply that each of them voided well over two pints of urine, which is more than twice the normal male bladder content. Moreover, cold shrinks the male bladder, and Blanchard at least was a notably small and lightly-built man. The probable solution to the surprising amount of weight released is that they defecated as well. No doubt Jeffries felt that this last detail was too much even for scientific candour.

 Recent studies by French aeronautical experts, based on the claim that only the top of the Charlier canopy was burnt in the immediate vicinity of the sprung venting valve, have suggested that Pilâtre’s basic double-balloon design was perfectly sound. Against all expectation, it appears that the hydrogen was not ignited by a spark from the Montgolfier brazier. The probable cause of the catastrophe was a spark caused by a build-up of static electricity, as Pilâtre pulled the valving line and it chafed against the balloon silk. Audoin Dollfus, Pilâtre de Rozier (1993, Chapter 7, ‘Les Causes du Drâme’). It would be interesting to know what Miss Susan Dyer might have thought of this ingenious explanation. Nevertheless, it is true that the first successful non-stop circumnavigation of the globe was performed by a combined helium and hot-air aerostat, with propane burners, the Breitling Orbiter 3, in March 1999.

 In fact Lamarck had published a paper ‘On Cloud Forms’ in Paris in 1802, but his definitions were less authoritative than Howard’s, and he used French terms-such as attroupés for cumulus-which were less easily accepted internationally at this period. If Napoleon had won the European war, weather forecasting might be more Gallic today; as it is, modern French forecasters still give barometric pressures in ‘hectopascals’, and have difficulty distinguishing between drizzle, showers and rain. See Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds (2001).

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