Paris launched it, Edwardians made it fun, Americans made it pay, Canadians ignored it and World War I killed it. But it was a wonderful adventure while it lasted

JAMES BANNERMAN December 24 1955


Paris launched it, Edwardians made it fun, Americans made it pay, Canadians ignored it and World War I killed it. But it was a wonderful adventure while it lasted

JAMES BANNERMAN December 24 1955

ONE SEPTEMBER morning in 1859, in the wilderness a hundred and eighty miles north of Ottawa, a bottle of beer came hurtling down out of the mist above the treetops, followed by several others and finally by a flask of brandy.

Then the great round shape of a balloon appeared, sinking gently earthward with a faint hiss and a foul smell of escaping gas. The two men in the balloon had thrown the bottles overboard to lighten the load and thus check the speed of their descent so they wouldn’t hit the ground too hard. A moment later they landed, having made history. John Haddock and John LaMountain, of Watertown in upstate New York, had become the first men to travel across any part of Canada by air.

They had brought Canada its first direct experience of a stylish and properly renowned form of daring-do that had already gripped most other Western countries for more than seventy-five years. This had begun when the first man-carrying balloon of all time, a gaily decorated yellow globe like a gigantic Christmas tree ornament, was invented by the brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier in France in 1783. The craze was to last, as far as grownups were concerned, until the airplane put an end to it. But children still stare saucer-eyed at the marvel of a toy balloon tugging at the string held in a fat little fist. They still feel the wonder and fascination our ancestors felt when the Montgolfiers gained the first triumph in man’s long struggle to bring true the ancient dream of flight.

As a victory against nature, ballooning was as stirring as the conquest of Mount Everest. As an achievement of science, the defeat of gravity by the balloon was, in its day, comparable to the smashing of the atom. And besides its tremendous significance as the real beginning of the Air Age, ballooning was significant in several other ways.

It was exciting to watch. The earliest ascensions drew great numbers of onlookers —in big cities like London or Paris, as many as a hundred thousand. It was a new profession for those who were not only daring enough to go up in balloons but to risk being torn to pieces by the disappointed and furious crowd if for any reason the balloon couldn’t go up at the advertised time. It was an aid in wartime. Observers in balloons could learn more of an enemy’s movements than the most enterprising scouts had been able to learn before, and no siege could prevent balloonists from getting out of a beleaguered fortress or city with mail and dispatches. In time of peace it was the first means of studying the ways of the air, and it was a new sport.

Ballooning in early times had many minor but winning charms. There was the strange delight of floating up into the silence of the sky, far above a countryside like a patchwork quilt crisscrossed by roads as narrow as the ribbons oi a petticoat, along which horses the size of ants were driven by people no bigger than the heads of pins. There was the complete detachment from the earth, greater even than the detachment of being far out at sea in a small boat. There was the chance to eat and drink in deep tranquillity, only slightly troubled by twinges of fear, with the sharp zest that comes from breathing air as fresh as a mountain spring. And there was the supreme attraction of never knowing when you went up where you were going to come down, since a balloon is usually at the mercy of the wind, although it can sometimes he steered by lightening the ballast or letting out gas, thus changing altitude to take advantage of currents of air moving in different directions.

Canadians Weren’t Interested

When Haddock and LaMountain became the pioneers of air travel in Canada that morning in 1859, they gave striking proof of its unpredictability. Late in the afternoon of the previous day they’d gone up from Watertown with the idea of drifting quietly over the neighboring fields and woods for an hour or two, and coming down close enough to home to drive hack in a buggy. In the convivial tradition of ballooning they’d taken along a tasty snack and a good supply of drinks. If all had gone as they planned, they would have had both a magnificent view and an airborne picnic enlivened with beer and brandy. But the balloon rose higher than they expected, up above the clouds and into a gale that swept them north to Canada at a hundred miles an hour.

Since there was no way of getting more gas in the wilderness where they landed, they couldn’t inflate the balloon again and try to catch a south wind to blow them home. They had to leave it behind them and set out for civilization on foot. It took them nearly two weeks to reach Ottawa, where people made a great fuss over them but remained as uninterested as ever in becoming aeronauts themselves. So did people in the rest of Canada, and it was another twenty years before anyone else went ballooning across Canadian soil.

