Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

Mike Jay writes:

The history of ballooning is inescapably a procession of failures. This is partly in the nature of balloon flight which, like politics and indeed life, must always end with a falling to earth, at best skilfully managed but never entirely safe from indignity or tragedy. It is also a function of the hyperbole with which it was from the beginning obliged to justify itself: it would transform science, revolutionise warfare, redraw our map of the world. With notable but rare exceptions, each of these dreams failed, either defeated by nature or outperformed by rival technologies. In its early years it seemed plausible that the balloon might achieve speeds, cover distances or offer luxuries that would make it the premier transport system of the new industrial era, but over the course of the 19th century the railways and the telegraph accelerated past it and by the early 20th powered flight had effectively replaced it. With hindsight the classic era of the balloon appears as a parade of more or less magnificent pratfalls, marketed at the time as a glimpse of the future but hard to distinguish today from the other Victorian sensations with which it competed.

(LRB 8 August 2013)

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