Today, a new technology that can't find its
footing. 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.
When Horace Walpole saw the
new man-carrying balloons in 1785 he wrote this:
I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove
only playthings for the learned and the idle, and
not be converted into new engines of destruction to
the human race ...
That was a vain hope. Ben Franklin had
already written that a balloon might be used for "...
elevating an Engineer to take a view of an Enemy's
Army ..." He didn't stop there. He figured they could
also be used for troop movements. "Five thousand
balloons capable of raising two men each," he
calculated, "could cost no more than Five Ships of
So balloons went to war. The new French Republic
used observation balloons against Austria by 1794.
The Austrians objected. Gentlemen didn't wage war
like that. They rolled out a cannon and whistled
two 17-pound balls past a balloon. When the
Frenchman landed he was greeted like a WW-I ace. In
a blink, those shots made him into a new kind of
hero. Soon these new airborne lotharios were
smuggling ladies into their gondolas. Aeronauts
began drawing bad press with their free-flying
Napoleon was lukewarm toward aerial observation. He
did take three balloons with him to Egypt. But when
British forces destroyed them in a battle, he
simply disbanded his aerial unit.
Five years later, a remarkable event turned his
lukewarmness into outright loathing. Napoleon
crowned himself emperor in 1804. To celebrate,
André Garnerin sent a hydrogen balloon up
over Paris. It was big and beautiful. It carried a
great gilded crown into the sky. The next day it
came down in Rome -- right on the tomb of Nero. By
the wildest coincidence, Garnerin's balloon had
laid Napoleon's crown on one of the worst tyrants
of all time. And Napoleon was a superstitious man.
Military balloons served the Union Army during the
Civil War. For a few years McClellan used them to
defend Washington. Then old-line conservative
officers took over the Army of the Potomac.
Balloons struck them as high-tech foolishness, and
that ended that. Military balloons came back for a
while in WW-I, only to be replaced by airplanes.
Observation balloons are joining a new war today --
the war on drugs. We're putting a line of
high-altitude radar balloons over our southern
borders to spot illegal air traffic.
I hope the plan will work, but balloons have a
spotty history. We start lighter-than-air systems,
but we don't stay with them. I don't know why. Too
much fragile beauty? Are they too nearly the stuff
of our dreams? In the end, balloons have fared
better in our legends than in our daily lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds