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How We Took to the Air
For the Romantics, as Richard Holmes showed in his acclaimed 2008 book The Age of Wonder, ballooning was the future. Air travel, they believed, would carry freedom and prosperity across the globe. Frontiers would vanish. The shadow of the first balloon gliding over Africa, Shelley predicted, would annihilate slavery for ever. Holmes’s new book, by contrast, records how the balloon dream gradually deflated in the course of the 19th century. It is a tragic tale, punctuated with ghastly accidents, but thanks to Holmes’s enthusiasm and eager curiosity it remains valiantly airborne.
He does not attempt a full-scale history of ballooning, concentrating instead on a clutch of dramatic stories. Almost all his pages have black-and-white pictures from books and magazines of the period, so you get the feel of being at a Victorian magic-lantern show. Quotations from accounts left by real-life balloonists enhance this sense of going back in time. They record their sensations during flight. Even at a mile or two up, voices from the ground and animal noises can still be heard. Higher, they fade to a whisper, “like the ocean in a shell”. At night, earth’s noises can help you plot your position. The croaking of frogs, for example, indicates you are over fenland. Without such aids, the night is terrifying. Monck Mason, a passenger on Charles Green’s epic 1836 flight from London’s Vauxhall Gardens to a forest near Frankfurt, recalls how, when light had faded, they seemed to be surrounded on all sides by a “black, plunging chasm”. As they strained their eyes to penetrate the darkness, they had the illusion that they were “cutting a path through an immense block of black marble”.
What use balloons were was much debated. They were no good for travel because they could not be steered. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, suggested a small hydrogen balloon attached to a garden wheelbarrow would make it easier to push, but no one seems to have taken up this sensible idea. Instead, balloons became a standard item in the entertainment industry. Acrobats hung from them, fireworks were set off from them — sometimes disastrously — and a young woman called Sophie Blanchard achieved brief fame by making ascents in a basket no bigger than a child’s cradle. She later fell to a terrible death. Holmes wonders why Charles Dickens disapproved of ballooning. My guess is that it was because it drew mindless crowds who were excited by the chance of seeing someone killed, and who would have been better occupied reading a book, preferably by Charles Dickens.
Human nature being what it is, balloons were deployed as weapons of war very early. Napoleon formed a Corps d’Aérostiers in 1794, and took it to Egypt, where Nelson destroyed it at the Battle of the Nile. In the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s Military Aeronautics Corps was more fortunate. It used tethered balloons with telegraph equipment to inform Union commanders on the ground about Confederate positions. For the first time in the history of warfare aerial observation directed the fire of guns. The screams of the wounded could be heard from the balloons.
When the Prussians besieged Paris in 1870 the photographer Félix Nadar organized a balloon postal service to take mail to the outside world. Hundreds of volunteer dressmakers stitched the calico canopies, each of which held 70,000 cubic feet of coal gas, and could carry 300kg of mail plus two aeronauts. They also carried a cage of homing pigeons for bringing microfilmed mail back into the besieged city, where a team of post office clerks worked round the clock transcribing microfilms in darkened projection rooms. In the four months of the siege 60,000 letters were transcribed and delivered to Parisian addresses. A memorial to the airlift was erected in 1874 at the Porte de Neuilly, incorporating a bronze balloon on a stone plinth with a pigeon hovering round it. It was popular with children, but when the Germans marched into Paris in the summer of 1940 they destroyed it.
The scientific sections of Holmes’s book soar above these conflicts. For meteorologists the upper air was a laboratory. The most poetic moment comes when a dashing young French scientist, Camille Flammarion, notices butterflies fluttering around the gondola of his balloon. This was the first recorded sighting, Holmes explains, of what are now known to be massive seasonal airflows of migrating insects, including moths, ladybirds and lacewings as well as butterflies, and occurring at up to 9,000ft. According to one study, the total flow over a small stretch of southern England is 3bn insects a month. The paths taken by these diminutive aeronauts influence bird migration patterns, especially of swifts and swallows, which eat insects on the wing.
The hero among Holmes’s scientists is James Glaisher, a watchmaker’s son from Rotherhithe, who set out to discover how high you could go before breathable air gave out and you died of asphyxiation. Terminating the ascent before that occurred was clearly of some importance, so Glaisher took an experienced balloonist, Henry Coxwell, with him. On their first flight in July 1862 Glaisher recorded his physical symptoms with admirable scientific detachment. Approaching 19,000ft his pulse rate reached 100 a minute; after another 400ft he suffered heart palpitations and found it hard to breathe; 20ft higher his hands and lips turned dark blue; at 21,792ft he felt sick and could not see clearly. Only at 22,357ft did Coxwell, perhaps noticing his passenger’s discomfort, start the descent. Neither man was deterred by the experience. On an ascent two months later Glaisher actually passed out and Coxwell’s hands froze so that he could not pull open the gas-escape valve. By the time he managed it, with his teeth, they had soared to 37,000ft or just over seven miles. What they had discovered, Holmes observes, was that the envelope of life-sustaining oxygen around the earth is alarmingly thin, and that what lies beyond is not the ethereal heaven imagined by poets but darkness and death.
This is a bleaker book than The Age of Wonder and it ends with a fearsome account of an attempt by three Swedish aeronauts to reach the North Pole by balloon in 1897. Their pathetic remains, complete with diaries and letters home, were not found until 1930. Ballooning was a dream that failed, and the lesson of Holmes’s story is that an invention that seemed to promise democracy and universal brotherhood became merely another means for humanity to exhibit its insatiable appetite for triviality and destruction. Perhaps the nearest modern parallel will turn out to be the internet.
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