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Conquest of the Skies: A History of Ballooning

Balloon Voyages in England

England did not show the same official enthusiasm for balloons as did France. Following the lead of England’s head scientist, Joseph Banks, the Royal Society did not pursue experiments with balloons. This neglect of the new science prompted Benjamin Franklin to write to Banks, “I am sorry this Experiment is totally neglected in England where mechanic Genius is so strong…. It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new Experiment which apparently increases the Power of Man over Matter, till we can see to what Use that Power may be applied.”

Despite Franklin’s chiding, the first aeronauts in England were not local scientists but foreigners, who were happy to give the public the excitement they craved without needing to gain any scientific knowledge from it. The first balloon launched in England, therefore, belonged to Count Francesco Zambeccari, an Italian sailor and adventurer, who launched a hydrogen balloon on 4 November 1783, and the first manned balloon flight in England was performed by another Italian, Vincent Lunardi, on 15 September 1784.

Not all Englishmen were indifferent to ballooning, however, and several, either with their own wealth or by subscription, undertook many balloon voyages in England, including the first balloon flight across the English Channel.

Lunardi Title Page
Vincenzo Lunardi. An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gherdo Compagni, written under the Impressions of the Various Events that affected the Undertaking. London: Printed for the Author, 1784.

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On 15 September 1784, Vincent Lunardi took to the skies with his dog and cat, and a pigeon. His was a gas balloon fitted with oars, with which he intended to control his course, but one oar fell to the ground as the balloon rose. This did not prevent him from occasionally working the one remaining oar and in fact believing that it was due to his labors that he was able to descend the first time to release his cat from the basket, for “the poor animal had been sensibly affected by the cold.”

This work contains six letters written by Lunardi to his guardian, describing the events leading up to and during his first balloon voyage, as well as depositions given by several people who spoke to Lunardi during the voyage or helped him with his final descent. The work ends with a poem written by “a Gentleman well known in the Literary World,” which praises Lunardi’s courage, calling him “King of the Air” and “The Columbus of Britain.”

After the voyage the young, charming Lunardi became the man of the hour in London. Encouraged by the success of his first attempt, he made a number of ascents throughout Great Britain over the next two years. Following a balloon accident in August 1786 in which a young boy died, however, Lunardi was forced to flee England and take up his flying career on the Continent.

Air-Balloon Title Page
The Air-Balloon; or, the Sages Adventures in a Flight to the Moon. A Tale, in Six Short Cantos. London: Printed for G. Bremner, 1784.

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As with any new science or technology, Ballooning excited some of the baser emotions as well as the higher. This poem was written, the author tells us, on the occasion of a disagreement in Norwich about an air-balloon that a local man, Mr. Bunn, was constructing. Two philosophers, a master and scholar, differed in their opinions of the force the balloon would have upon ascending to the sky, and they proceeded to start a paper war in the Norfolk Chronicle. The master turned out to be the nastier of the two, comparing the scholar’s “attempt to measure the height to which the Balloon would arise, to an attempt to measure the exact height of Salisbury steeple without seeing it, or his taking the dimensions of an house in the moon.” Such a sneering reply prompted this anonymous author to write a satirical poem on the consequences of pride in one’s own wisdom.

Cavallo Title Page
Tiberius Cavallo. The History and Practice of Aerostation. London: Printed for the Author, 1785.

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Cavallo was born in Naples but came to England in 1762 and took up the life of a natural philosopher. His main area of study was electricity, but a later interest in gases led to his curiosity about the ballooning experiments of the 1780s (Bertucci).

The present work is the first scientific treatise on aerostation written in English. In it, Cavallo gives a history of the ascents made up through the beginning of 1785, including the first balloon launched in England by Zambeccari and the first aerial voyage in England by Lunardi. He hypothesizes about the possible reasons that in England, “where the improvements of arts and sciences find their nursery, and many their birth, no aerostatic machine was seen before the month of November 1783,” although he concedes that “it often happens in a nation, that a sort of stupor prevents even the most necessary and easy exertions, in particular cases, for which omission, a short time after, no person can assign any plausible reason” (93).

The second part of the work is devoted to the practice of aerostation: how balloons are constructed, the different means of filling them, ways to make them ascend and descend, and the various experiments and observations that may be conducted during a voyage.

Baldwin Title Page
Thomas Baldwin. Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the Eighth of September, 1785, taken from Minutes made during the Voyage: Hints on the Improvement of Balloons, and Mode of Inflation by Steam: Means to Prevent their Descent over Water: Occasional Enquiries into the State of the Atmosphere, etc. The Whole Serving as an Introduction to Aerial Navigation: with a Copious Index. Chester: Printed for the Author, by J. Fletcher, 1786.

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In September 1785, when Lunardi was in Chester, he allowed Thomas Baldwin to make a solo ascent in his balloon so that he could sketch some aerial views.

