Heads in the clouds

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, by Richard Holmes, William Collins, RRP£25, 404 pages

In December 1783, Benjamin Franklin – then in Paris as the American ambassador to France – was one of nearly half a million people who gathered in the Jardin des Tuileries to witness the first solo ascent in a hydrogen balloon. The intrepid aviator was Dr Alexander Charles, who rose to an altitude of 10,000ft and saw the sun set for a second time that day, fortified by fur coats, champagne and cold chicken. On landing he declared: “I’m finished with the Earth. From now on our place is in the sky!”

Not everyone was convinced. Franklin reported afterwards: “Someone asked me – what’s the use of a balloon? I replied – what’s the use of a newborn baby.” Over the next 120 years, the scope of Richard Holmes’s enthralling picaresque history, numerous uses for this newborn baby emerged. Balloons came to play a part in everything from wars to weather forecasting, communications to exploration, and literature to show business. Franklin, a man of science and an inventor, even suggested that a balloon tied to the sedan chair – which he used because of gout – would allow him to dispense with three of the four men who habitually carried him about.

Holmes has not written a standard account of ballooning from the Montgolfier brothers (whose feats he described in his previous book The Age of Wonder) to Felix Baumgartner but works instead on the principle: “Show me a balloon and I’ll show you a story.” He recounts the achievements of some of the heroes and heroines of the great age of the balloon, which ended when heavier-than-air machines relegated balloons – what Joseph Montgolfier memorably called “a cloud in a paper bag” – to the margins occupied by hobbyists and adventurers.

For Holmes the early balloon flights were the equivalent of the first space missions. They pushed at the boundaries of science and in doing so opened the public’s eyes to the possibilities of such travel and, above all, induced grand dreams. Balloons, it was hoped, would traverse the globe, reach into the heavens and, by showing the potential of the human spirit, would help usher in world peace. Their hint of the sublime fascinated the artists and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, from Shelley and Wordsworth to Turner, Dickens and Hugo: “To be alone in a balloon,” wrote HG Wells, “is like nothing else in human experience. It is one of the supreme things possible to man ... It is to pass extraordinarily out of human things.”

Human nature, however, proved less ethereal than the balloons themselves. A mere 11 years after Charles’s flight the French put a balloon to military use as an aerial observation post in the Battle of Fleurus against the Austrians. It set a precedent: during the American civil war Thaddeus Lowe, who had dreamt of being the first man to fly across his country, instead commanded a fleet of eight balloons reporting on Confederate troop movements. “A hawk hovering above a chicken yard could not have caused more commotion than did my balloons when they appeared before Yorktown,” he noted. The Confederate army had only one balloon of its own, fashioned from the antebellum silk dresses of patriotic Southern dames – Gone With the Wind indeed. Co-incidentally, one of the foreign observers embedded with the Union army was the young Captain Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Charles Green's balloon

What links Holmes’s balloonists is their extraordinary courage. In Napoleonic Paris, for example, Sophie Blanchard would delight the promenading crowds by floating several hundred feet above the city dressed in white muslin and a feathered hat, letting off fireworks while standing in a gondola little bigger than a child’s cradle. Other women performed high-altitude trapeze acts. In 1836 Charles Green, who would become a veteran of 526 ascents and whose fairground trick was to rise into the skies on the back of a horse tethered to a balloon, crossed from Vauxhall to Nassau near Hamburg – 480 miles in 18 hours. In 1862 the meteorologist James Glaisher reached a height of seven miles (above Wolverhampton). He nearly died, having passed out at almost six miles, but proved both that the Earth’s oxygen layer was unexpectedly thin and that the heavens were more dangerous than paradisiacal.

Holmes cuts his thrilling setpieces with haunting images, whether it be St Elmo’s fire playing around a balloon canopy at night, the haunting sound of a dog barking far below or the sight of Niagara Falls from two miles up (“The famous falls were quite insignificant, seen from our altitude. There was, to us, a descent of about two feet …”). Appropriately, his prose is lighter than air, elegantly traversing aviators and eras. It means that as his balloonists embark on journeys full of danger and wonder, the reader is suspended in the basket alongside them.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.