Today we ride the first hot-air balloons in
England. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Dickens' Tale of Two
Cities contrasted London and Paris --
England and France. He begins by calling the late
the age of wisdom ... the age of foolishness ...
the epoch of belief ... the epoch of
And that it was. It was an age of
stimulus. Revolution was brewing in both countries --
political revolution in France and industrial
revolution in England. The English middle class
applied religious zeal and technical creativity to
the improvement of life, while the French
intelligentsia attacked tyranny with a highly-honed
and playful curiosity.
So it's no surprise that the English looked down
their noses at the new French mania for flying in
balloons. Author L.T.C. Rolt quotes an English
newspaper that called upon
all men to laugh this new folly out of practice
as soon as possible.
England's first balloon was flown a year
after the first French ones, but not by an
Englishman. The flyer was Vincent Lunardi -- a
dashing, self-aggrandizing young ladies' man from the
Italian embassy. He described the flight like this on
his own monument:
Let posterity know, and knowing be astonished!
That on the 15th day of September, 1784, Vincent
Lunardi of Lucca in Tuscanny, the first aerial
traveler in Britain, mounting from the Artillery
Ground in London, and traversing the regions of the
air for 2 hours and 15 minutes, in this spot
revisited the earth
Lunardi barnstormed about England for
two years, charming the public with his showmanship.
Then, in 1786, his unoccupied balloon got away from
him, with a young bystander's arm entangled in one of
its ropes. It carried the poor fellow a hundred or so
feet into the air before he came loose and fell to
The English public and press promptly turned on
Lunardi. A contemporary ballad ridiculed him:
Behold an Hero comely, tall and fair,A beaten Lunardi returned to Italy and
there took up ballooning with renewed panache. When
he landed in a Spanish village, he was taken for a
saint and triumphantly carried off to the local
His only food phlogisticated air, ...
Now drooping roams about from town to Town
Collecting pence t'inflate his poor balloon.
The second English ascent was also made by a
foreign barnstormer -- the French balloonist
Blanchard. He was cut from the same bolt of cloth.
He had Lunardi's megalomania but -- alas -- none of
his charm. Blanchard also made the first channel
crossing and -- later -- the first American ascent.
Balloons were not born of 18th-century English
virtues. Flight has always been the gift of less
serious people, like the 18th-century French --
people driven by frivolous intellectual curiosity
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds