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   Chapter 3 THE FIRST BALLOON ASCENT IN ENGLAND.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 19270

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


As may be supposed, it was not long before the balloon was introduced into England. Indeed, the first successful ascent on record made in our own country took place in the summer of 1784, ten months previous to the fatal venture narrated at the close of the last chapter. Now, it is a remarkable and equally regrettable circumstance that though the first ascent on British soil was undoubtedly made by one of our own countrymen, the fact is almost universally forgotten, or ignored, and the credit is accorded to a foreigner.

Let us in strict honesty examine into the case. Vincent Lunardi, an Italian, Secretary to the Neapolitan Ambassador, Prince Caramanico, being in England in the year 1784, determined on organising and personally executing an ascent from London; and his splendid enterprise, which was presently carried to a successful issue, will form the principal subject of the present chapter. It will be seen that remarkable success crowned his efforts, and that his first and ever memorable voyage was carried through on September 15th of that year.

More than a month previously, however, attention had been called to the fact that a Mr. Tytler was preparing to make an ascent from Edinburgh in a hot air balloon, and in the London Chronicle of August 27th occurs the following circumstantial and remarkable letter from a correspondent to that journal:

"Edinburgh, Aug. 27, 1784.

"Mr. Tytler has made several improvements upon his fire balloon. The reason of its failure formerly was its being made of porous linen, through which the air made its escape. To remedy this defect, Mr. Tytler has got it covered with a varnish to retain the inflammable air after the balloon is filled.

"Early this morning this bold adventurer took his first aerial flight. The balloon being filled at Comely Garden, he seated himself in the basket, and the ropes being cut he ascended very high and descended quite gradually on the road to Restalrig, about half a mile from the place where he rose, to the great satisfaction of those spectators who were present. Mr. Tytler went up without the furnace this morning; when that is added he will be able to feed the balloon with inflammable air, and continue his aerial excursions as long as he chooses.

"Mr. Tytler is now in high spirits, and in his turn laughs at those infidels who ridiculed his scheme as visionary and impracticable. Mr. Tytler is the first person in Great Britain who has navigated the air."

Referring to this exploit, Tytler, in a laudatory epistle addressed to Lunardi, tells of the difficulties he had had to contend with, and artlessly reveals the cool, confident courage he must have displayed. No shelter being available for the inflation, and a strong wind blowing, his first misfortune was the setting fire to his wicker gallery. The next was the capsizing and damaging of his balloon, which he had lined with paper. He now substituted a coat of varnish for the paper, and his gallery being destroyed, so that he could no longer attempt to take up a stove, he resolved to ascend without one. In the end the balloon was successfully inflated, when he had the hardihood to entrust himself to a small basket (used for carrying earthenware) slung below, and thus to launch himself into the sky. He did so under the conviction that the risk he ran was greater than it really was, for he argued that his craft was now only like a projectile, and "must undoubtedly come to the ground with the same velocity with which it ascended." On this occasion the crowd tried for some time to hold him near the ground by one of the restraining ropes, so that his flight was curtailed. In a second experiment, however, he succeeded in rising some hundreds of feet, and came to earth without mishap.

But little further information respecting Mr. Tytler is apparently forthcoming, and therefore beyond recording the fact that he was the first British aeronaut, and also that he was the first to achieve a balloon ascent in Great Britain, we are unable to make further mention of him in this history.

Of his illustrious contemporary already mentioned there is, on the contrary, much to record, and we would desire to give full credit to his admirable courage and perseverance. It was with a certain national and pardonable pride that the young Italian planned his bold exploit, feeling with a sense of self-satisfaction, which he is at no pains to hide, that he aimed at winning honour for his country as well as for himself. In a letter which he wrote to his guardian, Chevalier Gherardo Compagni, he alludes to the stolid indifference of the English people and philosophers to the brilliant achievements in aeronautics which had been made and so much belauded on the Continent. He proclaims the rivalry as regards science and art existing between France and England, attributing to the latter an attitude of sullen jealousy. At the same time he is fully alive to the necessity of gaining English patronage, and sets about securing this with tactful diplomacy. First he casts about for a suitable spot where his enterprise would not fail to enlist general attention and perhaps powerful patrons, and here he is struck by the attractions and facilities offered by Chelsea Hospital. He therefore applies to Sir George Howard, the Governor, asking for the use of the famous hospital, to which, on the occasion of his experiments, he desires that admittance should only be granted to subscribers, while any profits should be devoted to the pensioners of the hospital. His application having been granted, he assures his guardian that he "still maintains his mental balance, and his sleep is not banished by the magnitude of his enterprise, which is destined to lead him through the path of danger to glory."

This letter was dated the 15th of July, and by the beginning of August his advertisement was already before the public, inviting subscribers and announcing a private view of his balloon at the Lyceum, where it was in course of construction, and was being fitted with contrivances of his own in the shape of oars and sails. He had by this time not only enlisted the interest of Sir George Howard, and of Sir Joseph Banks, but had secured the direct patronage of the King.

