Wonderful Balloon Ascents/Part 1/Chapter 1
Balloons and Air Journeys.
THE CONQUEST OF THE SKIES.—1783.
The title of our introduction to aeronautics may appear ambitious to astronomers, and to those who know that the infinite space we call the heavens is for ever inaccessible to travellers from the earth; but it was not so considered by those who witnessed the ardent enthusiasm evoked at the ascension of the first balloon. No discovery, in the whole range of history, has elicited an equal degree of applause and admiration—never has the genius of man won a triumph which at first blush seemed more glorious. The mathematical and physical sciences had in aeronautics achieved apparently their greatest honours, and inaugurated a new era in the progress of knowledge. After having subjected the earth to their power; after having made the waves of the sea stoop in submission under the keels of their ships; after having caught the lightning of heaven and made it subservient to the ordinary purposes of life, the genius of man undertook to conquer the regions of the air. Imagination, intoxicated with past successes, could descry no limit to human power; the gates of the infinite seemed to be swinging back before man's advancing step, and the last was believed to be the greatest of his achievements.
In order to comprehend the frenzy of the enthusiasm which the first aeronautic triumphs called forth, it is necessary to recall the appearance of Montgolfier at Versailles, on the 19th of September, 1783, before Louis XVI, or of the earliest aeronauts at the Tuileries. Paris hailed the first of these men with the greatest acclaim, "and then, as now," says a French writer, "the voice of Paris gave the cue to France, and France to the world!" Nobles and artisans, scientific men and badauds, great and small, were moved with one universal impulse. In the streets the praises of the balloon were sung; in the libraries models of it abounded; and in the salons the one universal topic was the great "machine." In anticipation, the poet delighted himself with bird's-eye views of the scenery of strange countries; the prisoner mused on what might be a new way of escape; the physicist visited the laboratory in which the lightning and the meteors were manufactured; the geometrician beheld the plans of cities and the outlines of kingdoms; the general discovered the position of the enemy or rained shells on the besieged town; the police beheld a new mode in which to carry on the secret service; Hope heralded a new conquest from the domain of nature, and the historian registered a new chapter in the annals of human knowledge.
"Scientific discoveries in general," says Arago, "even those from which men expect the most advantage, like those of the compass and the steam-engine, were greeted at first with contempt, or at the best with indifference. Political events, and the fortunes of armies monopolised almost entirely the attention of the people. But to this rule there are two exceptions—the discoveries of America and of aerostatics, the advents of Columbus and of Montgolfier." It is not here our duty to inquire how it happened that the discoveries made by these two personages are classed together. Air-travelling may be as unproductive of actual good to society as "filling the belly with the east wind" is to the body, while every one knows something of the extent to which the discovery of Columbus has influenced the character, the civilisation, the destinies, in short, of the human race. We are speaking at present of the known and well-attested fact, that the discovery of America and the discovery of the method of traversing space by means of balloons—however they may differ in respect of results to man—rank equally in this, that of all other discoveries these two have attracted the greatest amount of attention, and given, in their respective eras, the greatest impulse to popular feeling. Let the reader recall the marks of enthusiasm which the discovery of the islands on the east coast of America excited in Andalusia, in Catalonia, in Aragon and Castile—let him read the narrative of the honours paid by town and village, not only to the hero of the enterprise, but even to his commonest sailors, and then let him search the records of the epoch for the degree of sensation produced by the discovery of aeronautics in France, which stands in the same relationship to this event as that in which Spain stands to the other. The processions of Seville and Barcelona are the exact prototypes of the fêtes of Lyons and Paris. In France, in 1783, as in Spain two centuries previously, the popular imagination was so greatly excited by the deeds performed, that it began to believe in possibilities of the most unlikely description. In Spain, the conquestadores and their followers believed that in a few days after they had landed on American soil, they would have gathered as much gold and precious stones, as were then possessed by the richest European Sovereigns. In France, each one following his own notions, made out for himself special benefits to flow from the discovery of balloons. Every discovery then appeared to be only the precursor of other and greater discoveries, and nothing after that time seemed to be impossible to him who attempted the conquest of the atmosphere. This idea clothed itself in every form. The young embraced it with enthusiasm, the old made it the subject of endless regrets. When one of the first aeronautic ascents was made, the old Maréchal Villeroi, an octogenarian and an invalid, was conducted to one of the windows of the Tuileries, almost by force, for he did not believe in balloons. The balloon, meanwhile, detached itself from its moorings; the physician Charles, seated in the car, gaily saluted the public, and was then majestically launched into space in his air-boat; and at once the old maréchal, beholding this, passed suddenly from unbelief to perfect faith in aerostatics and in the capacity of the human mind, fell on his knees, and, with his eyes bathed in tears, moaned out pitifully the words, "Yes, it is fixed! It is certain! They will find out the secret of avoiding death; but it will be after I am gone!"
If we recall the impressions which the first air-journeys made, we shall find that, among people of enthusiastic temperament, it was believed that it was not merely the blue sky above us, not merely the terrestrial atmosphere, but the vast spaces through which the worlds move, that were to become the domain of man—the sea of the balloon. The moon, the mysterious dwelling-place of men unknown, would no longer be an inaccessible place. Space no longer contained regions which man could not cross! Indeed, certain expeditions attempted the crossing of the heavens, and brought back news of the moon. The planets that revolve round the sun, the far-flying comets, the most distant stars—these formed the field which from that time was to lie open to the investigations of man.
This enthusiasm one can well enough understand. There is in the simple fact of an aerial ascent something so bold and so astonishing, that the human spirit cannot fail to be profoundly stirred by it. And if this is the feeling of men at the present day, when, after having been witnesses of ascents for the last eighty years, they see men confiding themselves in a swinging car into the immensities of space, what must have been the astonishment of those who, for the first time since the commencement of the world, beheld one of their fellow-creatures rolling in space, without any other assurance of safety than what his still dim perception of the laws of nature gave him?
Why should we be obliged here to state that the great discovery that stirred the spirits of men from the one end of Europe to the other, and gave rise to hopes of such vast discoveries, should have failed in realising the expectations which seemed so clearly justified by the first experiments? It is now eighty-six years since the first aerial journey astonished the world, and yet, in 1870, we are but little more advanced in the science than we were in 1783. Our age is the most renowned for its discoveries of any that the world has seen. Man is borne over the surface of the earth by steam; he is as familiar as the fish with the liquid element; he transmits his words instantaneously from London to New York; he draws pictures without pencil or brush, and has made the sun his slave. The air alone remains to him unsubdued. The proper management of balloons has not yet been discovered. More than that, it appears that balloons are unmanageable, and it is to air-vessels, constructed more nearly upon the model of birds, that we must go to find out the secret of aerial navigation. At present, as in former times, we are at the mercy of balloons—globes lighter than the air, and therefore the sport and the prey of tempests and currents. And aeronauts, instead of showing themselves now as the benefactors of mankind, exhibit themselves mainly to gratify a frivolous curiosity, or to crown with éclat a public fête.