According to the proud Greeks, the world's first aeronaut was Daedalus, and the first air fatality was his son Icarus who flew too high on makeshift wings and crashed in a mess of feathers. In the Middle Ages a number of brave men designed wings like the legendary Daedalus and leapt from towers. All of them plummeted, and it became obvious to learned observers that man could never fly merely by flapping in the air like a clipped chicken. A few speculated, however, that man might get off the ground if he could somehow capture and ride something lighter than air, for instance a fleecy, summer cloud.
The Russians, who of late have claimed the invention of almost everything except the wheel and minute rice, now insist that in 1731 a Russian, Furvin Kryakutskoi, first trapped foul-smelling smoke in a bag and rode it as high as a birch tree. According to the rest of the world, however, the first conquerors of the air were the Montgolfier brothers of France, who invented the hot-air balloon in 1783.
The balloon was not only invented but virtually perfected in 1783. Only four months after the Montgolfiers sent up their first trial balloon unmanned, Pilatre de Rozier ascended in a larger, hot-air balloon to become the world's real first aeronaut. Before the year was out a Professor Charles had developed a hydrogen-filled balloon which was very similar in design to the one which the present day Balloon Club of America is shown filling and flying on the preceding pages.
When they saw the first balloons in the sky, Frenchmen were filled with excitement. In some cases it mounted to terror, as when a few peasants watched the first unmanned hydrogen balloon land, unheralded, near the village of Gonesse. First they stayed at pitchfork distance, stabbing the thing. As the hydrogen hissed out they fell upon it and beat it to death, and then, to make sure, they dragged it behind a horse.
Though a few at first doubted that the balloon could be put to practical use, many more were already scheming up sane and wild uses for it. In its first dozen years the balloon became a tool of science, a weapon, a gaudy carnival clown, and a queen of sport, and it remained all these things for a century and a half, very much loved by almost all who ventured to ride it.
While they might well have uses for it, very few of the early balloonists had enough engineering wit to cope with a vehicle that towered five to seven stories high, and the first century of ballooning became one of great adventure, misadventure and considerable confusion. The English balloonist Henry Coxwell, accompanied by James Glaisher, ascended in 1862 to take meteorological readings, to make daguerreotype prints and to test the flight of pigeons at high altitudes. Few balloonists were better qualified for such flight, and hardly any could have come back with such poor scientific pickings. About five miles up Glaisher passed out. According to barometers the balloon soared to 37,000 feet, which is highly improbable. The balloon revolved so constantly that Coxwell could not take any time exposures with the camera. The behavior of the pigeons verged on mockery. Pigeon Number One fluttered down like a leaf. Number Two flew vigorously about. Number Three fell like a stone. Pigeon Number Four flew up and perched atop the balloon. Number Five died. Number Six refused to fly until 15 minutes after returning to the ground.
No matter what their luck, some balloonists kept coming back for more. After wrecking one balloon on his second flight and being dragged two miles over the ground on his fifth, James Sadler of England quit ballooning in 1785. But in 1811 he was back at it, riding a mile-a-minute wind with a Mr. Burcham of East Dereham aboard. At such speed landing was sheer terror. Sadler was thrown out of the balloon on the first impact, and so up and away again alone went Mr. Burcham for another terrible mile and a half until the balloon burst in an ash tree. The following year Sadler, understandably without poor Burcham this time, tried to cross the Irish Sea. For five hours the wind blew him in many wrong directions and he fell into the water where a herring boat rescued him by impaling his balloon on its bowsprit.
Luck and skill varied much from one man to another. Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who first crossed the English Channel after throwing over everything, including his pants, to keep from sinking into the sea, made 60 flights with no mishap of consequence until, on his last flight, he was seized by a fit in midair. In contrast, poor James Tytler of Edinburgh made seven attempts, on five attempts wrecked part or all of his balloon and never got higher than 500 feet. Tytler gave up ballooning and took up drinking in Salem, Mass.
Balloonophiles sadly note that since World War II ballooning has lost ground on several fronts. Since the stratosphere ascents of the Piccards and Army balloonists in the '30s, few men have gone up for science. Instrument balloons now do most of the work. Ballooning for sport also slacked off in the late '30s. At present only the Balloon Club of America is active in the United States. There is one French club, Les Aeronautes, presided over by the grand man of ballooning, Charles Dollfuss, whose fervor is such his skin bears tattoos of the first Montgolfier balloon and the first hydrogen balloon—though no one can understand why he had these tattoos put where he can sit on them but no one can see them. There is no longer an active club in England, and only a scattering of activity in other countries. It is a far cry from the big years when the James Gordon Bennett International Race was held annually. Competition in those races was stiff, and the winner was never sure he had won until the last rival had come out of the Canadian woods.
There have always been carnival balloonists around somewhere, but now even they are hard to come by in the United States. It is not like it once was when Monsieur Poitevin went up astride a pony named Blanche and the courts quashed his wife's plan to out-show him by going up as Europa on a bull. It took more and more each year to wow the crowds, and the carnival balloonists probably reached their peak early in this century when Professor Clarence Bonette used to go up hanging by his knees, explode bombs and finally emerge from behind a cascade of fireworks, hanging by false teeth from a red, white and blue parachute.