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When the balloon went up


An early Montgolfier balloon

On 21st November 1783 the first manned Montgolfier balloon was launched from the hill of La Muette. This was a commanding site just above the river Seine at Passy, opposite the Champs de Mars (where the Eiffel Tower now stands). The hot-air balloon was enormous, a monster: 70 feet high, and gloriously decorated in blue, with golden mythological figures. It was powered by a six-foot open brazier burning straw. Its chosen ‘aeronauts’ – a new French term – were Pilâtre de Rozier and an elegant infantry officer, the Marquis d’Arlandes, a major in the Garde Royale.

D’Arlandes was selected for his court connections, his enthusiasm and his wealth; and also simply because the Montgolfiers needed a ‘counterweight’. Since Pilâtre was to be carried aloft in a circular gallery slung around the open neck of the balloon (and not in a basket), his weight had to be constantly balanced by a second aeronaut on the opposite side. D’Arlandes became therefore, by default, the first co-pilot as well as the first aerial stoker.

D’Arlandes subsequently published a laconic account of their historic voyage, which took them low over Paris for about 27 minutes. The Montgolfier (as the balloon was now known) initially rose to some 900 feet, drifted across the Seine, and then began a series of slow swoops across the rooftops of Saint-Germain, bobbing past the towers of Saint-Sulpice church, rising again over the wooded parkland of the Luxembourg, and finally sinking rapidly onto the Buttes aux Cailles (near the present Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement), narrowly missing two windmills.

Because of the circular structure of the gallery, with the neck of the balloon (and the brazier) in the centre, the aeronauts could barely see each other during the flight. This produced a kind of black comedy which was to become familiar in later ascents. Pilâtre spent much of his time calling to the invisible d’Arlandes to stop admiring the view of Paris and stoke the brazier. “Let’s work, let’s work! If you keep gaping at the Seine, we’ll be swimming in it soon.”

In fact d’ Arlandes seems to have been increasingly (and not unnaturally) overcome by nerves. First he thought the balloon was on fire, then that the canopy was separating from the gallery, and finally that one after another the balloon cords were breaking. He constantly shouted back at the unseen Pilâtre, “We must land now! We must land now!” When the whole balloon shook with a sudden gust of wind above Les Invalides, d’Arlandes screamed at Pilâtre: “What are you doing! Stop dancing!”

“The hot-air balloon was enormous, a gloriously decorated monster. It was powered by a six-foot open brazier burning straw”

Characteristically, Pilâtre ignored these protests, and calmly went on telling d’Arlandes to work at feeding the brazier. He took off his bright green topcoat (put on for the crowd), rolled up his sleeves, and went on throwing on straw till his wooden fork broke. Once, when d’Arlandes was desperately shouting at him, “We must go down! We must go down!”, Pilâtre called back soothingly: “Look d’ Arlandes. Here we are above Paris. There’s no possible danger for you. Are you taking this all in?” Many witnesses later said that they could hear the two men shouting excitedly to each other as they passed overhead. They assumed they were describing the glories of flight.

Nonetheless, it was d’Arlandes who had the courage and honesty to record all these exchanges, and to describe his companion, in a phrase that became celebrated, as “l’intrepide Pilâtre, qui ne perd point la tête” – the intrepid Pilâtre, who never loses his head. When they landed, d’Arlandes vaulted out of the circular gallery, expecting the huge collapsing canopy to burst into flames at any moment. As he ran anxiously round the outside of the balloon, he found Pilâtre standing quietly contemplating the great gold and blue dome as it finally settled back to earth. “We had enough fuel to fly for an hour” was all he said. Pilâtre was holding their basket of provisions, with his green topcoat neatly folded and placed on top. A few moments later a wild, cheering crowd of le petit peuple de Paris (not yet citoyens) gathered round them. Pilâtre handed them the basket of provisions to celebrate, but they also seized the green topcoat, and tore it into little pieces as souvenirs.


Lunardi and English ballomania

The man who popularised ballooning in Britain more than any other was a 25-year-old Italian, Vincent Lunardi (1759-1806), a young man on the staff of the Neapolitan Legation in London.

Lacking official sponsorship, Lunardi’s first remarkable achievement was to launch a successful public subscription. He had his gorgeous red-and-white-striped balloon put on display for several weeks before the launch, hung from the roof of the Lyceum Theatre near the Strand, and charged an ambitious entrance fee. Two shillings and sixpence would purchase a single visit; one guinea would purchase four visits and a front-row seat during the actual launch. Over 20,000 people were said to have visited it, though after payment for balloon equipment, inflation materials and hire of the Lyceum, Lunardi claimed to be penniless.

