FOR BALLOONATICS, this is the year of years, the bicentennial of man's first success in his continuing battle against gravity. This summer we have had balloons rising above the Mall in Washington, and in Europe balloon races across France and Germany. It follows, then, that now comes a book commemorating the Montgolfier family, starting with the hot air experts Joseph and Etienne who thrilled Paris during the summer and fall of 1783.
Just as with the space program two centuries later, the Montgolfiers started gingerly, first with unmanned and tethered flights, then progressing through animal experiences on to the main events. The Montgolfiers preferred a crew of a duck, sheep, and rooster. Dogs were not to have their day until the 20th century. Also like the space program, the balloon pioneers faced competition, not between countries but between concepts, the Montgolfiers the successful proponents of hot air as a lifting force, as opposed to J.A.C. Charles, who filled his gas bags with highly dangerous hydrogen, generated by the awkward process of mixing sulfuric acid with iron filings in a barrel. Today inert helium has replaced hydrogen in closed bag balloons, which have wide applications still, but hot air is the cheaper and more popular choice for sports balloonists. Hydrogen, explosive as ever, is used as a rocket fuel.
Only nine days in 1783 separated the first manned free flights of the two competitors. On November 21, the MontgolfiMere sailed over Paris, carrying the world's first test pilot, 26-year-old Pilatre de Rozier, and his companion, the Marquis D'Arlandes, a major of infantry. In the crowd below was Benjamin Franklin who when asked of what possible utility this new contraption might have, replied, "What use is a new born baby?" On December 1 the CharliMere first flew. Girded against the cold by furs, blankets, and bottles of champagne, the intrepid Charles and his companion Mr. Robert toasted each other and the admiring crowd at the instant of lift off, and waved red and white flags as they ascended.
Each flight lasted approximately half an hour and each team landed hard but without injury. Their time aloft, however, was very different. Aboard the MontgolfiMere the two aeronauts squabbled constantly over how much straw to feed the fire, and whether rents in the bag's stitching were serious or not. Aboard the CharliMere, things were calmer, almost serene, and Charles was able to report later that from two miles up:
"The cold was sharp and dry, but not at all unbearable. I could then examine all my sensations in complete tranquility. I listened to myself living, so to say, and I may report that in the first moments I experienced no discomfort in this sudden change of pressure and of temperature. . . . I stood up . . . and lost myself in the spectacle offered by the immensity of the horizon. . . . I was the only illuminated body within the whole horizon, and I saw the rest of nature plunged in shadow."
Within 13 months, J.P. Blanchard and John Jeffries crossed the English channel in a hydrogen balloon, a hilarious flight during which the crew jettisoned all their equipment and most of their clothing. Not so hilarious was the next channel attempt, by de Rozier and Romains, in a hybrid hydrogen-hot air monster which exploded in flight, producing the first fatal aircrash. The balloon age had arrived. Within a decade balloons were used during the French Revolution for military observation of enemy forces.
These milestones of the 18th century are well known. Therefore, beyond the fact that this bicentennial year focuses attention on them, one must ask what is so different about Charles Gillispie's book that we should shell out $35 rather than brrtsowsing through library shelves. The key to the book, and the strength and failure of it, is the fact that Gillispie has become a friend of the Montgolfier family, who have opened to him family archives containing many unpublished documents. From this mound of fresh material the author has turned over spade after spade full of diamonds, stones, clay, and wattle. Unfortunately it is mostly a treasure trove of trivia which he shovels upon us. Chance encounters between the brothers and obscure acquaintances are reported in dreary detail. We learn, for instance, that Nicolas "Desmarest is known to the history of science mainly as a mineralogist who convinced scientists of the volcanic origin of the basalts occuring in the peaks of Auvergne, where he often traveled in the discharge of his official duties."
There is so much peripheral detail that the reader cannot concentrate on the brothers themselves and their marvelouus quest. There must have been great excitement in the air, and occasionally it flashes through: "Get in a supply of taffeta and cordage quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world." But mostly it is page ofter page of arcane asides, even down to excerpts from corporate balance sheets: "profits of 1,333,910.91 francs against losses of 214,336.33 for the previous six year interval." This book cries out for an editor.
Etienne and Joseph can be located clearly on the genealogical chart which Gillispie thoughtfully provides, but it is difficult to touch them in the narrative. Of Etienne about as close as we come is to hear that "less romantic then Joseph, he may have been more passionate, with the passion under pressure." The author does make some participants, such as the jaunty Pilatre, come alive, but he seems awkward in the presence of the brothers, who remain strange and distant.
The book itself is handsome, in a 9-by-11-inch format containing abundant black and white illusrations plus 11 color plates. It looks good on my coffee table, but it is an impostor there. Its subtitle, the "invention of aviation" by the Montgolfiers, is not substantiated in the text. Lighter-than-air technology certainly deserves its place in history, but if anyone "invented aviation" it was those whose work on aerodynamic lift culminated in the Wright brothers flight of 1903.
The author attempts to put the Montgolfier family (especially nephew Marc Seguin) in the mainstream of contributing technology by a final chapter, but the subjects chosen (an internal combustion engine of limited practicality, a hydraulic ram, suspension bridges, and railroads) are not convincing. Each of the essays on these subjects should have been separated from the rest of the book and presented as papers at some scientific symposium; they don't belong here.
In addition to its attractive coffee table format, the interior design of the book is excellent, and the documentation is first class. The author's enthusiasm for footnotes builds chapter after chapter (60 in the first, 146 in the last) and his detailed bibliography and index are very helpful. I give him plaudits for solid scholarship, but poison darts to his editors for packaging these diverse meanderings as the "Invention of Aviation"-- even in this bicentennial year.