The sky's no limit in Richard Holmes' 'Falling Upwards'

Hot air balloons soar over Balloon Fiesta Park

Hot air balloons soar over Balloon Fiesta Park during the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. (Oct. 4, 2008) (Credit: Getty Christian Petersen)

FALLING UPWARDS: How We Took to the Air, by Richard Holmes. Pantheon, 404 pp., $35.

"Show me a balloon and I'll show you a story; quite often a tall one," Richard Holmes tells us in "Falling Upwards." He's not stretching the truth. Balloon voyages have been the stuff of fantastic tales -- Edgar Allan Poe once concocted an outlandish story, passed off as reportage, of a trans-Atlantic balloon crossing. And Jules Verne whipped up "Five Weeks in a Balloon," about an epic flight across Africa; replete with detail and statistics galore, it strikes a realistic note.

The real-life exploits Holmes recounts in his new book are almost as outrageous. From ballooning's very first days in late 18th century France, to Victorian England, where showoffs and scientists variously dazzled crowds and explored the skies, Holmes buoyantly charts the many uses of ballooning in the 19th century.

Holmes' extraordinary previous book, "The Age of Wonder," looked at science during the Romantic Age in England. "Falling Upwards" is a natural sequel. "Balloons contributed to the sciences and the arts that first suggested that we are all guests aboard a unified, living world," Holmes writes. "The nature of the upper air, the forecasting of weather, the evolutions of geology, the development of international communications, the power of propaganda, the creations of science fiction, even the development of extra-terrestrial travel itself, are an integral part of balloon history."

Holmes is a charming and impassioned guide. If he describes some silly adventures -- we get many balloons blown hither and yon -- his prose often reaches a moving pitch. And what a cast of characters! Ballooning was by and large a boys' club; but women made their mark, too. In post-revolutionary France, Sophie Blanchard was famed for her flights in a silver gondola carried by a silk balloon. She wore white bonnets festooned with plumage to increase her visibility; she even launched fireworks from her rig.

The French prided themselves on their accomplishments, but the English were not far behind. Impresario Charles Green earned fame for his 526 ascents and "absolute sang-froid in emergency." He made a successful night flight from London to the Continent in November 1836. A promotional stunt for Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Green's mission, in the 80-foot-high coal-gas Royal Vauxhall -- which was filled with booze, beef and other savory delights -- took him far into snowy northern Germany, some 480 miles. Americans got in on the act, too: In 1859, John Wise, intent on establishing an aerial mail route, lifted off from St. Louis for New York and was blown into Lake Ontario. Wise and his crew survived, setting a distance record -- 809 miles -- that would stand until 1910.

If the variables of weather and wind diminished the balloon's potential as reliable transportation, these inflatable vessels proved valuable in other ways. In the 1860s, English scientist James Glaisher and his partner, Henry Coxwell, ascended to the lung-shattering height of nearly 30,000 feet (higher than Everest), all the while taking careful readings of air temperature and barometric pressure as they fended off asphyxia and frostbite. During the Franco-Prussian war, when the Germans laid siege to Paris, balloons proved their worth as morale booster and message carrier when Félix Nadar's Number One Company of Balloonists conveyed thousands of letters across France. Proclaimed Victor Hugo, "By means of a simple balloon, a mere bubble of air, Paris is back in communication with the rest of the world!"

There are such elements of delight on nearly every page. But Holmes closes on a somber note as he details perhaps the most reckless, extravagant venture of them all: Salomon Andree's ill-fated 1896 attempt to fly to the North Pole. The Swede was a technological genius -- his vessel, the Eagle, "was intended as the last word in aeronautical engineering." But hubris undid Andree, who, Holmes suggests, became a kind of Icarus of the ice. Dogged by mishaps, the Eagle went down on an ice floe. The crew lived, but a grim struggle to survive unfolded.

The balloon age had more or less ended and the era of the airplane was dawning. Today, ballooning is a mostly a recreational pursuit. But more ambitious dreams still beckon some, like the France-bound fellow who took off from Maine last month floating beneath 370 helium-filled balloons. Like so many of the characters in "Falling Upwards," he didn't make it, either.

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