Falling Upwards

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

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

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.

Both those on the ground and in the air were thrilled. For spectators below, it was showtime: trapeze artists for whom a net was worthless, parachutists, night ascents accompanied by pyrotechnics – or the whole balloon catching St. Elmo's fire, a phosphorescent sparkling of static electricity. Above, there was the Prussian blue of the deep sky, the aural tapestry of the countryside, the dazzle of flying over a city at night – the blue, green, purple, and crimson lights of London signaling gin palaces, taverns, apothecaries, and brothels – the silent entry into prismatic clouds.

The imagery is powerful, even transcendent; describing it is as slippery as quicksilver, easily turning saccharine and losing all its transporting energy. But Holmes brings an artful, knowing hand to the otherworldliness of the experiences, letting them spark here and there; mostly, they give off a glow.

The lighter-than-air vehicles also had their practical aspects, though they were fleeting. Napoleon used them for observation platforms, and they served as a morale-boosting mail service during the Prussian siege of Paris. The Union deployed a number of balloons during the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had only one in its arsenal.

"This remarkable balloon was said to be extraordinarily beautiful, and piloted with fantastic and cavalier daring.... It was composed of a shimmering mass of multicolored silk, supposedly sewn up in homely patchwork fashion from dozens of gorgeous silk ballroom dresses." It leaked gas, but not ingenuity. As a conveyance, balloons were eclipsed by railroads, which were more commodious; and in delivering news, the telegraph was speedier. Neither, however, could touch the balloon when it came to vertical exploration. In this realm, the balloon cuts a dash, as does Holmes as a yarn spinner.

Here is where some of the best stories reside in a book full of good ones. The atmosphere remained aeris incognita, so the British Association of the Advancement of Science decided to put the science back in ballooning and financed a number of excursions to collect data on cloud density, atmospheric electricity, oxygenation, and the solar spectrum. In an earlier incident, French balloonists had reached an altitude that forced the balloon's envelope downward as the rest of the contraption continued to rise, squashing the balloonists in their basket and rendering them unconscious. They awoke, in one piece, nestled in a vineyard of champagne grapes.

By far the best nail-biter has two Englishmen, in 1862, ascending so high (perhaps to as much as 37,000 feet) so fast that their eyesight blurred, their breath shortened, and their muscles lost power: first the arms and legs, then the neck. " 'In looking at the barometer my head fell on my left shoulder,' said one of them. When he tried to straighten it, it fell doll-like onto his right shoulder." Meanwhile the balloon's netting had fouled the gas-release valve, and they kept scooting higher, getting more gaga by the second. Their hands froze and turned black; they lost consciousness time and again.

They poured brandy over their hands (and probably over their tongues; booze saved as many ascents as it doomed). They returned with data by the bucketful, though not all their personal digits. Another unforgettable character, from the old school, read his instruments during the nighttime hours by the light "of a little glass jar which he had stocked with glow worms."

From this quirky company rose the science of meteorology, the forces and systems that generated weather.

Holmes relishes the whole works: the science; the stunts; the great women aéronautes – flamboyant, vulnerable, and daring in their champagne-bucket gondolas; the untethered, existential release; the sheer giddiness. He emits an intimate, jubilant buoyancy of his own, ringing clear as a church bell at dawn, flashing with the insight of one who has been there – as the author has made numerous ascents himself – and held fast to its sense of serendipity and wonder.

Peter Lewis is the book review editor of the Geographical Review.

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