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Falling Upwards

How humans took to the sky via balloon – and the mishaps and triumphs involved.

December 20, 2013

Falling Upwards, by Richard Holmes, Knopf Doubleday, 416 pp.

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Reviewed for The Barnes & Noble Review by Peter Lewis

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It started with a bunch of Frenchmen and a lot of hot air. Still and sparkling wines figured prominently. It wasn't long before leggy women were seen in the vicinity. There was danger and romance, and great displays of fireworks. This kind of fun never dies, but an end-of-the-pier seediness soon crept into the proceedings, a sideshow atmosphere, no matter how legitimate the enthusiasts tried to paint the picture. Then Otto von Bismarck became involved and it all went to hell in a basket – or, idiomatically speaking, hell in a gondola. Not the kind that gets punted about the canals of Venice but the kind that hangs precariously from a really big balloon rising into the fickle sky.

The human dream of flight found its first documented success in a bag of smoke, in Paris, at the inspiration of the Montgolfier brothers. Mind you, the Chinese were launching paper lanterns into the sky 2,000 years before (and you know how one thing leads to another), and there is speculation that someone somehow hoisted aloft – maybe with the aid of a balloon – helped in reckoning the Nazca Lines.

But Paris is where the always gratifying and trailblazing biographer Richard Holmes starts Falling Upwards, his chromatic if elegiac history of 18th- and 19th-century ballooning. Holmes, who specializes in the Romantic era's literary and scientific ferment, has found plenty of romance in the subject, as well as bare-knuckle experimentation, boneheaded daredevilry, and good old tomfoolery.

So there we are in France, and soon enough in Great Britain and the United States, where this new contrivance is making a splash, mostly as an oddity. Still, as the balloonists rose higher and higher, it was an oddity that gave its riders a fresh view of the world, one of those ooh-aah moments like William Anders's photograph "Earthrise," taken from the dark side of the moon. There in the gondola you experienced the quickening of perilous delight, like John Muir climbing way up a tall tree in a storm to get a raw taste of nature – only without the tree.

Balancing the rapture was the sobering spectacle of the human impact on the surface of the earth, especially conspicuous as the Industrial Revolution began to leave its mark with sprawling satanic mills and ghastly red flames belching from furnaces, the filth of progress. Hydrogen and coal gas allowed even more altitude, up to a place less inviting and more frightening, endless and empty, and freezing cold. Pass the brandy.

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