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Falling upwards: How we took to the air

A history of ballooning by Richard Holmes

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The right to fly

  • Nov 28, 2013
Richard Holmes quotes iconoclastic 19th century French aeronaut and ballooning promoter Felix Nadar from the title of one of his promotional pieces "Le Droit au vol":  the right to fly.  Holmes continues to create insightful and highly readable history at the border of literature. art, and science (see The Age of Wonder, his previous outing) in this fascinating history of ballooning "at the meeting of chemistry, physics, engineering and the imagination."

The story begins with Holmes's own imagination as he recounts his first balloon sighting at a festival while a young boy in England.  From there he traces the history of the idea and the science of ballooning, with a light touch on the political and cultural aspects of the technology.  England and France traded leadership, ideas, and barbs throughout the 1800s as each attempted to establish its superiority in the field.  While the development was sometimes driven by scientific and research motives (to discover wind and weather patterns in the upper atmosphere, for example), Holmes also spends time documenting the uses of ballooning as entertainment and at times death-defying daredevil-ism (take a look at the photograph of the tiny silver basket French female balloonist Sophie Blanchard used as she entertained crowds at events honoring Napoleon in the first years of the century).

Holmes also studies the topic through the eyes and pens of writers who either flew in balloons or wrote about them or inserted them into their fiction,  Dickens took a dim view of the spectacle of public flights, while Poe wrote an early "War of the Worlds"-style account of a trans-Atlantic crossing that had some readers believing the verity of it, even though it would be another 100-plus years before history could duplicate fiction.  And of course Jules Verne featured balloons prominently in different novels during his career as the first popular science fiction writer.

The most fascinating parts of the history occur near the end of the account and near the end of the useful application of untethered ballooning flights.  When Paris was besieged by the Prussian army in 1870 for 130 days, cut off from the rest of the country, the government in exile, and the remnant of the resisting French army, Nadar (who had moved on from ballooning to art promotion) came back into the field to establish "The Number One Company of Balloonists.". Surrounded by the first modern metallic army with its massive firepower shutting off all ground and water approaches and cutting all other communication lines, Nadar and other aeronautic volunteers provided an incredible morale boost through the even more amazing feat of launching balloons from central Paris and over and beyond the encircling army.  They smuggled out news reports, then established a regular mail service, and even carried out resistance leaders and businessmen to help rebuild the government and army.  Carrier pigeons (smuggled out of Paris on earlier balloon flights) even provided return mail service, with thousands of letters strapped to their legs via the innovation of primitive microfilm photography.

It is hard to imagine the kind of courage it would take to climb in a wicker basket strapped under a giant balloon full of highly flammable gas and then launch into the capriciousness of the winds that might take you to any point of the compass (including in the direction of the enemy that surrounds you) at altitudes easily reachable by the siege guns that could shoot you out of the sky into deathly freefall.  Then again it is hard to imagine the courage that ever inspired anyone to consider taking to the sky in a balloon.  Falling Upwards helps us to understand that courage.  Ballooning, while an dangerous and ultimately superceded technology, established our right to fly.

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December 05, 2013
That and the Wright Brothers too established our right to fly.
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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