Monday, July 27, 2009


Every now and then one comes across a book that seems written-to-order, which may also mean that one should have researched and written it oneself. So it is with me and Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. I had enjoyed Holmes's two-volume biography of Coleridge a few years ago, and the title of his current volume made it irresistible.

I'll have more to say when I finish it, but for now I thought I'd share his account of one of the first hot air balloon rides. The first one took place in Paris in November, 1783; it was a 27-minute relatively low-altitude and haphazard drift over the rooftops (but given that it was the first ever of its kind, triumphant nonetheless). The second one occurred just ten days later, also in Paris, and was reportedly watched by several hundred thousand spectators (somehow one doesn't think about such massive assemblages prior to modern times). Here is Holmes's description:

Dr. Charles later recalled his feelings as the balloon lifted above the trees of the Tuileries and across the Seine. "Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles for ever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstasy. My companion Monsieur Robert murmured to me -- I'm finished with the Earth. From now on it's the sky for me! Such utter calm. Such immensity!" Benjamin Franklin, American Ambassador in Paris, watched the launch through a telescope from the window of his carriage. Afterwards he remarked: "Someone asked me -- what's the use of a balloon? I replied -- what's the use of a newborn baby?"
Two hours later they landed twenty-seven miles away at Nesle, skimming across a field and chased by a group of farm workers, "like children chasing a butterfly." Once the balloon was secured, in a moment euphoria Dr. Charles asked M. Robert to step out of the basket. Released of his weight, and with Charles alone aboard, the balloon rapidly relaunched and climbed into the sunset, reaching the astonishing height of 10,000 feet in a mere ten minutes. One thousand feet per minute: a truly formidable and terrifying ascent. Dr. Charles kept calmly observing his instruments, and making notes until his hand was too cold to grasp the pen. "I was the first man ever to see the sun set twice in the same day. The cold was intense and dry, but supportable. I had acute pain in my right ear and jaw. But I examined all my sensations calmly. I could hear myself living, so to speak."
He began gently to release the hydrogen gas-valve. Within thirty-five minutes he was safely back on terra firma--a term that took on new meaning--alighting a mere three miles from his first landing point. His ascent had been almost vertical. It was the first solo flight in history. "Never has a man felt so solitary, so sublime,--and so utterly terrified." Dr. Charles never flew again.

For sheer novelty and adventure, did the moon landing have anything on this?

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