Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, By Richard Holmes

Now a weightless pastime, ballooning once made a solid contribution to science and to war

You wait a long time for a literary book about ballooning to appear and then… well, the stock joke about coming in threes doesn't quite work because there are only two such new books afloat. In Julian Barnes's Levels of Life, the ballooning piece is only one section out of three. But, still, there's something in the air.

Richard Holmes caught the bug a long time ago. He traces his fascination to an encounter with a helium balloon at the age of four. Besides the attraction of the romance, the danger, and the views, for Holmes the footstepping biographer the appeal lies in the stories: "Show me a balloon and I'll show you a story; quite often a tall one".

The birth of ballooning in the 18th century was one chapter in his magisterial The Age of Wonder; here he has the licence to pursue more of those tall tales. Many of the pioneers had dreams of commercial success, especially in America, but the history of ballooning is mostly a catalogue of stunts, eccentric characters, fairground razzmatazz and, above all, accidents, often fatal.

The spirit of ballooning has always been three parts Richard Branson to one part genuine curiosity and exploratory awe. Time and again the balloons take off on a wave of purple sentiment and champagne and, as often as not, come crashing down. Nevertheless, the balloon has an honourable place in the history of the attempt to explore the aerial kingdom. For around 120 years it was the only way to learn about the upper atmosphere and see the earth from a panoptic viewpoint. Balloonists learnt at what height human life in the open air becomes unsustainable – around 29,000 ft (curiously, the height of Mount Everest). They learnt that insects migrate in prodigious numbers at great height. They learnt the tricks of air currents: the wind often reverses in direction with altitude, which means that it is often possible to return to the starting-point by ascending to a great height and retracing steps.

Two episodes in which ballooning was entirely serious provide narratives more enthralling than any stunt: the American Civil War and the 1870 siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian war. In the first, the Unionists used reconnaissance balloons and success was claimed when a balloonist reported that the Confederates were withdrawing from Yorktown. But the same Civil War rang the death knell for commercial and military ballooning. They were too unreliable: the continent of North America would be knit not by balloons but by railroads, the telegraph, and eventually the aeroplane. After capture by the Unionists, the Confederates' sole balloon, made from dress silks, lived on as a "sacred relic of the Old South: beautiful, gallant, self-sacrificing, doomed".

Also gallant and doomed was the use of balloons by despairing Parisians to send messages across the Prussian siege lines in 1870. This became the main prop to French morale. Attempts were made to bring news back to Paris by balloon. Instead, a microfilm technology was developed to allow pigeons to carry up to 5000 letters each in a goose quill containing rolled-up film. Decoding them in a pre-digital age involved armies of clerks hand-copying the letters from the images magnified by a magic lantern.

This was the last serious use of untethered balloons, after which came the dirigibles, powered, steerable airships exemplified by the Zeppelins; much circus trickery, often involving women balloonists; and Richard Branson. Still, on a sunny day, a balloon sailing over a heat-hazed landscape always gladdens the heart.

'Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal' by Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey will be published by Papadakis in October

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map