Baldwin then wrote a highly detailed and lengthy account of the voyage including everything from an inventory of the items taken (including the weight of each item) to a florid description of his sensations as he flew: “A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture.” The account of the voyage itself is interspersed with and followed by discourses upon hints and improvements such as the best time of day for voyages, how to land in windy weather, and how best to conduct experiments while aloft. The work includes several engravings (one by Stothard) from the sketches made by Baldwin while aloft.

Mason Title Page
Monck Mason. Aeronautica; Or, Sketches Illustrative of the Theory and Practice of Aerostation: Comprising an Enlarged Account of the Late Aerial Expedition to Germany. London: F. C. Westley, 1838.

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This is the account of a journey undertaken by Robert Hollond, Charles Green, and Monck Mason in 1836 in a large coal gas balloon. Green had developed this new means of inflating balloons, which was much quicker and cheaper than using hydrogen. The process took a few hours rather than days, and the coal was so cheap as to be practically free. Holland, a gentleman with an interest in aerostation, determined to underwrite a balloon voyage that would begin in London and end only when he was ready to come down. The balloon they used had been constructed by Green and was about 60 feet tall and held more than 85,000 cubic feet of gas. The basket was an oval, about 9 feet by 4 feet. Although they had no particular final destination in mind, they did want to get as close to Paris as they could, and they were able, by ascending or descending, to find winds favorable for their chosen direction. They landed the next day near the town of Weilburg in Nassau, completing a journey of 500 miles in eighteen hours.

In addition to providing a minute description of the voyage itself, Mason gives a general history of aerostation. In an appendix, he lists all those who have been aerial voyagers up to the time of his writing, including brief memoirs for the more important aeronauts. There are 471 names in his list, including 49 women.

Sadler Title Page
James Sadler. The Only True and Authentic Account of the Voyage from Bristol, on Monday, Sept. 24, 1810. Taken from the Memoranda of and Corrected by the Aeronauts. Bristol: The Bristol Mercury & the Mirror, 1810.

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This pamphlet provides the details and a map of the voyage (the 16th by Sadler) of James Sadler and William Clayfield on 24 September 1810. After about three hours, largely spent over the water, the gas in the balloon was nearly exhausted. The aeronauts ran out of ballast before reaching land, and they were obliged to descend into the sea near Combe-Martin.

Ballooning was expensive, and Sadler addresses in his pamphlet the “liberal Public; whose generosity, it is sincerely hoped, will remunerate Mr. SADLER for the heavy Expence he has incurred in this interesting Exhibition.”

André Jacques Garnerin

 Air Balloon Title Page
Air Balloon. A Full and Accurate Account of the Two Aerial Voyages made by Monsr. Garnerin, on Monday, June 28, and Monday, July 5, 1802; including the Interesting Particulars Communicated by Captain Sowden and Mr. Locker, who Accompanied M. Garnerin. As Written by Themselves. To which is Prefixed, The Origin of Balloons; the Method of constructing, filling, and directing them through the Atmosphere; And an Account of the several aerial Adventurers, to the present Period; together with a Sketch of the Life of M. Garnerin. Sommers-Town: Printed and published by A. Neil, 1802.

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André Jacques Garnerin was best known for being the first man to build a parachute that could be used to jump from a great height, which he did on 22 October 1797. Two years after his first successful jump, his student and future wife, Jeanne Labrosse, became the first woman parachutist. She continued to fly and jump with him throughout his career. His niece, Elisabeth Garnerin, learned to fly balloons at the age of fifteen and became the first professional parachutist, making 39 parachute descents from 1815 to 1836.

The balloon voyages described in the work above were made during the brief peace between England and France, when Garnerin was able to visit England with his wife.

 Air Balloon & Parachute Title Page
Air Balloon & Parachute. A Circumstantial Account of the Three last Aërial Voyages made by M. Garnerin, viz. From Vauxhall Gardens, accompanied by Madame Garnerin and Mr. Glassford, on Tuesday, August 5, 1802; From Bath, on Tuesday, September 7; from St. George’s Parade, North Audley Street, and his Descent with a Parachute, on Tuesday, September 21. Including the Interesting Particulars communicated by Himself. Sommers-Town, 1802.

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This account includes a description of the parachute jump Garnerin made in London from nearly 10,000 feet, when, “encountering some currents of air … [the parachute] was observed to roll and toss in a most extraordinary manner.” Garnerin made a rough landing, and though shaken, he was unhurt by the descent.

Also included is a humorous account supposedly written by Madame Garnerin’s cat, which was taken up in the balloon. The cat relates that Madame Garnerin volunteered to go down with the parachute, but he “instantly claimed the honour of this hazardous mission, observing, that I had nine lives, and was ready to sacrifice one of them for so much beauty.” He was let down in a small parachute and landed safely near Milbank.

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