Once more the travelers were American. In 1879 Charles Grimley, of New York, a professional balloonist, went up from Montreal accompanied by a New York newspaper man named Creelman. They hoped to get to New York, but instead they came down in a field outside the Quebec village of St. Jude, forty miles from Montreal in the wrong direction. A few weeks later the same balloon went up again from Montreal, again with Grimley in charge. The objective was Portland, Maine, but the balloon landed at St. Aime in Quebec after covering a mere seven miles more than it had done before. This time Grimley had five passengers, all Montrealers. The five appear to he the only Canadians on record, apart from barnstormers who went up at fairs and exhibitions to make parachute jumps or swing from a trapeze with elegant daring, who ever took to the air in a balloon over their native land during the century and a quarter the Balloon Age lasted. In this period ballooning in Europe and the United States passed through several stages. At first it had the powerful appeal of sheer wonder at being able to rise from the ground at all. While this was still a breath-taking novelty some men and a few women made a career of going up from fenced-off enclosures and charging spectators a small price—usually the equivalent of about thirty-five cents in our money to get in to watch. By the mid-1840s the novelty of ordinary balloon ascensions began to wear off and a touch of showmanship had to be added to keep the public paying. Balloonists dressed themselves in spangled tights and, after ascending, dropped from their balloons by parachute, waving nonchalantly to the crowds as they did so. By I860 even this spectacle was losing some of its attraction, and that year an aeronaut named Poitevin ascended from the Paris Hippodrome on the back of a white pony called Blanche. (His wife tried to do the same thing on the back of a bull, two years later in England, but was forbidden by a court order.)

The next stage, which actually began during the period of novelty but long outlasted it, was the phase of scientific experiment. Mountaineers had always known that it gets colder as you climb higher, but balloonists could reach greater altitudes and some deliberately tried to see whether there was a point beyond which the temperature stopped dropping. They found there wasn’t, at any rate not up to twenty thousand feet, which was the effective ceiling for early balloons. In making this discovery they almost died of the cold, in spite of the layers of woolen shawls they were wrapped in and the frequent tots of brandy they drank.

They found the air at such a height too thin to be breathed in comfort. (It wasn’t until the 1890s that it was realized the real trouble was lack of oxygen.) In 1803 a pioneer balloonist named Robertson decided to see if birds suffered as people did from this thinness of air, and took two pigeons up with him to what he claimed was an altitude of 23,526 feet almost certainly an exaggeration by at least four thousand feet. He observed that the pigeons not only suffered but died.

He was about to enter this fact in his notebook when a man who was with him suddenly went mad and tried to jump out. Robertson knocked his passenger out with a right hook to the jaw, laid him on the floor of the balloon’s basket beside the dead pigeons, and then recorded the attack of madness as a probable further side effect of high altitude. Robertson then passed out himself from oxygen starvation, but recovered in time to open the escape valve and bring the balloon safely to earth.

Whether balloonists went up for tranquil enjoyment or to see who could travel the farthest from the same starting place, or come nearest to a given objective, or to play a fantastic game of hide-and-seek with pursuers on the ground, they took care to bring along good things to eat and drink.

When a young Italian named Vincent Lunardi went up in 1784 for the first balloon ascension over England, he had with him half a dozen bottles of wine, a sliced cold roast chicken and a green salad. Unfortunately one of the sand bags he carried for ballast broke almost as soon as he was airborne, and the sand got into the food. But it couldn’t get into the wine, and Lunardi drank himself happy. In spite of a faint befuddlement, during which he tangled in some ropes and mismanaged the gas valve, his voyage was successful. In the words of a monument later put up at Standon in Hertfordshire, Lunardi, "mounting from the Artillery Ground in London and traversing the Regions of the Air for two Hours and fifteen Minutes, on this Spot revisited the Earth ... a wondrous Enterprise achieved by the Powers of Chemistry and the Fortitude of Man.” 

There was nothing so impressive about the absolute beginning of the Age of the Balloon, which came in France on a winter evening in 1782. That was when the brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier held a paper bag over the fire in their kitchen and found that the hot air that filled it made it float up to the ceiling. The Montgolfiers owned a paper mill in the southern French town of Annonay near Lyons, and there are two completely different legends about how they got the idea of experimenting with the bag.

