Magnificent Pratfalls

Mike Jay

  • Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes
    William Collins, 404 pp, £25.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 738692 5

The history of ballooning is inescapably a procession of failures. This is partly in the nature of balloon flight which, like politics and indeed life, must always end with a falling to earth, at best skilfully managed but never entirely safe from indignity or tragedy. It is also a function of the hyperbole with which it was from the beginning obliged to justify itself: it would transform science, revolutionise warfare, redraw our map of the world. With notable but rare exceptions, each of these dreams failed, either defeated by nature or outperformed by rival technologies. In its early years it seemed plausible that the balloon might achieve speeds, cover distances or offer luxuries that would make it the premier transport system of the new industrial era, but over the course of the 19th century the railways and the telegraph accelerated past it and by the early 20th powered flight had effectively replaced it. With hindsight the classic era of the balloon appears as a parade of more or less magnificent pratfalls, marketed at the time as a glimpse of the future but hard to distinguish today from the other Victorian sensations with which it competed.

Yet ballooning was and remains triumphantly successful in one respect: as a source of metaphors. Like the Titanic’s maiden voyage in the celebrated Onion headline, ‘World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg’, the balloon is still an object of inexhaustible rhetorical possibility. As Richard Holmes observes early in Falling Upwards, ‘all balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas’: the launch, the flight and the landing replicate the stages of every journey or human relationship – a set of parallels most recently and memorably explored in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. Equally, a balloon voyage can be a peak experience, like a drug: the passenger is getting high, taking a trip, stealing a momentary vision of the unknown. Early balloonists claimed that it was literally intoxicating: Dr Alexander Charles described the first flight by hydrogen balloon in 1783 as ‘a sort of physical rapture’, and the American pioneer John Wise insisted that the experience ‘never fails to produce exhilaration … the mind is illuminated.’ Yet what goes up must come down: ballooning’s Achilles’ heel, the impossibility of setting one’s direction of travel, means that even the most sublime high is shadowed by unpredictability and danger. One is adrift, in suspense, at the mercy of the elements, on the verge of high drama. There is an inbuilt trajectory of hubris and nemesis: the passenger’s magisterial view de haut en bas will sooner or later be brought down to earth. In this event, the metaphorical balloon is also punctured: the balloonist’s inflated claims, puffed-up pretensions or lofty ideals are reduced to so much hot air, at best gently deflated and at worst brought down in flames. By the end of his supremely enjoyable book, Holmes has decided that his subject is more metaphor than reality: all this is ‘not really about balloons at all’, but ‘the spirit of discovery itself’.

In this sense the presiding genius here isn’t Icarus, who is quickly disposed of, but Prometheus. Like The Age of Wonder (2008), Holmes’s last book, Falling Upwards unfolds as a history of the Romantic era: its origins are in that book’s chapter ‘Balloonists in Heaven’, which told the celebrated stories of the Montgolfier brothers and Vincenzo Lunardi with a similarly winning combination of gusto and bathos. To borrow a few balloon metaphors, Holmes has inflated this material to book length while jettisoning much of the previous volume’s ballast, allowing him to soar giddily and waywardly on his picaresque voyage. His focus on a single field of endeavour releases him from conceptual heavy lifting and frees him to linger over less familiar stories and close readings of his wide and eccentric collection of scientific, literary and journalistic sources. The characters he assembles are often hapless and inadequate to their own tasks, but their grand obsessions, cross-disciplinary interests and historical span across the long 19th century are a perfect match with his wider design. In trading the distinguished cast of The Age of Wonder for one in which the great scientific and literary figures are outnumbered by chancers, eccentrics and self-publicists, Holmes escapes the familiar Romantic canon and reveals the spirit of the age from fresh perspectives. If the story amounts to a chronicle of failures they are nonetheless unpredictable and sometimes delightful failures. An attempt at the altitude record launched from Paris in 1850 reached 23,000 feet before the balloon’s fabric ripped and it plummeted to earth; overcome by escaping gas, the passengers passed out and ‘awoke some time later lying peacefully in a vineyard on the edge of the champagne region in Lorraine’.

In the first phase of Holmes’s story, which he dates from the ascents of 1783 to the celebrity daredevil Sophie Blanchard’s ghastly public immolation in a shower of fireworks over the Paris night sky in 1819, ballooning was borne aloft on a powerful commitment to novelty and a sense of infinite possibility. Yet its tangible achievements were few. This was an age when the step from scientific marvel to practical application was notoriously elusive: an invention such as Humphry Davy’s miner’s lamp became iconic precisely because successful marriages of science and industry were so rare. The balloon’s most promising early applications were military: by 1800 it had made dramatic appearances in the French Revolutionary Wars and with Napoleon in Egypt, where he hoped it would terrify the Arabs as Hannibal’s elephants had the Romans. In the long run, however, a balloon corps proved impractical, and the balloon’s propaganda value became a gift to the enemy when they crashed, drifted or were shot down. (The pattern was repeated sixty years later in the American Civil War, where balloons played a highly visible role in some early skirmishes before it became all too obvious that there was no vantage point from which they could observe accurately while remaining out of shelling range.) Unforeseen obstacles also limited their use as a means of transport or communication, and as scientific instruments. Erasmus Darwin’s ingenious proposals – for example, his idea of using hydrogen balloons to increase the lifting power of carts or wheelbarrows on the ground – never made it beyond his prodigiously fertile notebooks and remain novelties to this day.

