Huffpost Books

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Richard Holmes Headshot

10 Bizarre Moments In Ballooning History

Posted: Updated:

Admittedly, ballooning is a little crazy at the best of times. But I have secretly loved it since childhood, when my Royal Air Force uncle tied a red helium balloon to my top shirt-button and told me I could fly. Or at least, fall into the sky. Some sixty years later, the result is Falling Upwards. Like my last book, "The Age of Wonder," it's inspired by the meeting of Science and the Romantic spirit, a subject that seems more than ever relevant today. But this time it's also something of a personal adventure story.

What I have tried to write is less a conventional history of balloons (though I have found over 150 historic illustrations), but more a study of the balloonists themselves. What fascinates me as a biographer is their characters, their motivation, their dreams and their truly fantastic stories. I am also intrigued by the metaphysics of flight itself. Why, ever since Icarus have we tried to fly? What have we found up there above the clouds? And how has it changed us, and our way of looking down at our fragile, beautiful planet?

It is often forgotten that men and women were airborne for 120 years before the Wright brothers flew their first airplanes. The balloon stories I have discovered in archives all over the world (including Britain, France, America and Australia) are fantastic in every sense. For instance: firework ballooning in France; night ballooning in Germany; long distance ballooning across America; high altitude ballooning above England; escape ballooning from the terrible Prussian Siege of Paris (and also out of Communist East Germany); observational ballooning during the American Civil War; and even scientific ballooning across the Arctic.

The balloonists themselves provided me with extraordinary varied examples of courage, recklessness, exhibitionism, or scientific daring; often all subtly combined. There was the beautiful Sophie Blanchard, who became Napoleon's official display balloonist; the intrepid Charles Green who flew through the night from London to Germany; John Wise who achieved one of the greatest long-distance flights in America; James Glaisher who ascended seven miles (higher than Everest) without oxygen; Felix Nadar who invented aerial photography; Professor Thaddeus Lowe who flew for President Lincoln and the Union army; Engineer Andree who tried to balloon to the North Pole; and the provocative Dolly Shepherd who introduced free-fall parachuting from a balloon trapeze ten thousand feet up.

On top of all this, I was surprised to find the literary genre of science fiction arose partly out ballooning and dreams of flight - another case of Science meeting Art. So my cast list includes writers like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and HG Wells, among many others. Altogether, as I say, it's just a little crazy. But I really loved doing it, including some truly breathless "research" at the great Albuquerque International Balloon Festival in New Mexico.

Below, find 10 bizarre moments in ballooning history:

