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Richard Holmes - FALLING UPWARDS

Man's early experiments with ballooning: hot air and hydrogen. Little science, much attention to biographies and yarns.

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"Pilots of the purple twilight ..." (Tennyson, Locksley Hall 1835, 1842)

  • Sep 9, 2013

The 2013 book being reviewed is FALLING UPWARDS. Its subtitle is HOW WE TOOK TO THE AIR. Its author is Richard Brooke, a north Englishman and retired Professor of Biography. FALLING UPWARD holds a tiny dab of ballooning as fact, fantasy and pre-history in China and South America. There is less science and science technology (including the economics of producing pure hydrogen to give balloons lift) than many readers might like. 


What there is much of in FALLING UPWARDS is biographies and tale-telling, one after the other covering excitedly but not deeply the first hundred years or so of mankind's taking to the air in hot-air or lighter than air balloons. In addition lives of the early aeronauts are shown to appeal with increasing power to newspapers, journalists, poets and writers of science fiction.


Consider Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892). Modern ballooning was over 30 years old when he was born. 90 foot high balloons were lifted by hot air, hydrogen or coal gas. As Kipling would do in two famous SciFi short stories decades later, Tennyson in Locksley Hall extrapolated from what balloons were doing in his day to a future of intercontinental commerce and warfare via steered balloons (later called dirigibles). Thus the futuristic lines in Tennyson's Locksley Hall:


Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:

That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:


For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,

Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;


Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,

Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;


Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew

From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue
(cited in FALLING UPWARDS, Ch. 3)


Similarly, Professor Holmes flags Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849) as an instance of imagination at work extrapolating from the worldwide phenomenon of contemporary ballooning.

In June 1835 the New York SUN published Poe's "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall." With considerable technical detail and several futuristic inventions of Poe's imagining, this story tells of one man's ascent by balloon to the moon, with eerie sighting of earth light and meetings with moon people who doubt that the earth is populated. 


Anticipating Orson Welles's 1938 invasion from Mars radio announcement,  on April 14, 1844 the New York SUN published a tongue-in-cheek announcement by Poe of a real-time 72-hour flight from Europe to Charleston, South Carolina in a dirigible constructed and piloted by real life English balloonist and writer Monck Mason. Poe's fictional report is low-key, technical, scientific and a bit satirical, "a mockery of scientific presumption and hubris   ...  an explanation of collective delusion ... the desire to be dazzled by scientific wonders (that) may be associated with a conscious willingness to be bamboozled or hoaxed" (Ch. 3).


And so  FALLING UPWARDS: HOW WE TOOK TO THE AIR rolls along for more than 400 pages. The same ballooning sequence over and over: launch - flight - landing. We are shown different ways that at different times the press and writers interpreted human life in fragile baskets suspended miles above the earth from gas-filled balloons. FALLING UPWARDS is not a how-to book on how to teach yourself to fly. But it abounds in doughty tales, real and imagined, of the first century of man's recorded lift-offs from terra firma to the frontiers of atmosphere.  



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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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