Collective Voice: The Balloon in Literature

To celebrate ballooning history this summer, CHF’s collections team is highlighting our ballooning postcards. Painted in 1909 in France, these postcards illustrate significant events, dirigibles, and balloons that propelled the advancement of aeronautics from 1670 to 1909. Donald and Mildred Othmer, founders of the Othmer Library of Chemical History at CHF, purchased these cards during their travels in France. This unique, illustrated chronology of ballooning history will be updated on CHF’s Pinterest page every week.

Why can’t man fly? The dream of reaching the heavens inspired the Tower of Babel and Daedalus’ waxen wings. The Roman satirist Lucan envisioned a voyage to the moon, and the idea was still kicking around some fifteen centuries later. A good half century before the Portuguese monk Bartolomeu de Gusmao actually realized a primitive method of manned flight, the French free-thinker Cyrano de Bergerac envisioned a flight to the moon via a “machine” in his philosophical romance Voyage dans la Lune (1657), now considered a forerunner of science-fiction. Of course what Cyrano envisioned wasn’t exactly a hot-air balloon. It was “several little bottles, filled with dew, and as the sun’s rays attracted them, it lifted me….” Perhaps as a sly commentary on Cyrano, Rudolf Erich Raspe recounts an incident in his The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchhausen in which the Baron “sees a balloon over Constantinople; shoots at and brings it down; finds a French experimental philosopher suspended from it.”

A ballooning postcard from 1909 depicting Francesco Lana de Terzi’s idea for a flying ship, described in his book Prodromo (1670). Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF.

In 1835 Edgar Allan Poe wrote a hoax account of yet another trip to the moon, this time via a true balloon in his story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Phall.” Although clearly meant as a hoax Poe, with his West Point training, could not pass up the chance to sprinkle his yarn with such bits of verisimilitude as his description of the balloon’s envelope being composed of “cambric muslin with a coating of gum caoutchouc.” Perhaps the last use of the balloon as a benign get-away device was in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, (1900) in which an Omaha fairground balloon carries a bogus professor to and then from the Land of Oz.

The American Civil War raised the status of the balloon from a scientific curiosity to a useful tool of warfare. In the aftermath of the war writers began to conceive of the balloon less as a subject for philosophical romances or newspaper hoaxes and more as an enabling device. Jules Verne, celebrated by many as the very father of science-fiction saw these possibilities more fully than most. In Around the World in Eighty Days Phileas Fogg is only able to make his famed bet because he plans to do it in part by using a balloon, and the escaping prisoners-of-war are able to reach The Mysterious Island because they hijack an observation balloon. Both of these well-loved novels were written within a year of each other (1873 and 1874 respectively), and by 1886 Verne’s horizons had expanded to embrace the notion of an actual flying machine. In Robur the Conqueror, the plot revolves around a visionary airman, Robur, who has built “The Albatross,” a heavier-than-air flying machine and his contentious rivalry with the balloonists of the fictitious Weldon Institute of Philadelphia who disbelieve his claims and later attempt to destroy his airship. When Robur returns for his revenge in the 1904 Master of the World, an aging and disillusioned Verne has transformed his visionary hero into a megalomaniac whose new airship—with a top speed of 200 miles/hour—is now called “The Terror.”

Just as Verne’s novel had depicted the superiority of Robur’s “Albatross” over the Weldon Institute’s dirigible the “Go Forth,” World War I saw the ascendancy of the high-flying airplane over the slow-moving “blimp.” Post-war writers such as John Monk Saunders (Wings) and William Faulkner (Pylon) would henceforth turn their attention to singing the praises of winged flight.

Andrew Mangravite is an archivist for CHF’s Othmer Library of Chemical History. Collective Voice, dispatches from CHF's collections team, appears every second Tuesday of the month on Periodic Tabloid.

The Science and Spectacle of the First Balloon Flights [Chemical Heritage]
Franklin in Paris [CHF Collections]
Intrepid Balloon Needs a Lift: Helium Sought for Civil War Replica [Huffington Post]

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