Up in the Air

Richard Holmes speaks about the highs and lows of ballooning in his latest book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. (Video by Mariel Waloff Carr)

 

Some of the greatest technological achievements from the 18th through the 20th century required the public to look up—from the first balloon flights of the Montgolfier brothers to the birth of the ocean-crossing behemoths built by Ferdinand, Graf von Zeppelin. The invention of balloons excited artists and men of letters. Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe wrote about them. Odilon Redon used them in his haunting lithographs. The balloon had become a symbol of scientific progress—humanity rising over its natural limitations. Huge crowds gathered in Europe to watch the world’s first space race unfold.

Ballooning, though, has always had its share of turbulence. Portuguese monk Fra Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão’s first two balloons literally went up in smoke in the year 1709, and in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers saw the otherwise successful first gas-balloon flight end abruptly when superstitious peasants fell upon the descending balloon and ripped it to shreds, apparently mistaking it for a demon. Only a stern decree from the king of France, the project’s patron, warning against the destruction of royal property ensured the flights would continue.

As improvements were made, balloons became larger and capable of carrying human passengers. French balloonists failed to interest Napoleon in the potential military uses of such conveyances, and it was left to the Russians to demonstrate their usefulness in observing enemy troop movements during the Siege of Sevastopol in 1854. In the second half of the 19th century successive improvements made balloons strong enough and large enough to convey as many as 20 people over considerable distances. Some even thought to use them in Arctic exploration.

As our choice of images demonstrates, there are balloons and there are airships—also called dirigibles, or, to be downright disrespectful, “blimps.” Rigidity is what separates the two groups. Airships have solid frames that support their gas-filled envelopes and give the aircraft their familiar cigar shape. They have engines to propel them—in the heyday of airships the navy’s USS Akron could cruise the skies at 80 miles per hour—and cabins from which they can be steered and controlled. Airships are less at the mercy of winds and air currents than are balloons, although the hydrogen gas that once filled their massive envelopes conferred its own vulnerabilities, as witnessed in the spectacular explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937. This disaster ended the dream of airships replacing oceangoing liners on transatlantic crossings.

Although airships are faster, balloons delight the eyes. Gaily painted, sometimes in bold striped patterns, sometimes with scenes or symbolic images, balloons have brought the sky to life wherever they have appeared. Now more common than airships, they are mainly used by hobbyists and as tourist attractions, carrying passengers either straight up or on short-distance flights.

Airships are expensive to build and maintain, although certain corporations use them as roving goodwill ambassadors. Periodically someone will float a plan to reestablish airships as an alternative to seagoing cargo transports. But for now, for most of us, airship means the Goodyear blimp.

Lastly, there are the smaller balloons, not meant for manned flight but used instead as platforms for scientific instruments. In such unglamorous but important tasks as weather observation and atmospheric testing these small, silvery cousins return the balloon to its original status as an icon of scientific progress.