10/29/2013 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2013

10 Bizarre Moments In Ballooning History

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:

10 Bizarre Moments In Ballooning History