Aeronauts have lofty goals. For science, for art, for pleasure and pragmatism, they hitch their baskets to balloons and head for the stars. In Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, Richard Holmes offers up a remarkable history of aerostation, defined as the science or art of operating lighter-than-air aircraft. If this high-spirited, intelligent and humorous book does not encourage readers to take to the skies (caveat lector), they may at least be swept off their feet.
Holmes is a keen detective and a buoyant narrator. The British biographer, whose subjects include Shelley and Coleridge, won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science. In the habit of tracing the lives of great minds, he has become a cleareyed identifier of narrative arcs. “When you have a group of people in a balloon basket, it’s a natural shape for a story,” says Holmes, citing the launch, journey and landing triptych. “Very often, coming back to earth was tough or even brutal—that kind of curve is a metaphor for our lives.”
Balloons entered Holmes’s life at age 4, at a Norfolk village fete, when a pilot uncle tied a red helium balloon to his nephew’s Aertex shirt. “ ‘Maybe you will fly,’ my uncle remarked....[The balloon] tugged me impatiently towards the sky, and I began to feel unsteady on my feet. I felt that I was falling—upwards,” writes Holmes. He gently guides the story further back, to the Montogolfier brothers’ invention of the passenger balloon (hot air) in 1783, followed that year by the December flight of Dr. Alexander Charles, in the first true hydrogen balloon.
Whether hot air or gas, ballooning began to pick up steam as a spectacle and soon had higher hopes thrust upon it: “It seems to me in the beginning, the 1780s and ’90s, the very early period, people really hoped that the balloon was going to produce an absolute revolution in transportation. You were going to get from A to B across seas and mountains with a kind of speed and safety,” says Holmes—in other words, the potential to become the next steam engine. Flights inspired earthbound audiences as well, including Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo and H.G. Wells, who have all featured the vessels in their writing.
While an all-balloon mail or passenger system proved impracticable, the explorative potential of the medium was bound only by its enthusiasts’ imaginations. Balloons were employed by the Union Army Balloon Corps to spy on enemy soldiers; and in a grand-gesture response, the Confederate Army created a dress balloon built from the multicolored scraps of Southern belles’ ball gowns. (A scrap the size of a playing card survives in the “special reserve” archives of the Library of Congress, says Holmes.)
By 1859, a team of aeronauts, Wise and LaMountain, traveled 809 miles from St. Louis to Henderson, N.Y., a sky voyage that came close to an inglorious ending; and in 1897, three Scandinavians embarked on the first voyage to and from the North Pole. Arguably of greater value to science were flights that plumbed heights heretofore undiscovered. At great personal peril, James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell discovered the limit of the respirable atmosphere at 22,000 feet—just 10,000 feet below the stratosphere. One lost consciousness, but they knew they were safe when their hands would cooperate in holding the brandy bottle once more.
What scientists, explorers, rebels and showmen chose as essential to the larder for balloon trips is an education unto itself, far beyond sacks of mail and scientific instruments. Grand tourers packed as if for a picnic in the sky. “The bottle of champagne always seems to be in the basket. Quite interesting. Useless, because the air pressure is so low it just flies out of the bottle; you can’t do anything with it,” says Holmes. They brought suits of fine clothes, heavy blankets and rugs, Belgian chocolates—even gifts from kings for blessing various expeditions—coffee and newspapers, drawing pencils, camera equipment and musical instruments. Holmes worked out that one party of three led by Charles Green, who was perhaps the most ambitious 19th-century balloonist, packed enough meat, foodstuffs and alcohol to feed seven for an entire month. “It’s creature comforts, the idea of the balloon taking up the whole parlor, as it were. I think that’s the paradox, that and the comedy of it,” he says.
The need for these comforts high above the clouds is about more than mere celebration. For all that aeronauts learn of air currents and sound construction, the rudderless balloon’s exact course remains unknowable; so does the landing spot. Holmes acknowledges many tragedies among the triumphs, a knowledge the pilots shared. “The book is a study in that kind of courage, which is produced by the presence of death or risking death,” says Holmes. Perhaps the possibility of death makes success all the sweeter. “Even in modern hot air balloons, in the back of your mind is what will happen at the landing,” he says. By now, Holmes has experienced his fair share of flights—citing a lift from Barbara Fricke, America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race winner, at the world’s premier annual balloon fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., home to the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum.
From the Library of Congress to the Brussels airport that holds the original basket of Félix Nadar’s 190-foot-high red gas balloon, Le Géant, to Australia, Holmes traveled in pursuit of the story—in the name of exploration—to discover the unknowable, or at least to get high trying. In aerostation, as in writing, inspiration and wonderment are a two-man crew. “It is about what balloons gave rise to. It is about the spirit of discovery itself, the extraordinary human drama it produces; and to this, there is no end,” he writes.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.