Today, we ride the first hot-air balloons in
England. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Dickens's A Tale of Two
Cities contrasted London and Paris -- England
and France. Dickens began by calling the late 18th
the age of wisdom ... the age of
the epoch of belief ... the epoch of
And that it was. It was an age of stimulus.
Revolution was brewing in both countries --
political revolution in France, industrial
revolution in England. The English middle class
applied religious zeal and technical creativity to
the improvement of life. At least in the beginning,
the French intelligentsia attacked tyranny with a
highly-honed and playful curiosity. The English, on
the other hand, looked down their noses at the
French balloon mania. Author L.T.C. Rolt quotes an
English newspaper that called upon
all men to laugh this new folly out of practice
as soon as possible.
England's first balloon flew a year after the first
French ones, but the flyer, Vincent Lunardi, was a
dashing, self-aggrandizing young ladies' man from
the Italian embassy. He made his own monument to
the flight, and wrote on it:
Let posterity know, and knowing
That on the 15th day of September, 1784,
Vincent Lunardi of Lucca in Tuscanny,
the first aerial traveler in Britain,
mounting from the Artillery Ground in London,
and traversing the regions of the air for 2 hours
and 15 minutes,
in this spot revisited the earth
One English luminary was impressed. The Duchess of
Devonshire promptly had Lunardi to dine. Lunardi
went on to barnstorm England. For two years he
charmed the public with his showmanship. Then his
unoccupied balloon got away with a young
bystander's arm tangled in a rope. It carried the
poor lad a hundred or so feet into the air before
he came loose and fell to his death. The English
press turned on Lunardi. A contemporary ballad
Behold an Hero comely, tall and fair,
His only food phlogisticated air, ...
Now drooping roams about from town to Town
Collecting pence t'inflate his poor balloon.
A temporarily deflated Lunardi went back to Italy.
But he was soon at it again. When his balloon
landed in Spain, villagers took him for a saint and
triumphantly carried him off to the local church.
The next foreign barnstormer to reach England was
the French balloonist Blanchard. He had all of
Lunardi's megalomania but little of his charm. The
Duchess of Devonshire was again one of the few who
saw opportunity. She made one of Blanchard's
ascents into a huge Whig party fundraiser.
Blanchard went on to make the first channel
crossing and the first American ascent.
Ballooning had to be imported into England. It
could never have ben born of eighteenth-century
British virtues. Flight has always been the gift of
less serious people -- the eighteenth-century
European bourgeois -- people wiwith time to play,
people with a proper respect for frivolity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Rolt, L.T.C., The Aeronauts: A History of
Ballooning, 1783-1903. New York: Walker and
Foreman, A., Georgiana: Duchess of
Devonshire. New York: Random House, 1998, pg.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 118.