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February 6, 2010

Age of Wonder gems 4: Shelley & Walpole on Hot Air Balloons

by quaesitor

Yet more from Holmes’ Age of Wonder. This time the focus is the new-found fascination with flight, as provided by hot air balloons. For the first time human beings could escape the shackles of gravity and deliberately ‘fly’ – albeit in a rather clumsy and highly dangerous way. What struck me was the contrasting reactions from those who gawped from the fields below.

James Sadler floating above Oxford

On the one hand, balloons provoked a wild sense of possibility, with all the enlightenment fervour and ambition that entailed. Here’s the poet Shelley again, dreaming of abolition:

Perhaps Shelley put it best, when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1811, and had just witnessed another of Sadler’s balloon ascents one sparkling summer morning from Christchurch Meadows:

The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aerial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not yet mounted the rude raft… It would seem a mere toy, a feather, in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist. Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa? – Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate every slave forever. (p162)

And yet, as at every great technological advance, there is the dread of the malicious ends to which it might be used.

Surprisingly, balloons did not appeal to the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, though perhaps at sixty-six he was a little old for such perilous novelties. He thought balloons might be sinister [as he wrote in a letter of 1783]:

Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.

It was an ominous prophecy. (p135)

As ever, the rough with the smooth – and our forebears were all too aware of both… It is no surprise therefore that Holmes gave his book the subtitle: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.

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