  • Philippe Lesueur’s Montgolfier letter, Paris 1783
    This letter was written from Paris by Philippe Lesueur to his teenage son on 22nd September 1783, and is one of the earliest known witness accounts of ballooning. Lesueur describes with evident amazement, and lots of technical detail, this prototype Montgolfier balloon which he had just watched flying over the rooftops of the Palace of Versailles. Lesueur also lovingly depicted for his son the 60-foot blue and gold canopy of this “truly astonishing Aerostatique Machine”, noting that it contained “40 thousand cubic feet of inflammable gas” (actually it was hot air). He explained that “a sheep, a cockerel, and a duck” were carried in the wickerwork basket slung beneath it, “on a 15 foot cord”. These three animals were the first living aeronauts: all survived to tell the tale (and did so at length in several pamphlets.
  • Sophie Blanchard in her tiny silver gondola above Milan, 1811
    Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819) was the first of the great French female aeronauts, an international legend in her own lifetime, who later inspired several romantic novels. Shy and timid on the ground, she became a fearless and reckless exhibitionist in the air. She was famed for her tight white dresses, feathered hats and her tiny silver balloon gondola, designed by herself, little bigger than a champagne bucket. She became Napoleon’s “Official Aeronaut for Public Festivities”, and put on dazzling and dangerous aerial fire-work displays for nearly twenty years. Here she is celebrating Napoleon’s arrival in Milan 1811, carrying aloft his Imperial standard. She died dramatically eight years later, when her balloon caught fire above the Tivoli Gardens, Paris, on 6 July 1819.
  • "La Mort de Harris," Croydon, 1824
    This haunting image, "The Death of Harris," is from a popular French balloon collecting-card series, issued by Romanet & Cie, Paris, in 1895. It purports to shows a celebrated balloon tragedy, which occurred in England in 1824. The circumstances surrounding the death of Lieutenant Harris of the Royal Navy, and the survival of his beautiful passenger, Miss Stocks, have never been fully explained. Harris took his fiancée for a pre-honey-moon flight from a tavern in East End of London, across the Thames into Surrey. After some kind of drama in the basket, Harris apparently pulled the rip-cord while still at 500 feet. As the balloon plummeted downwards, Harris leapt out. Either he was gallantly attempting to save Miss Stocks’s life, by reducing the speed of descent; or else they had had some kind of lovers’ quarrel - and she had thrown him out. He died, she survived.
  • The Royal Nassau balloon over Liege at night, 1836
    The celebrated British long-distance aeronaut Charles Green (1785-1870) , in his Royal Nassau balloon at night, flying over the new iron foundries of Liège, Belgium, in November 1836. Green holds up an insulated Davy safety lamp, while his crew, Robert Hollond MP and Monck Mason, muffled against the cold, peer down through the dark at this early revelation of European industrialization. Mason, an Irish journalist and musician, published a famous account of this 480 mile trip entitled Aeronautica. This was eagerly read by Edgar Allan Poe, who was soon inspired to write his early balloon-fantasy stories about crossing the Atlantic and ballooning to the moon. Green himself completed over 500 successful ascents, and died safely in his bed in London.
  • "Mr Glaisher insensible at the height of seven miles," 1862
    In 1862 the British Association for the Advancement of Science commissioned the meteorologist James Glaisher to investigate conditions in the upper atmosphere with a high-altitude balloon, the Mammoth. On the 6 September Glaisher and his professional pilot Henry Coxwell, rose through the 30,000 feet barrier and while still taking meticulous instrumental readings, began to pass out from lack of oxygen. The dramatic engraving shows Glaisher slumped unconscious in the basket, apparently dying from asphyxiation, while Coxwell clambers into the hoop to secure the line of their gas release valve, which he eventually managed to pull with his teeth. Both survived, and on landing they walked to a country pub for a pint of beer. Their altitude record, somewhere above six miles, stood for the rest of the 19th century, and established for the first time the limits of the biosphere.
  • Major-General George Armstrong Custer, US Army, 1865
    During the early Peninsular phase of the American Civil War, the Union army frequently used observation balloons, most notably at the bitterly contested siege of Yorktown in May 1862; and at the Seven Days Battle outside the rebel capital Richmond, Virginia, in July 1862. As a twenty-two year old cavalry trooper temporarily promoted Captain, George Custer was one of the few Union officers brave enough to go up in an observation balloon under fire. He left a surprisingly witty and self-deprecating account of this trip, recalling how his pilot horrified him by insisting on “jumping up and down in the basket to prove its strength”. Having made some unsatisfactory observations of “enemy earthworks” half-concealed by trees and cannon smoke, Custer preferred to remain "sitting in the bottom of the basket."
  • Le Balloon, painting 1870
    Le Ballon, a celebrated French propaganda painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, executed at the height of the Prussian Siege of Paris in autumn 1870. It shows the armed figure of Marianne, symbolic figurehead of the French Republic, standing defiantly with fixed bayonet on the Paris ramparts, while the city’s cannons point away towards the encircling Prussian army. Marianne salutes a balloon as it disappears westwards over Fort Mont Valérien towards the Prussian lines. During the five months that Paris was besieged, and cut off from all communications and supplies (including even the telegraph), 67 escape balloons were successfully flown out of the city, carrying key members of the government, a weekly Parisian newspaper, and some 2 ½ million private letters, which immeasurably sustained the morale of the populace.
  • Photograph of Dolly Shepherd, c. 1970
    Dolly Shepherd, the most celebrated of the Edwardian balloon parachute girls, with her impressive flying uniform complete with high lace-up boots designed to show off her legs. She would ascend beneath free-flight hydrogen balloons, without any balloon basket at all, simply hanging onto a bare trapeze bar. Strapped to her left wrist was a tiny silver altimeter, which can just be seen in the picture. With this she could judge the right height to pull her parachute release. In 1908 she saved her friend Louie May’s life, when Louie went up with her on a double trapeze bar, and her parachute failed to release at 12,000 feet. Dolly talked the terrified Louie into putting her arms round her neck, so Dolly could bring her down safely on her own parachute. Dolly subsequently married, had children, and lived into her nineties, writing a cheery memoir, "When the ‘Chute Went Up."
  • A Wedding above the Clouds, 1911
    "A Balloon Wedding in the clouds." An ultra- fashionable American wedding somewhere above New York, drawn for an Italian magazine in 1911. The bride and groom are wearing clothes evidently designed for riding in the new-fangled motor car, rather than an old-fashioned balloon, and the artist has forgotten that the air is always stationary around a balloon basket in flight, so neither the lady’s scarf nor the stars and stripes flag would be flapping so glamorously in the wind. But the dashing effect, enhanced by the evident anxiety of the balloon pilot, is wonderfully atmospheric; and the priest’s hand raised just beneath the altimeter, suggest a nice combination of scientific and religious views about their proximity to heaven.
  • Dawn Mass Ascent, Albuquerque, 2010
    Five hundred feet above the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, photographed by the author Richard Holmes in October 2010, while “on research” (but actually having the time of his life). This picture was taken during one of the famous Mass Dawn Ascents, when between 300 and 400 hot-air balloon take off within a few minutes of each other and fill the sky with an astonishing heart-lifting spectacle, which reaches to the horizon. My expert pilot on this testing occasion was Barbara A. Fricke, twice joint winner of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race. We landed an hour later, skimming a few feet above some power lines, and touching down feather-like in the exact centre of a junior baseball pitch. I felt like someone who had just hit a home-run.