The biographer of two great Romantics (Shelley and Coleridge) relates yet another romantic tale—the story of the human passion to fly up, up and away in a beautiful balloon.
Holmes (The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, 2009, etc.) begins with a memory—a flying dream from childhood—mentions Daedalus and Icarus, some balloons in literature, films and popular culture, and then lifts off into another of his delightfully soaring histories. He notes that the French were the first to use balloons for military purposes (reconnaissance), then tells us about some of the most notable balloon pioneers, including André-Jacques Garnerin, who also pioneered parachutes. Holmes focuses on the accomplishments (and failures) of a number of other principals, including Charles Green (many of his flights lifted off from Vauxhall Gardens), Henry Mayhew, Eugène Godard, John Wise, James Glaisher, Camille Flammarion, Gaston Tissandier and Salomon Andrée, whose attempt to reach the North Pole in 1897 ended in death for all aboard his vessel. Holmes reminds us of ballooning in the fictions of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Mark Twain (whose Tom Sawyer Abroad reunited the Huck-Jim-Tom trio for a flight across the Atlantic) and others. He tells, as well, about spectacular failures—crashes, fatal and otherwise. His two most gripping segments are the airlift from Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)—dozens of flights took mail and other dispatches out of the city during the siege—and the assault on the North Pole. One great irony regarding the latter: The aeronauts, on the ground after the balloon could no longer fly, shot and ate polar bears; later, the bears ate them.
Meticulous history illuminated and animated by personal passion, carried aloft by volant prose.