Explosive gases, useless children and a lot of hot air

I mentioned recently the 225-year anniversary of the first manned flight across the English Channel in 1785, following the first successful balloon ascents in 1783.

Plate showing first manned free-flight in a balloon, November 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Plate showing first manned free-flight in a balloon, November 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Some observers sceptically asked what use the new technology offered, failing to spot the opportunities it could afford. American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin scoffed at their short-sightedness, retorting, ‘what is the use of a new-born child?’

Ballooning hit eighteenth-century society with a bang, quickly becoming a fashionable spectator sport with men and women routinely risking their lives for the experience. A thriving market in balloon trinkets sprang up, with everything from fans to delftware bowls to delightful decorative snuffboxes depicting the birth of flight:

Ballooning scenes on a fan, c.1784 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scenes on a fan, c.1784 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scenes on bowl and plate, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scenes on bowl and plate, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scene on snuff box, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning scene on snuff box, late-eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is just a tiny selection from our collection of balloon memorabilia, some of which is on display in our Flight and Making the Modern World galleries. But it isn’t all about the past. Ballooning is still a thriving sport.

If you’re interested, the Royal Aeronautical Society is hosting a free public lecture on 10 February by Janet Folkes, a materials scientist who, with Ann Rich, broke the world female flying duration record last year, covering the 1,100km from Geneva to Madrid in 70 hours using a hydrogen balloon. An amazing achievement.

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