As interest grew, ballooning quickly became fashionable, and there was talk of an unofficial British Balloon Club, headed by the Prince of Wales and the ultra-progressive Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Several members of the Royal Society also subscribed, and significantly the subscription was headed by none other than Joseph Banks (the Society’s president), though in his private capacity. (A guinea entrance ticket is preserved in the Banks Collection, marked number 34.) His sister, the independent-minded Sophia Banks, also admitted to mild ballomania. She made a collection of balloon prints and letters about ballooning, including several from Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley.

“Lunardi drifted north-westwards across London and into Hertfordshire, eating legs of chicken and drinking Champagne”

Lunardi’s second achievement was to invent for the English the figure of the Romantic aeronaut. Lunardi was a natural showman. He was foreign, of course, but not French.
Small, mercurial, and absurdly handsome in the new, almost feminine style, with a fresh face and long, unpowdered hair, he moved lightly and bubbled with infectious enthusiasm. He was a man for whom the adjective ‘intrepid’ seemed specially invented. He had his portrait painted with his pet dog and cat, both of which he then took on his flight, a sporting gesture calculated to appeal to the English. He was also an incorrigible flirt and ladies’ man, as the English naturally expected of an Italian. He once mildly shocked a salon of supporters by proposing a toast to himself: “I give you me, Lunardi – whom all the ladies love.”

Lunardi’s balloon. Opposite: Lunardi

His first historic ascent was made from the Artillery Grounds, Moorfields, London, on 15th September 1784. It captured the nation’s imagination almost as completely as had the ascents in France. After delays which almost led to rioting, 150,000 people watched the launch at 2pm, just two hours late. Led by the Prince of Wales, the gentlemen in the reserved one-guinea seats rose to their feet, and stood gazing upwards in astonished silence. Then they solemnly doffed their hats.

Lunardi drifted north-westwards across London and into Hertfordshire, eating legs of chicken and drinking Champagne, and occasionally trying to ‘row’ his balloon with a pair of aerial oars. One of the oars broke and dropped overboard, starting a rumour that he had jumped out to his death. It was said that the King broke off a cabinet meeting with his prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, to watch ‘poor’ Lunardi float overhead, while a jury in north London hastily brought in a not-guilty verdict so it could run out of the courthouse to watch.

After some time Lunardi’s little cat appeared to be suffering from the cold, and he claimed to have briefly “paddled” his balloon back to earth at North Mimms (now on the Ml motorway). He gallantly handed the shivering animal to a young woman in a field, before releasing ballast and re-ascending. This is a mysterious claim, as Lunardi had not designed his first hydrogen balloon with a release valve at the top of the canopy, so he could not descend at will (and certainly not by rowing). He had however designed a system of throwing out handfulls of feathers, to tell if the balloon was rising or sinking, and perhaps he had simply lost gas.

Farm labourers harvesting in the fields recalled him shouting through his silver speaking-trumpet. They answered: “Lunardi, come down!”. He threw out several letters, tied with long streamers, one of which was tactfully addressed to “Sir Joseph Banks, Soho Square, London.”

After two-and-a-quarter hours, Lunardi finally descended near Ware in Hertfordshire. He tried to land by securing a grappling anchor, but bumped heavily and inelegantly across the fields. With no release valve, he could not deflate the balloon, and his situation became perilous. He called out to some nearby farm workers to help him secure the balloon. But seeing him bounding over hedges and fences, they shouted out that he was riding “the Devil’s horse”, and refused to approach. Then happily he spotted a young woman among the group. Graciously raising his hat, he begged for her assistance. Ignoring her terrified menfolk, she gathered up her skirts and darted forward, seized the edge of the errant basket, and saved both balloon and aeronaut. Lunardi climbed out and embraced her tenderly. She was a strong girl, he recalled: “Elizabeth Brett, a very pretty milkmaid… So l owed my deliverance to the spirit and generosity of a young female.”

A stone monument was raised at this landing place, at Long Mead in the parish of Standon, just outside Ware. It still exists on what is now the village green, and is inscribed thus:

Let Posterity know, And knowing be astonished! That on the 15th day of September 1784, Vincent Lunardi of Lucca in Tuscany, the First Aerial Traveller in Britain, Mounting from the Artillery Ground in London, and traversing the Regions of the Air, For two hours and fifteen minutes, on this Spot revisited the Earth. On this rude Monument, for [future] Ages be recorded that Wondrous Enterprize, successfully achieved by the powers of Chymistry and the Fortitude of Man, that improvement in Science which the Great Author of all Knowledge… hath generously permitted.

