Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 118:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 118.

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' Tale of Two Cities contrasted London and Paris -- England and France. He begins by calling the late 18th century

the age of wisdom ... the age of foolishness ... the epoch of belief ... the epoch of incredulity.
And that it was. It was an age of stimulus. Revolution was brewing in both countries -- political revolution in France and industrial revolution in England. The English middle class applied religious zeal and technical creativity to the improvement of life, while the French intelligentsia attacked tyranny with a highly-honed and playful curiosity.

So it's no surprise that the English looked down their noses at the new French mania for flying in balloons. 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 was flown a year after the first French ones, but not by an Englishman. The flyer was Vincent Lunardi -- a dashing, self-aggrandizing young ladies' man from the Italian embassy. He described the flight like this on his own monument:
Let posterity know, and knowing be astonished! 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
Lunardi barnstormed about England for two years, charming the public with his showmanship. Then, in 1786, his unoccupied balloon got away from him, with a young bystander's arm entangled in one of its ropes. It carried the poor fellow a hundred or so feet into the air before he came loose and fell to his death.

The English public and press promptly turned on Lunardi. A contemporary ballad ridiculed him:

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 beaten Lunardi returned to Italy and there took up ballooning with renewed panache. When he landed in a Spanish village, he was taken for a saint and triumphantly carried off to the local church.

The second English ascent was also made by a foreign barnstormer -- the French balloonist Blanchard. He was cut from the same bolt of cloth. He had Lunardi's megalomania but -- alas -- none of his charm. Blanchard also made the first channel crossing and -- later -- the first American ascent.

Balloons were not born of 18th-century English virtues. Flight has always been the gift of less serious people, like the 18th-century French -- people driven by frivolous intellectual curiosity and risk.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Rolt, L.T.C., The Aeronauts -- A History of Ballooning, 1783-1903. New York: Walker and Company, 1966.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1545.

From the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica

Lunardi's balloon

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H. Lienhard.
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