December 13, 2013

‘Show me a balloon and I’ll show you a story; quite often a tall one,” Richard Holmes writes in this quirky, uplifting tribute to the pioneering spirit of balloon aviation. Ranging freely from Benjamin Franklin to Babar the elephant, Holmes tracks the fortunes of the daring young aeronauts — men and women — who risked their lives in the sky and the manner in which balloons, those “mysterious, paradoxical objects,” shaped the world below them.

“Throughout history, dreamlike stories and romantic adventures have always attached themselves to balloons,” the author writes. “Some are factual, some are pure fantasy, many (the most interesting) are a provoking mixture of the two. But some kind of narrative basket always seems to come tantalisingly suspended beneath them.”

Holmes, a fellow of the British Academy, unpacks these narrative baskets with exceptional skill, providing historical context and scientific groundwork. At the same time he proves himself to be an extremely buoyant storyteller, unwilling to be tethered by chronology, preferring instead to follow various thematic updrafts and crosswinds wherever they might lead. Somehow he manages to keep his eye on the horizon, even as he floats from Cyrano de Bergerac to the Apollo space missions in a single page.

Along the way Holmes makes a compelling case for ballooning as a central pillar of human development, especially in the latter years of the 18th century. “Long before the arrival of the aeroplane in the twentieth century, balloons gave the first physical glimpse of a planetary overview,” he writes. “Balloons contributed to the science and the arts that first suggested that we are all guests aboard a unified, living world. The nature of the upper air, the forecasting of weather, the evolutions of geology, the development of international communications, the power of propaganda, the creations of science fiction, even the development of extra-terrestrial travel itself, are an integral part of balloon history.”


“Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air” by Richard Holmes. (Pantheon)

For all of this sweeping perspective, the book’s greatest pleasures lie with its close-up portraits of the dreamers and eccentrics who pushed balloon technology forward at each stage of its development. These include the jaunty Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who not only crossed the English Channel in January 1785 but also recorded what was probably the first American ascent. Blanchard lifted off from Philadelphia in January 1793, carrying an “aerial passport” endorsed by President George Washington, who must have felt a certain affinity for Blanchard’s proposed route — a crossing of the Delaware River.

Blanchard’s wife, Sophie, achieved even greater renown, eventually winning an appointment as Napoleon Bonaparte’s Aéronaute des Fetes Officielles, charged with such duties as flinging leaflets from on high to proclaim the birth of the emperor’s son. In 1819, at the age of 41, she became one of ballooning’s earliest casualties when an aerial fireworks display went awry: “In a few seconds, the poor creature, enveloped and entangled in the netting of her machine, fell with a frightful crash upon the slanting roof of a house,” an eyewitness wrote, “and thence onto the street, and Madame Blanchard was taken up a shattered corpse!”

Not surprisingly, American adventurers also staked their claim to the upper elevations. Holmes details the efforts of “spies in the sky” such as Thaddeus Lowe, piloting a balloon called the Enterprise, who supplied military intelligence in the early years of the Civil War. In Washington, two months after hostilities began, Lowe made an ascent above the Mall with a telegraph key wired directly into the White House, to demonstrate how aerial reconnaissance might be transmitted to commanders on the ground. A message to President Abraham Lincoln presented compliments from 500 feet: “The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene.”

The military possibilities of ballooning were foreseen decades earlier by Benjamin Franklin, among others, who warned that future invasion forces might approach from the sky. Franklin was quick to propose other, more congenial applications, such as an aerial icebox that would store perishable goods in the colder altitudes: “People will keep such Globes anchored in the Air, to which by Pullies they may draw up Game to be preserved in the Cool, & Water to be frozen when Ice is wanted.”

If there is any complaint to be made about this book, it’s that Holmes gives short shrift to the Montgolfier brothers, who not only invented the hot-air balloon — which they memorably described as “a Cloud in a paper bag” — but also engineered the first manned ascent. In a footnote, Holmes explains that he covered this subject in “The Age of Wonder,” his earlier study of the scientific advances of the late 18th century. One admires the author’s reluctance to repeat himself here, and the earlier book is strongly recommended, but to my way of thinking it feels as if the current volume has dropped a stitch.

That said, the many fascinations of “Falling Upwards” more than compensate for any omissions. If, as Holmes writes, the dream of flight is “to see the world differently,” this book takes flight in every sense. It’s an achievement that Franklin would probably have appreciated, perhaps while enjoying an air-cooled refreshment. “Someone asked me — what’s the use of a balloon?” Franklin once remarked. “I replied — what’s the use of a new-born baby?”

Daniel Stashower’s most recent book is “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.”

FALLING UPWARDS

How We Took to the Air

By Richard Holmes

Pantheon. 404 pp. $35