But within a fortnight a most unforeseen mishap had occurred, which threatened to overwhelm Lunardi in disappointment and ruin. A Frenchman of the name of Moret, designing to turn to his own advertisement the attention attracted by Lunardi's approaching trials, attempted to forestall the event by an enterprise of his own, announcing that he would make an ascent with a hot air balloon in some gardens near Chelsea Hospital, and at a date previous to that fixed upon by Lunardi. In attempting, however, to carry out this unworthy project the adventurer met with the discomfiture he deserved. He failed to effect his inflation, and when after fruitless attempts continued for three hours, his balloon refused to rise, a large crowd, estimated at 60,000, assembled outside, broke into the enclosure, committing havoc on all sides, not unattended with acts of violence and robbery.

The whole neighbourhood became alarmed, and it followed as a matter of course that Lunardi was peremptorily ordered to discontinue his preparations, and to announce in the public press that his ascent from Chelsea Hospital was forbidden. Failure and ruin now stared the young enthusiast in the face, and it was simply the generous feeling of the British public, and the desire to see fair play, that gave him another chance. As it was, he became the hero of the hour; thousands flocked to the show rooms at the Lyceum, and he shortly obtained fresh grounds, together with needful protection for his project, at the hands of the Hon. Artillery Company. By the 15th of September all incidental difficulties, the mere enumeration of which would unduly swell these pages, had been overcome by sheer persistence, and Lunardi stood in the enclosure allotted him, his preparations in due order, with 150,000 souls, who had formed for hours a dense mass of spectators, watching intently and now confidently the issue of his bold endeavour.

But his anxieties were as yet far from over, for a London crowd had never yet witnessed a balloon ascent, while but a month ago they had seen and wreaked their wrath upon the failure of an adventurer. They were not likely to be more tolerant now. And when the advertised hour for departure had arrived, and the balloon remained inadequately inflated, matters began to take a more serious turn. Half an hour later they approached a crisis, when it began to be known that the balloon still lacked buoyancy, and that the supply of gas was manifestly insufficient. The impatience of the mob indeed was kept in restraint by one man alone. This man was the Prince of Wales who, refusing to join the company within the building and careless of the attitude of the crowd, remained near the balloon to check disorder and unfair treatment.

But an hour after time the balloon still rested inert and then, with fine resolution, Lunardi tried one last expedient. He bade his colleague, Mr. Biggen, who was to have ascended with him, remain behind, and quietly substituting a smaller and lighter wicker car, or rather gallery, took his place within and severed the cords just as the last gun fired. The Prince of Wales raised his hat, imitated at once by all the bystanders, and the first balloon that ever quitted English soil rose into the air amid the extravagant enthusiasm of the multitude. The intrepid aeronaut, pardonably excited, and fearful lest he should not

be seen within the gallery, made frantic efforts to attract attention by waving his flag, and worked his oars so vigorously that one of them broke and fell. A pigeon also gained its freedom and escaped. The voyager, however, still retained companions in his venture-a dog and a cat.

Following his own account, Lunardi's first act on finding himself fairly above the town was to fortify himself with some glasses of wine, and to devour the leg of a chicken. He describes the city as a vast beehive, St. Paul's and other churches standing out prominently; the streets shrunk to lines, and all humanity apparently transfixed and watching him. A little later he is equally struck with the view of the open country, and his ecstasy is pardonable in a novice. The verdant pastures eclipsed the visions of his own lands. The precision of boundaries impressed him with a sense of law and order, and of good administration in the country where he was a sojourner.

By this time he found his balloon, which had been only two-thirds full at starting, to be so distended that he was obliged to untie the mouth to release the strain. He also found that the condensed moisture round the neck had frozen. These two statements point to his having reached a considerable altitude, which is intelligible enough. It is, however, difficult to believe his further assertion that by the use of his single oar he succeeded in working himself down to within a few hundred feet of the earth. The descent of the balloon must, in point of fact, have been due to a copious outrush of gas at his former altitude. Had his oar really been effective in working the balloon down it would not have needed the discharge of ballast presently spoken of to cause it to reascend. Anyhow, he found himself sufficiently near the earth to land a passenger who was anxious to get out. His cat had not been comfortable in the cold upper regions, and now at its urgent appeal was deposited in a corn field, which was the point of first contact with the earth. It was carefully received by a country-woman, who promptly sold it to a gentleman on the other side of the hedge, who had been pursuing the balloon.

The first ascent of a balloon in England was deserving of some record, and an account alike circumstantial and picturesque is forthcoming. The novel and astonishing sight was witnessed by a Hertfordshire farmer, whose testimony, published by Lunardi in the same year, runs as follows:-