Immediately on Lunardi’s return to London, a curiously modern publicity machine began to roll. He sold exclusive rights to his story, and an in-depth interview, to the Morning Post. It was headlined “Lunardi’s Aerial Excursion”. He was guest of honour at the Mansion House, and gave lectures in various public halls. Newspaper articles, popular songs (many ribald) and fashion accessories followed. Cups, snuffboxes and brooches were especially popular, but the Lunardi ladies’ garter was the succès de scandale. Lunardi was introduced to the King, and invited to dine by the Duchess of Devonshire – he tactfully arrived wearing the duchess’s own jockey colours of blue and chocolate, and was soon a favourite in her progressive Whig circle. He was given a watch by the Prince of Wales, and had a bronze medallion struck with his profile on one side and his balloon on the other. The Windsor stagecoach was renamed “The Lunardi”. A master of publicity, he arranged to have a new and bigger striped balloon hung on display at the Pantheon, London, throughout the winter season of 1784, promising further aerial adventures in 1785. The effect of sudden celebrity was as heady as the actual ascent. Lunardi wrote wildly to his Italian guardian: “I am the idol of the whole nation… All the country adores me, every newspaper honours me in prose and verse… Tomorrow I shall put two thousand crowns in the Bank of England.”

Mrs Sage takes to the skies

There were other excitements. The actress Mrs Sage, renowned for her Junoesque figure, left a vivid account of being the “First Aerial female” after an eventful ascent in Lunardi’s balloon in June 1785. The launch was made from Hyde Park, attended by a huge and increasingly raucous crowd. Mrs Sage, in a low-cut silk dress presumably designed to reduce wind resistance, was to be accompanied by Lunardi and the dashing Mr George Biggin, a young and wealthy Old Etonian. The gondola was draped in heavy swags of silk, and had a specially designed lace-up door which allowed its occupants to be seen more clearly, as if they were installed in a luxurious aerial salon. But the combined weight of the fixtures and fittings, and the three passengers, proved too much for the balloon, which began wallowing dangerously on its moorings, to the whistles and suggestive jeers of the crowd.

Lunardi made a rapid, though perhaps surprising, decision. Realising that Mrs Sage was the star attraction, after a hasty conference with Mr Biggin, he himself sprang from the gondola, allowing the balloon to make a safe launch with its reduced payload of two. He apparently had no qualms about leaving the control of the balloon (and Mrs Sage) in Mr Biggin’s sole care. Unfortunately,in his haste to depart, Lunardi failed to do up the lacings of the gondola’s door. As the balloon sailed away over Piccadilly, the crowd were treated to the provoking sight of the beautiful Mrs Sage on all fours in the open entrance of the gondola. The crowd assumed that she had fainted, and was perhaps receiving some kind of intimate first-aid from Mr Biggin.

In fact she was coolly re-threading the lacings to make the gondola safe again. As she later cheerfully admitted, she felt largely responsible for the launching difficulties, as she had omitted to inform Lunardi that she made up “200 pounds of human weight” (over 14 stone), and he had been far too gallant to enquire. Finally getting to her feet as the balloon floated over Green Park, Mrs Sage trod on Lunardi’s barometer and broke it, thus depriving Mr Biggin of any instrument with which to measure their height. Nevertheless, in due course the two of them were lunching peacefully off sparkling Italian wine and cold chicken, occasionally calling to people below through a speaking-trumpet.

“As the balloon sailed away over Piccadilly, the crowd were treated to the provoking sight of the beautiful Mrs Sage on all fours”

The flight followed the line of the Thames westwards, at one point passing through a snowstorm (surprising for mid-June, remarked Mr Biggin nonchalantly), and landed heavily near Harrow on the Hill, smashing through a hedge and dragging across an unharvested hayfield. The infuriated farmer began threatening Mr Biggin and abusing Mrs Sage – she later described him succinctly as “a savage”. But the honour of the “first female aeronaut” was unexpectedly saved by the young gentlemen of Harrow School, who rushed out across the fields to greet her, put together a cash collection to pacify the farmer, and carried her bodily (she had hurt “a tendon in her foot”) and in triumph to the local tavern, where everyone evidently got gloriously drunk.

Later there was much speculation at Mr Biggin’s London club as to whether he had been the first man to board a female aeronaut in flight. Gallantly, Mr Biggin refused to comment. The members of Brooks’s Club were said to be laying bets on who should first have “an amorous encounter” in a balloon. The cry “Lunardi, come down!” now became a kind of catchphrase, with a suggestive double entendre implied.

Mrs Sage herself felt she had achieved true celebrity, writing modestly to a friend: “I suppose when I go out I shall be as much looked at as if a native of the Aerial Regions had come down to pay an earthly visit.” She added that the views were magnificent, and that at no point had she needed to open her bottle of smelling salts.

‘The Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes is published by Harper Press at £14.99.

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