According to one it was from reading some studies of the properties of air which had been published by the English scientist Joseph Priestley. The other legend, less plausible but more engaging, is that the brothers were sitting in their favorite inn after work when they noticed something odd. A chambermaid’s undershirt, which had been washed and hung on a chair in front of the fireplace to dry, swelled out as if the girl were still in it, when the heat of the flames made the air rise beneath the chair. Etienne gave a low whistle and rolled his eyes. Joseph, who was five years older and took life more seriously, at once discovered the principle that led to the invention of the first balloon capable of carrying men into the air, according to this version.

The brothers didn’t build this balloon until they’d experimented with several small pilot models at Annonay. When they found the models worked they went to Paris and built one big enough to lift a sheep, a duck and a rooster, which took off on September 19, 1783, and came down safely after a flight of two miles. This encouraged the Montgolfiers to go ahead with the man-carrying balloon. Two months later it was ready.

They built it in the garden of a Parisian town house, out of strips of lightweight canvas sewn together and varnished to make it airtight. The bag was forty-six feet around and measured sixty-six feet from top to bottom. Over the varnish they painted it buttercup yellow and decorated it with a design that featured four enormous medallions of the head of Louis XVI, then the reigning king of France. Under the open mouth of the balloon they built a fire of straw, and during the first stage of the inflation it took between thirty and forty helpers to keep it from sagging down and catching fire; but when it was completely filled with hot air it tugged so hard at its mooring ropes they almost broke.

Instead of the basket that later became universal for passenger-carrying, the Montgolfiers attached a flat wooden platform with a shaky railing around it to the network of cords that enclosed the balloon like an outer bag. Onto this platform, on the afternoon of November 21, 1783, stepped a youngish man named Pilâtre de Rozier and the slightly older Marquis d’ArIandes. The Montgolfiers, who preferred to watch what happened from the ground, had picked these two out of a great many applicants. De Rozier, a handsome fellow who lived by his wits, was willing to risk his life for the sake of science and fame. The marquis, too rich and proud to care about becoming famous, simply wanted the thrill of an experience no human being had ever had before.

De Rozier was in command, on the strength of his having gone up a week or so earlier when the balloon was tested in a captive ascent at the end of an eighty-foot rope. The marquis had the job of tending the fire of rags and straw soaked in pure alcohol, which was hung in a wire basket under the mouth of the balloon to provide fresh hot air as the original supply cooled. A quantity of alcohol-soaked fuel had been lashed to the platform, creating a fearful fire hazard but making it possible to replenish the blaze in the basket.

When the ropes were cast off and the balloon went up it stayed in the air for twenty-five minutes. (The first airplane flight in history, made by Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, lasted less than one minute.) De Rozier and the marquis covered five and a half miles and came down without incident in an open field behind the Luxembourg Gardens. The landing was officially witnessed by a group of VIPs that included the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin. One of the other personages asked him in what way balloons could possibly be useful, whereupon Franklin, who could seldom resist a sententious remark, said, "Sir, of what use is a newborn baby?”

The world’s second passenger-carrying balloon was also built in Paris in 1783, by Prof. J. A. G. Charles, a scientist who used hydrogen to inflate it. The professor’s balloon went up ten days after the Montgolfier monster, on December 1. Because hydrogen is lighter than even the hottest air, it did much better. After taking off from the vast courtyard of the Tuileries palace, to the sound of band music and the cheering of a crowd of a hundred thousand people, it stayed aloft for an hour and three quarters and traveled twenty-seven miles. When it landed, on the outskirts of the little town of Nesle, the professor and his passenger, a Monsieur Robert, were attacked by peasants armed with pitchforks. The peasants were convinced, until Prof. Charles talked them out of the conceit in the nick of time, that the two men were devils and the balloon a horror straight out of hell.

This was virtually the standard finish for pioneer balloon travelers who weren’t fortunate enough to come down among ambassadors and the like. It was also only one of the risks the early balloonists had to run—unlike the early airplane pilots, who either crashed or didn’t and thus faced a single hazard to their lives. In ballooning, there was the chance that a leak of hydrogen might lead to an explosion, as it did in the world’s first fatal air accident, which happened near Boulogne, France, in the summer of 1785. By a grim stroke of irony the victim was Pilâtre de Rozier.

There was the further chance that a balloonist might be blown out to sea and drowned when he finally came down. A low-riding balloon might drag its basket through the branches of a tree or slam it against a wall and if it were being blown along quickly the passengers were likely to be killed. If a balloon wasn’t properly ballasted it might shoot suddenly up to such a height the balloonists died for lack of oxygen, as two men, J. E. CroceSpinelli and H. T. Sivel, did in France in 1875. And if a gas leak didn’t cause an actual explosion it sometimes caused the balloon to burst into flames, with equally ghastly consequences.