After 1830, when the smart money had migrated from air to steam and rail as the future of mass transport at speed, ballooning entered a second phase. In many respects the beginning of a terminal decline, it would nonetheless be its golden age. The balloon became an emblem of luxury and adventure: a sport for aristocratic explorers and wealthy entrepreneurs with mutton-chop sideburns and loud waistcoats, invariably accompanied by food hampers and champagne (the pairing of champagne and ballooning is a triumph of symbol over substance, as champagne at altitude froths uncontrollably). A well-appointed expedition was always good copy for the popular press, whose reports would often detail the contents of the balloonists’ hampers more diligently than the pioneering intent of the voyage. Though science and industry had largely ceased to look skyward, the penumbra of scientific mystery still glowed intensely. In the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne the balloon became a vehicle for adventures that blurred the line between documentary and fantasy, transporting readers to the interior of Africa or the upper atmosphere: the here-be-dragons hinterlands that hovered just beyond the scientific horizon.

The driving force of ballooning in this phase was ultimately publicity: scientific funding was welcome (not least for its publicity value), but the financial mainstay was typically sponsorship from coal-gas firms, luxury suppliers and illustrated newspapers in search of exclusives. The flying machine and the publicity machine became symbiotic, metaphors for one another; Holmes yokes together the book launch and the balloon launch, a conjunction first exploited by Maupassant. Balloonists became consummate self-publicists, and few ambitious self-publicists ignored the possibilities of the balloon. The perfect exemplar was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar and characterised by Holmes as ‘a kind of walking logo’. Already the most successful photographer in Paris, Nadar striped his name (which was also that of his studio) across the basket of his balloon in letters visible from the ground, and his patented aerial camera kit produced astounding bird’s-eye views of Paris that promoted both his studio and his grandiose balloon project, Le Géant, but most of all himself. Yet behind the showmanship there was always a ghoulish side to ballooning as public spectacle: who could say how much of the appeal lay in the possibility of a spectacular death? Dickens’s surprisingly violent antipathy to these entertainments suggests he saw in them something of the cruelty of public hangings, with the schadenfreude of the gawping spectators encouraged by an immoral recklessness on the part of the balloonist, ‘a sort of suicidal surrender of self-command’.

During this golden age, popular thrills and spills were finally joined by some real achievements. Daring vertical ascents, such as James Glaisher’s terrifying ordeal in the freezing ‘death zone’ seven miles up, established the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere and would greatly extend the scope of meteorology. But the most spectacular success, and Holmes’s grand set-piece, came during the siege of Paris in 1870. The total blockade of the city, crucial to Bismarck’s military and propaganda strategies, was spectacularly broken by the patched-up and improvised balloons of Nadar’s No. 1 Compagnie des Aérostiers, who succeeded in delivering dispatches and – with the pioneering use of microfiche photographs attached to onboard homing pigeons – over a million letters to the outside world. With their nemesis, the train, temporarily halted, the balloonists turned the Gare du Nord into a giant hangar, mass-producing craft with Prussian-baiting names such as Garibaldi, Lavoisier, Newton, Victor Hugo and Le Gutenberg. ‘The mighty invention of Montgolfier is destined to come to the aid of La Patrie in this hour of mortal danger,’ Nadar’s fellow-balloonist Gaston Tissandier proclaimed, while Nadar dropped thousands of his business cards over the encircling enemy lines. But within weeks Paris had been shelled into submission, the Commune had erupted and ‘the finest hour of the free-flight gas balloon’ was largely forgotten.

It was the last gasp: by 1885 the Prussian officer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was taking an interest in Tissandier’s researches on propeller-steered dirigibles, and the cutting edge of aeronautics had begun its irreversible drift towards engine-powered and heavier-than-air flight. Holmes’s Romantic era fades to white in 1897 on the pack-ice surrounding the North Pole, the final resting-place of the Swedish balloonist Salomon Andrée’s doomed expedition, frozen to death a year after Fridtjof Nansen had reached the Pole overland. From this point on, ballooning returned largely to its recreational mode: millionaires and honeymooners, champagne and hampers, corporate sponsorship and increasingly contrived world records, a floating world of luxury and publicity occasionally punctured by a mysterious disappearance or crash-and-burn tragedy.

‘The dream of flight is to see the world differently,’ Holmes suggests: it’s a dream to which science, art and literature all aspire. The book’s last colour plate is Earthrise, the 1968 photograph of our blue planet suspended over the dead surface of the Moon, the image to which all the soaring visions of ballooning can be seen as a kind of prehistory. But it also reminds us that the future impact of such adventures is hard to assess. The programme of space exploration that generated Earthrise has failed in many of its stated goals, but the metaphors offered by the image have rippled through the present era in countless ways: it has been hailed as the beginning of the environmental movement and the inspiration for new earth and system sciences, and credited as the culturally transformative moment when we first became conscious of ourselves in all our fragile splendour. Space travel may have stalled just as the balloon’s early dreams did, but satellites – the grandchildren of James Glaisher’s stratospheric ascents – have become integral to the global communications that have transformed the present, and on which our future is now predicated. Only last month Google announced ‘Project Loon’, a prototype system of helium balloons designed to provide a global wireless network for internet signals in the stratosphere. It may be the balloon’s great strength, as well as its fatal weakness, that its direction of travel can never be entirely controlled or predicted.