High Risers


Graham Robb reviews Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes, a chronicle of the aeronauts who ventured into the skies in hot air balloons during the 18th and 19th centuries:

For some time, the practical advantages of the balloon seemed to be primarily military.Tethered balloons were used by Napoleon, and, later, in the American Civil War, as observation platforms. Apart from providing strategic intelligence—and a very obvious target for the enemy’s muskets—the “spy in the sky” was a formidable psychological weapon. An Austrian officer complained of a demoralizing impression that “the French General’s eyes were in our camp.”

However, for most balloonists, the main purpose of what Victor Hugo called “the floating egg” was to feed the imagination and to fill the mind with awe. Like a wonderful hallucinogenic cloud, the balloon was capable of generating seemingly endless novelties. It became possible, as Holmes recounts, to see the sun set twice on the same day, to hear the orchestra of sounds that the earth sent up to the heavens, to navigate under the stars by the smellscape of crops, pine forests, ponds, and chimneys, to explore the realm whose skies were a dark Prussian blue and where butterflies fluttered past as though in a field of flowers.

In April, Peter Conrad emphasized the grimmer side of book’s subjects:

[B]alloonists were dangerous existential gamblers, anxious, as HG Wells put it, “to pass extraordinarily out of human things” and to probe the proper limits of life. Their vertical journeys soon ran out of breathable air, and reached a perimeter where the sky turns black and alien. The last and longest of Holmes’s stories therefore passes from Shelleyan fantasy to Coleridgean horror: a Scandinavian expedition to the north pole by balloon in 1897 turns into a grim re-enactment of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as ice takes the gallant aeronauts captive and slowly kills them. By then those silken puffballs had lost their innocence. The balloons in Jules Verne’s novels are symbols of “imperial command and scientific superiority”, and Holmes casually notices a Prussian officer called Zeppelin observing the ways balloons were used to evade blockades and as eyries for military spies during the American civil war: it was he who later gave his name to a new fleet of engine-powered dirigibles that could rain down destruction from a sky that had become a theatre of battle.

(Image by Claude-Louis Desrais, 1783, via Wikimedia Commons)