For Hot Stew, Add Cold Water

None of these dangers kept ballooning from getting steadily more popular, and by the middle 1880s it was a glamorous sport in its own right. At the beginning of the sporting phase the chief excitement was to see how fast you could go—driven, of course, by the wind. During that stage a balloon carrying two Frenchmen, Wilfred de Fonvielle and Gaston Tissandier, hit a clip of one hundred and twenty miles an hour, an all-time record. It was also fun to try to cover a great distance, as Count de la Vaulx did in 1900 when he went up from Paris and reached Korostyshev, Russia, 1,193 miles away. Nobody else has ever traveled so far in a balloon. For that matter nobody ever traveled that far in an airplane until Alcock and Brown flew almost two thousand miles across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919.

By 1919 the Balloon Age was over, yet it hadn’t been gone long, and it had come to its fullest flowering only about ten years before. It was a rich man’s game, since a six-passenger balloon cost four thousand dollars; but there were a lot of rich men around. So many wealthy Americans were balloonists in the early 1900s that the catalogue of Abercrombie and Fitch, the New York firm of sports outfitters, advertised special canned food for eating in balloons. The feature of it was that it made possible hot meals in the air with no risk of fire or explosion. Each can had a double bottom filled with quicklime, and to heat the contents you had only to make a small hole in the bottom and pour in a little water. The chemical reaction soon gave you piping-hot beef stew. Abercrombie and Fitch also advertised special clothing for balloonists, which differed from ordinary clothing by being lined with chamois skin and interlined with fleece.

But it was in opulent Edwardian England, rather than in America, that ballooning was at its most elegant and most sporting. The Edwardian balloonists loved to test their skill. Some of them would do this by taking up their balloons from some central launching ground, usually the gasworks where the balloons had been inflated at great cost (the average balloon held about eighty thousand cubic feet of gas), and try to reach some specific target. The only way of maneuvering was by rising or falling, by dropping ballast or releasing gas, to take advantage of air currents, and the game was won by the balloonist who came closest to the mark.

Another Edwardian ballooning sport was a kind of hare-and-hounds chase. A balloonist was the hare and motorists were the hounds. A number of cars would gather where the balloon was to go up. As soon as it was high enough for the motorists to guess which way it was heading, they all took off after it. In these affairs the winner was the one who got his ear nearest to the point where the balloon touched the ground.

More popular even than these games were ascensions of parties of four or six people, simply to relish the quiet of the air and admire the scenery below. Only the most determinedly outdoors types wore anything like special clothes for the trip, and even they went no further than the tweeds and caps that were the accepted costume for grouse shooting or deer stalking. As a rule the pleasure balloonists dressed as they would have done for a garden party —the gentlemen in frock coats, white waistcoats and silk toppers, the ladies tightly corseted in the then fashionable S-shape, wearing silk gowns and immense ornate hats fastened to their abundant hairdos.

So clad, they got into the basket by means of a little stepladder, received a hamper of food and wine from their host’s manservant, and rose gracefully into the air. The food could be almost anything, although veal-and-ham pies and cold roast chicken were favored, but there was one restriction on the choice of wine. It wasn’t advisable to have champagne, an otherwise ideal drink for upper-class aeronauts but given to foaming uncontrollably when the bottles were opened in the low air pressure of high altitudes.

John Haddock and John LaMountain had set out for a somewhat similar airborne picnic when they involuntarily became the first men to travel over Canada by air. But the first ascension made from Canadian soil wasn’t by any means for pleasure. The purpose was to test a billoon built by two Montrealers named Charles Page and Richard Cowan and to try to reach New York in it.

Page and Cowan didn’t know enough about ballooning to make the experiment themselves, so they arranged with Charles Grimley, an American professional balloonist, to come from New York and lake charge of the balloon. Grimley brought with him a man named Creelman, a reporter for the New York Herald, and the two of them took the balloon up on June 21, 1879. Creelman wired his story to the Herald from St. Hyacinthe, about forty miles east of Montreal, the morning after they landed.

