10 June, 2013Issue 22.4HistoryTravel

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Argosies of Magic Sails

Scarlett Baron

Falling UpwardsRichard Holmes
Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
HarperPress, 2013
416 pages
ISBN 978-0007386925


When Felix Baumgartner plunged to earth from the edge of space in October 2012, exceeding the speed of sound and dropping 128,000 feet in just over nine minutes, his exploit was but the latest in a series of scarcely creditable ballooning records. Although the media focused on his vertiginous fall, Baumgartner’s ascent was in different ways just as remarkable. For it was neither by rocket nor by aeroplane that the Austrian space diver reached such stratospheric heights: as he sat ensconced in a compact pressurised capsule, his uplift was provided solely by a tall, white, almost implausibly fragile helium balloon.

Combining unfettered ambition, extreme danger, and extensive preliminary planning, Baumgartner’s undertaking shares salient features with many of the feats chronicled in Richard Holmes’s riveting history of ballooning. But to what avail such daring, or such recklessness? Are such stunts performed for the benefit of science? In answer to the promptings of personal, record-smashing hubris? Or in the service of massive corporate publicity coups? The convergence of such contending aims is a leitmotif of Holmes’s study.

Indeed haziness of purpose has been a feature of ballooning from its inception by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. After a hundred thousand years of evolution, humanity had finally discovered a way “to fly, to inhabit the upper air, to claim our beautiful airy kingdom”. But there remained for the new mode of travel to find its place in the world. Benjamin Franklin, an early enthusiast, roundly rebuked doubters for their drastic failure of imagination: “Someone asked me – what’s the use of a balloon? I replied – what’s the use of a new-born baby?” Who could need reasons to love a balloon? Who could be blind to its infinite promise?

Some of the earliest schemes for use of the new invention certainly seem rather droll in retrospect. The zoologist Erasmus Darwin dreamt of a balloon which would drag wheelbarrows of manure up the hills of his Irish estate. Franklin, for his part, thought tethered balloons would make admirable airborne refrigerators. Later, growing greyer and goutier, he concocted the idea of relieving his loved ones of their wheelchair-pushing duties by harnessing himself to a hydrogen balloon “sufficiently large to raise me from the ground”.

Military applications were envisaged from the first. A cartoon of 1784, titled “The Battle of the Balloons” and showing French and British balloonists taking aim at each other across the skies, gives a flavour of what was to come. But it was with a view to the gathering of operational intelligence rather than in combat that military balloons would be deployed. The first ballooning regiment was the French Corps d’Aérostatiers, founded in 1794. It soon saw service as part of Napoleon’s army in the Low Countries and eventually in Egypt, where the entire fleet (four balloons) was brought down at the Battle of the Nile.

Later in the century, Holmes trains his eye on the part played by balloons in the American Civil War. John Lowe, whom Lincoln appointed Aeronaut of the Union Army, had eight balloons under his command. Their mission was to act as spies in the sky, but they proved even more useful as instruments of intimidation: rebel troops were unnerved by the airborne panopticon unfurled above their heads. The impoverished Confederate army had no balloons. None, that is, until the Gazelle appeared on the horizon. The Gazelle was “a great patchwork ship of many and varied hues” sewn together from materials acquired from a Charleston warehouse. Wartime rumour, however, ensured that the “Silk Dress Balloon” was purported to have been assembled from “dozens of gorgeous silk ballroom dresses donated by the Southern belles of Richmond”. The Gazelle was rapidly captured, but its defiant afterlife in romantic legend had only just begun.

Balloons were prominent again during the siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870-71. The Prussians intended to break off all connections between the capital and the rest of the country. But the siege was broken when the Neptune—an old balloon hastily repaired for the attempt—successfully cleared the Prussian lines, enabling the delivery of 125 kilos of mail. Parisian morale soared. Victor Hugo, who had returned from his political exile in Guernsey as soon as word of the Emperor’s abdication had reached him, delighted at “a mere bubble of air” so miraculously liberating Paris from its psychological isolation. Two improvised factories, set up in the capital’s disused railway stations, began producing balloons around the clock. Over the next five months, Paris communicated with the outside world through an ingenious system involving balloons, microfilms, messenger pigeons, magic lanterns, and a volunteer army of copying clerks. By the time France finally capitulated, 71 balloons had been launched and 293 passengers, 400 pigeons, five dogs, and millions of letters had been airlifted over Prussian army lines. “The wind was our postman, the balloon was our letterbox”, marvelled the poet Théophile Gautier, whose love letters had travelled by balloon.

Even in peace time, 19th-century balloons were an exalting spectacle. Sophie Blanchard made an art of tethered night-time ascents featuring dazzling firework displays. Not content to take to the skies in an ordinary balloon, Blanchard designed a contraption all her own: thus equipped, she flew in a tiny, ornate, silver gondola, “shaped like a small canoe or child’s cradle”, with an armchair built-in at one end. It was, notes Holmes, “virtually like standing in a flying champagne bucket.” Napoleon made her his Aéronaute des Fêtes Officielles. When the Emperor fell, the restored Louis XVIII honoured her as his Official Aeronaut of the Restoration. “Her only loyalty”, as Holmes wryly deduces, “was to ballooning.”

Novelty shows of this kind were not confined to France. In England, Charles Green made regular tethered ascents from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens between 1836 and 1859. The flight for which he was most famous, however, was a much publicised overnight expedition from London to the Continent. The voyage fired many literary imaginations. “Beautiful invention, mounting heavenward – so beautifully, so unguidably! Emblem of our Age, of Hope itself”, exclaimed Carlyle in 1837. Monck Mason, one of Green’s two passengers, published a compelling account of the journey in Aeronautica (1838). Tennyson wrote epic balloons into the Victorian skyline of “Locksley Hall” (1842), envisioning “Argosies of magic sails / Pilots of the purple twilight”. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe drew extensively on Mason’s descriptions to compose a fake news scoop. “The Atlantic Ocean crossed in three days!!’’ proclaimed the New York Sun. The story was no less thrilling for subsequently turning out to be a hoax.

Holmes charts ballooning’s progress from its infancy in the 1780s to its decline at the turn of the 20th century, when more dirigible modes of aerial locomotion began to supersede it. His history deftly marries historical sweep with the detail of individual stories. In the retelling of tragic adventures and improbable survivals, Holmes proves a master of suspense. Time and again, the book’s exquisite illustrations confirm the occurrence of scenes which might otherwise seem to partake more of hyperbolic folklore than of historical reality. As Holmes humbly acknowledges, balloons are peculiarly congenial to stories: “some kind of narrative basket always seems to come tantalisingly beneath them.” Nonetheless, much of the magic is unmistakably Holmesian.

If Holmes has a talent for the exploration of “narrative baskets”, he also seems finely attuned to ballooning’s terminological possibilities. His parade of ballooning’s attendant vocabulary—of cradles and baskets, hoops and gondolas, panels and canopies, trail ropes and valve lines—seems knowingly arrayed to emphasize the flamboyance of ballooning’s natural pageantry.

Falling Upwards is infused with Holmes’s “lifelong fascination with balloons”—a passion instilled in childhood by the upward pull of a bobbing bouquet of helium balloons. Holmes splendidly captures the special enchantment of balloons and their silken envelopes—the celebratory simplicity of their carnival colours and gentle hilarity of their distended shapes. The pages of his cultural history convey the enduring power of balloons to arouse childlike wonder and, in the same glimpse, to recall the quaintness of a forgone and quixotic belle époque when aerostation was synonymous with modernity.

Scarlett Baron is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British and American Literature at University College London.