This deponent on his oath sayeth that, being on Wednesday, the 15th day of September instant, between the hours of three and four in the afternoon, in a certain field called Etna, in the parish of North Mimms aforesaid, he perceived a large machine sailing in the air, near the place where he was on horseback; that the machine continuing to approach the earth, the part of it in which this deponent perceived a gentleman standing came to the ground and dragged a short way on the ground in a slanting direction; that the time when this machine thus touched the earth was, as near as this deponent could judge, about a quarter before four in the afternoon. That this deponent being on horseback, and his horse restive, he could not approach nearer to the machine than about four poles, but that he could plainly perceive therein gentleman dressed in light coloured cloaths, holding in his hand a trumpet, which had the appearance of silver or bright tin. That by this time several harvest men coming up from the other part of the field, to the number of twelve men and thirteen women, this deponent called to them to endeavour to stop the machine, which the men attempted, but the gentleman in the machine desiring them to desist, and the machine moving with considerable rapidity, and clearing the earth, went off in a north direction and continued in sight at a very great height for near an hour afterwards. And this deponent further saith that the part of the machine in the which the gentleman stood did not actually touch the ground for more than half a minute, during which time the gentleman threw out a parcel of what appeared to this deponent as dry sand. That after the machine had ascended again from the earth this deponent perceived a grapple with four hooks, which hung from the bottom of the machine, dragging along the ground, which carried up with it into the air a small parcel of loose oats, which the women were raking in the field. And this deponent further on his oath sayeth that when the machine had risen clear from the ground about twenty yards the gentleman spoke to this deponent and to the rest of the people with his trumpet, wishing them goodbye and saying that he should soon go out of sight. And this deponent further on his oath sayeth that the machine in which the gentleman came down to earth appeared to consist of two distinct parts connected together by ropes, namely that in which the gentleman appeared to be, a stage boarded at the bottom, and covered with netting and ropes on the sides about four feet and a half high, and the other part of the machine appeared in the shape of an urn, about thirty feet high and of about the same diameter, made of canvas like oil skin, with green, red, and yellow stripes.

NATHANIEL WHITBREAD.

Sworn before me this twentieth day of September, 1784, WILLIAM BAKER.

It was a curious fact, pointed out to the brave Italian by a resident, that the field in which the temporary descent had been made was called indifferently Etna or Italy, "from the circumstance which attended the late enclosure of a large quantity of roots, rubbish, etc., having been collected there, and having continued burning for many days. The common people having heard of a burning mountain in Italy gave the field that name."

But the voyage did not end at Etna. The, as yet, inexperienced aeronaut now cast out all available ballast in the shape of sand, as also his provisions, and rising with great speed, soon reached a greater altitude than before, which he sought to still farther increase by throwing down his plates, knives, and forks. In this somewhat reckless expenditure he thought himself justified by the reliance he placed on his oar, and it is not surprising that in the end he owns that he owed his safety in his final descent to his good fortune. The narrative condensed concludes thus:-

"At twenty minutes past four I descended in a meadow near Ware. Some labourers were at work in it. I requested their assistance, but they exclaimed they would have nothing to do with one who came on the Devil's Horse, and no entreaties could prevail on them to approach me. I at last owed my deliverance to a young woman in the field who took hold of a cord I had thrown out, and, calling to the men, they yielded that assistance at her request which they had refused to mine."

As may be supposed, Lunardi's return to London resembled a royal progress. Indeed, he was welcomed as a conqueror to whom the whole town sought to do honour, and perhaps his greatest gratification came by way of the accounts he gathered of incidents which occurred during his eventful voyage. At a dinner at which he was being entertained by the Lord Mayor and judges he learned that a lady seeing his falling oar, and fancying that he himself was dashed to pieces, received a shock thereby which caused her death. Commenting on this, one of the judges bade him be reassured, inasmuch as he had, as if by compensation, saved the life of a young man who might live to be reformed. The young man was a criminal whose condemnation was regarded as certain at the hands of the jury before whom he was being arraigned, when tidings reached the court that Lunardi's balloon was in the air. On this so much confusion arose that the jury were unable to give due deliberation to the case, and, fearing to miss the great sight, actually agreed to acquit the prisoner, that they themselves might be free to leave the court!

But he was flattered by a compliment of a yet higher order. He was told that while he hovered over London the King was in conference with his principal Ministers, and his Majesty, learning that he was in the sky, is reported to have said to his councillors, "We may resume our own deliberations at pleasure, but we may never see poor Lunardi again!" On this, it is further stated that the conference broke up, and the King, attended by Mr. Pitt and other chief officers of State, continued to view Lunardi through telescopes as long as he remained in the horizon.

The public Press, notably the Morning Post of September 16, paid a worthy tribute to the hero of the hour, and one last act of an exceptional character was carried out in his honour, and remains in evidence to this hour. In a meadow in the parish of Standon, near Ware, there stands a rough hewn stone, now protected by an iron rail. It marks the spot where Lunardi landed, and on it is cut a legend which runs thus:

Let Posterity know

And knowing be astonished

that

On the 15th day of September 1784

Vincent Lunardi of Lusca in Tuscany

The first aerial traveller in Britain

Mounting from the Artillery Ground

In London

And Traversing the Regions of the Air

For Two Hours and Fifteen Minutes

In this Spot Revisited the Earth.

On this rude monument

For ages be recorded

That Wondrous Enterprise

Successfully atchieved

By the Powers of Chemistry

And the Fortitude of Man

That Improvement in Science

Which

The Great Author of all Knowledge

Patronyzing by His Providence

The Invention of Mankind

Hath graciously permitted

To Their Benefit

And

His own Eternal Glory.

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