He began with a fine touch of the dramatic: "The flight of the balloon Canada after leaving Montreal yesterday was a short but terrible one, and perhaps no other ascension has been accompanied by more startling incidents.” It started from the Shamrock Lacrosse Grounds, after running into trouble at the very outset because the illuminating gas they used was so low grade it didn’t give them as much buoyancy as they should have had.

“We Have No Anchor!”

Nothing much happened for the first quarter of an hour. The balloon began by hovering over the city, barely moving, then was caught in a southeasterly wind and sailed off across the countryside south of the St. Lawrence. Creelman was struck by the absolute silence of the upper air (they had risen to about three quarters of a mile) and was about to say so when Grimley cried, My God! We have no anchor!” Creelman didn’t realize the seriousness of this until Grimley explained it to him. They had only three bags of ballast, so it wouldn’t be possible to keep lightening the balloon as often as might be necessary if it started to lose buoyancy, which seemed probable. In that case there was a risk of the basket being dragged through trees or smashed against a fence, since without an anchor to throw overboard and hook into the ground there was no way of checking the balloon’s onward rush.

Soon after Grimley had made the horrifying discovery the balloon began to go round and round like a wheel. Grimley said this meant they were either starting to fall or rise higher, but that they’d have to wait and see which it was. After what Grimley had told him about dragging, Creelman in his ignorance hoped they were going to rise, not knowing that there could be danger, or at the least serious discomfort, in that too. He wasn’t long finding out.

A few minutes later they were up to a height of two miles and the temperature had dropped almost to freezing point. If they kept on rising they’d be too numbed with cold to be able to work the valve for releasing gas when they wanted to come down. But just before this danger became acute they were faced suddenly with another.

The balloon began to fall rapidly. Grimley threw out two of the three sand bags in an attempt to check the descent. This wasn’t very effective. They continued to fall almost as fast as ever, and they were falling toward rough and wooded country. Grimley dropped the last sand bag. And still they fell, until they were so low the drag line was almost touching the ground in a clearing. Creelman wrote:

" 'Drop the line,’ commanded Grimley ... I did as directed, and as we were dragged over fences, ditches and furrows I grasped stones and earth to serve as ballast. Over the clearing we went, smashing against stumps and rocks. Finally the gas began to pour from the bag in heavy volume, and the immense canvas runaway stopped. And it was lucky for us that it did, as ten feet from us was a seven-foot fence, to have struck which meant death for both of us and had we bridged that danger we could not have escaped the forest, only twenty yards distant.”

By then it was ten o’clock at night and very dark. The two men got thankfully out of the basket, and Grimley began valving the rest of the gas from the balloon to collapse it and so keep it from blowing into the trees and being torn to shreds. Creelman, on the opposite side of the balloon while this was going on, talked about the flight to Grimley. Suddenly he realized he wasn’t getting any reply. Grimley had been almost asphyxiated by the escaping gas.

Creelman thought at first he was dead, but rubbed his wrists and slapped his face. It worked, and a few minutes later Grimley got groggily to his feet. They set out to find the farmhouse they reasoned couldn’t be far from the clearing. They found it, two miles away.

"We knocked, and soon a stir was made inside,” Creelman wrote. " 'Let us in. We want water,’ I said. The answer came surlily, 'Je ne comprends pas.’ 'We are strangers,’ I said, and this seemed to rouse the man . . . After lighting a lamp and getting his shotgun from a distant corner, he opened the door and scanned us suspiciously.”

They eventually managed to make him understand they weren’t robbers, and he let them in. After an uneasy night’s sleep on the floor of the parlor, they had a breakfast of rye bread and fried fat pork, which made poor Grimley violently sick, and were driven ten miles along an appalling road to St. Hyacinthe. The first balloon ascension made from Canadian soil was over.

Except for one other, made six weeks later in the same balloon by Grimley, Page, Cowan and three Montreal reporters (it was almost as short as the first but far less exciting), that was the end of ballooning in Canada for sport or travel. Stunt men went up from fairgrounds across the country from the early 1890s until the early 1920s, to make parachute jumps or do acrobatics a thousand feet above the crowd. Then they too faded out. Nobody seemed to care about balloons any more in Canada or anywhere else.

Nobody, that is, except children. When the first interplanetary rocket flight is made and grownups have at last succeeded in going from the earth to the moon, children will still love bright little toy balloons. In their superior wisdom, the very young can he counted on to keep the Balloon Age alive. ★