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Falling Upwards: An Illustrated History of the Golden Age of Hot Air Balloons & How We Took the Skies

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How scientists, explorers, and daredevils risked their lives so we could see our world from above.

It was Louis XVI who suggested that they first send two criminals aloft. The prospect of sealing an innocent human into a basket, lighting a flammable gas above his head, and propelling him skyward with no clue as to how high, how far, or how fast he would go, was clearly a death sentence. When the Montgolfier brothers famously launched their first balloon in front of the king at Versailles in September of 1783, it was not men that flew but animals: a sheep, a duck, and a rooster — the symbol of France. All survived the successful flight, landing in a nearby field.

The first truly manned balloon flight took place only a few months later, on the first of December, when Dr. Alexander Charles and an assistant launched their balloon from the Tuileries with almost half a million Parisians watching, including American ambassador Benjamin Franklin. Charles wrote of the experience:

I felt as if I were flying away from the earth and all its troubles and persecutions forever. It was not mere delight, it was physical rapture….I am finished with the Earth. From now on our place is in the sky!

Charles would later ground his assistant and head up alone, reaching ten-thousand feet to watch the sun set. Benjamin Franklin was also enraptured by the sight. It was hard to tell what practical purpose this balloon might achieve, if it was a mere curiosity or the beacon of a new era of manned flight, but Franklin knew what he had just witnessed:

Someone asked me “what’s the use of a balloon?” I replied—what’s the use of a new-born baby?

In Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (public library), Richard Holmes — who gave us that fascinating exposé on Coleridge’s plagiarism — offers an extraordinary account of the first giddy years of manned flight by balloon, journeys that were sometimes rapturous but often deadly. The dream of flight, he explains, was not simply to launch oneself into the sky like Icarus, but to look back upon the Earth, “to see the world differently.”

The launch of the first manned flight by Dr. Alexander Charles, 1783. From 'The Dream of Flight' collectors cards, c. 1890. (Library of Congress)

What was the use of the balloon? What was the purpose of hurling oneself into the air to “fall upwards” at an alarming rate, guided by the wind over land or far out to sea? The French army at once saw the balloon as a military apparatus, able to view the entire battlefield with eagle-eyed precision. During the Revolutionary Wars, balloons were launched for the first time during battle and instantly became a target for heavy artillery. Nevertheless, the balloon made itself known as an all-seeing eye — its very presence suggested mastery over the field.

A military balloon in use against the Austrian army at the Battle of Fleurus, 1794. From 'The Dream of Flight' collectors cards, c. 1890. (Library of Congress)

For Napoleon, the balloon was both a weapon of military action and of propaganda. He would bring balloons with him to Egypt in 1797, hoping to frighten his Arab opponents. He even launched a balloon during his coronation as emperor in 1804 that would travel from Paris to Italy, and he was delighted to hear that it crashed in Rome, his imperial model.

The balloon launched for Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor in 1804. From 'The Dream of Flight' collectors cards, c. 1890. (Library of Congress)

But ballooning was not just the domain of scientists and emperors — it was the apparatus of adventure, and those willing to go aloft were often reckless showmen and women, willing to risk their lives to thrill an audience. Long before Amelia Earhart, female aeronauts were some of the most famous performers of their day, riding aloft in beautiful silk balloons loaded with fireworks to perform acrobatic tricks thousands of feet above the ground. Napoleon’s favorite daredevil was Sophie Blanchard. The young woman had learned the trade from her older balloonist husband, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who died of a heart attack during a damaged balloon descent.

Sophie Blanchard in her signature balloon and gondola during a launch to celebrate the birth of Napoleon’s son in 1811.

Sophie devised a special balloon for her ascents, which featured a tiny festooned gondola that could hardly fit one standing person. She would float above the crowd as if standing on air, fireworks trailing behind, often wearing a signature white dress with a colorfully plumed hat. During a nighttime display in 1819, one of Blanchard’s fireworks ignited her hydrogen balloon, causing her to fall to her death in front of a horrified crowd in Paris.

The death of Sophie Blanchard, 1819. From 'The Dream of Flight' collectors cards, c. 1890. (Library of Congress)

Balloons were also a dangerous method of travel. Some aeronatus launched successfully only to be dragged out to sea. Others flew too high and passed out. In 1836, balloonist Charles Green achieved the most famous journey of his day, traveling 480 miles in eighteen hours, from England to north Germany. Much of his trip took place at night, without a light to be seen for hours, “cutting a path through an immense block of black marble.”

Portrait of Charles Green by Hilaire Ledru, 1835. (National Gallery, London)

In 1897, S.A. Andrée attempted a fateful journey into the unknown, launching a balloon to travel to the North Pole and crashing along with his companions, freezing to death in the arctic. In his essay about balloons for Household Worlds, Charles Dickens found in the practice much in common with the public hanging: both were a spectacle in which an audience was waiting for a deadly fall. “Their pleasure is difficulty overcome. . . . They do not go to see the adventurer vanquished, but triumphant.”

Andrée's balloon leaves for the North Pole on July 11, 1897. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

Despite the dangers, however, the intoxication of seeing the world anew sent men and women aloft. Balloons tethered to the ground became popular attractions at fairs. Surveyors, and soon photographers, would fly low over the city, revealing an entirely new human map. The bird’s-eye view, or panorama, became an extraordinary new way to envision the city and its people. The photographer Nadar would famously take flight over Paris with his camera, taking the first aerial views of the city, mapping its unprecedented transformation by Baron Haussmann into a modern metropolis — the birth of modern aerial photography.

Nadar in his balloon, taking the first aerial photographs of Paris. Illustration by Honoré Daumier, 1869.

Falling Upwards is a history of men and women who launched themselves into the complete unknown. They traveled up without the certainty that they would safely come down. But they did it to look back upon the world, and to find their place in it. It was the same immutable longing that the Apollo 8 astronauts captured in December of 1968 when they took the iconic photograph that made the world understand why space was worth the race: the bright blue earth rising above the moon, far away and fragile.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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