ballomania -- 10/18/23

Today's selection -- from Seeing Further by Bill Bryson. When introduced in the late 1700s, hot air balloons astonished the world, drew huge crowds, and were regarded as “the most astounding achievement the science of physics has yet given to the world”:

“On 6 November 1783, the recently elected President of the Royal Society, the botanist Joseph Banks, called a special meeting of the Fellows at their splendid new premises in Somerset House. The subject up for discussion was a controversial one: the extraordinary phenomenon of the French 'aerostatique Machines'.

“Banks had received two long and confidential 'papers' from Benjamin Franklin, the American Ambassador in Paris, describing the experiments of the Montgolfier brothers with hot-air balloons; and of Dr Alexander Charles with hydrogen balloons. Franklin prophesied--correctly--that the first manned flight in history was about to occur. A balloon would inevitably 'carry up a Man'. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes duly took to the air on 19 November 1783. So what, Franklin wondered mildly, did the British intend to do about it all?

“After the meeting, Banks wrote back thanking Franklin for his 'Philosophical amusements', but playing down any notion of Anglo-French competition in balloon technology. Instead he sounded a note of ironic caution. 'I think I see an inclination in the more respectable parts of the Royal Society to guard against the Ballomania which has prevailed, and not to patronise Balloons merely on account of their rising in the Atmosphere, rill some Experiment likely to prove beneficial either to Society or Science, is proposed to be annexe to them.' Banks's witty coinage--'ballomania'--was destined to float quite as far as the balloons themselves.

First Montgolfier brothers balloon, 1783

“It is usually said that the Royal Society subsequently--and wisely--made little attempt to sponsor, fund or even foster rival British balloon experiments. Its Fellows were gently discouraged by Banks, who continued to dismiss 'ballomania' as a typically French craze for novelty and display. It was a passing fashion that could have no scientific outcome. Like the exactly contemporary French craze for Mesmerism (also reported by Franklin), it would soon dissipate and be utterly forgotten. 

“Certainly, all the early balloon ascents made in England in the following months, unlike those in France, were privately funded through commercial exhibitions or subscriptions. There was no official sponsorship from the Society or the Crown, or from any university or public institution--unless one counts the glamorous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as a public institution. Moreover nearly all the successful British ascents were in fact made by foreign aeronauts and showmen, such as the young Neapolitan Vincenzo Lunardi, the Italian Count Francesco Zambeccari, the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and the American Dr John Jeffries.


“Banks' views appeared to express a mixture of sensible scientific scepticism, combined with a somewhat aloof disapproval of French excitability. Patriotically, he always insisted that the science of ballooning had been originated by the British, in the 'inflammable air' experiments of Henry Cavendish, Joseph Black and Joseph Priestley. Only the French, he joked, would have turned Cavendish's elegant soap bubbles of hydrogen into the seventy-foot monster of 'Montgolfier's flying Medusa' (appropriately powered by hot or 'rarefied' French air). 

“The ballomania which ensued over the next two years is often remembered in terms of the sudden rage for balloon fashion accessories which seized Paris (and to some extent London). This might now be termed Montgolfier merchandising. Both the Musee de l'Air at Le Bourget and the Blythe House section of the Science Museum, London, are crammed with a wild selection of these astonishing, and sometimes rather beautiful, artefacts. They include popular prints, paintings, satirical cartoons, fans, snuffboxes, teapots, chinaware, lampshades, tobacco pipes, ladies' garters, milk jugs, hair clips, coat buttons, desk handles, parasols, pen-holders, and even (at Le Bourget) a ceramic toilet bowl with 'Bon Voyage' glazed on the interior. 

“But the element that Banks truly distrusted in ballomania was its demagogic potential. His secretary, Dr Charles Blagden FRS, a chemist who also worked for Cavendish and travelled frequently in France, perhaps encouraged these misgivings. So in August 1783 he informed Banks: 'all Paris is in an uproar about the flying machines'. In October he noted: 'It appears that enthusiasm, I almost said madness, which prevailed in Paris on the subject of balloons, has taken a turn more characteristic of the [French] nation, and is converted into a most violent party spirit. Ridicule and invective, verse and prose, are employed without mercy on this occasion.'

“Blagden enjoyed passing on comic or frankly scabrous material. He obtained a French satirical pamphlet purporting to recount 'the supposed conversations between the three animals which went up in [Montgolfier's] globe' at Versailles. The cockerel (symbol of France) seemed somewhat subdued on its return to earth, and 'all the animals' complained about the novel experience of air-sickness. Blagden also gleefully reported the open war in Paris between supporters of hot air and those of hydrogen, quoting an unacademic phrase of Dr Alexander Charles: 'La belle cacade que Faujas et Montgolfier ont fait.' He then added primly: 'I know no decent English translation of this term [cacade].' Banks (a product of Econ and Oxford) knew of course that cacade meant a heap of shit. Blagden concluded sententiously: 'Every thing that occurs relative to this business makes me rejoice that during all the Heat & Enthusiasm of our Neighbours we retained in this country a true Philosophical Tranquillity.' 

“A year later, in September 1784, he was happy to pass on the opinion of his friend, the distinguished French chemist Claude Berchollet. 'Aerostatic globes and Animal Magnetism have, during the whole of this past year, so filled people's heads in this country that useful research has been utterly neglected.' Blagden added pointedly that this now expressed the view of 'the soberer part' of the French Academy. 

“French ballooning certainly generated the most powerful outpouring of popular feeling. It also assembled enormous crowds in Paris, full of dangerous utopian dreams and heady aspirations. The kind of eyewitness account of such balloon launches which would have alarmed Banks is well illustrated by Le Tableau de Paris, I December 1783: 

“The swarm of people was itself an incomparable sight, so varied was it, so vast and so changing. Two hundred thousand men, lifting their hands in wonder, admiring, glad, astonished; some in tears for the intrepid philosophers should they come to harm; some on their knees overcome with emotion; but all following the aeronauts in spirit, while these latter, unmoved, saluted, dipping their flags above our heads. What with the novelty, the dignity of the experiment; the unclouded sun, welcoming as it were the travellers to his own element; the attitude of the two men themselves sailing into the blue, while below their fellow-citizens prayed and feared for their safety; and lastly the balloon itself, superb in the sunlight, soaring aloft like a planet, or the chariot of some weather-god! It was a moment which can never be repeated, the most astounding achievement the science of physics has yet given to the world."



Bill Bryson


Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society


Mariner Books


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