1783 | London

Trial Balloon

“Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody.”

Do not wonder that we do not entirely attend to things of earth: fashion has ascended to a higher element.

All our views are directed to the air. Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody. France gave us the ton; and as yet we have not come up to our model. Their monarch is so struck with the heroism of two of his subjects who adventured their persons in two of these new floating batteries that he has ordered statues of them and contributed a vast sum toward their marble immortality. All this may be very important: to me it looks somewhat foolish. Very early in my life, I remember this town at gaze on a man who flew down a rope from the top of St. Martin’s steeple; now, late in my day, people are staring at a voyage to the moon. The former Icarus broke his neck at a subsequent flight; when a similar accident happens to modern knights-errant, adieu to air balloons. 

Apropos, I doubt these new kites have put young Astley’s nose out of joint, who went to Paris lately under their queen’s protection and expected to be prime minister, though he only ventured his neck by dancing a minuet on three horses at full gallop, and really in that attitude has as much grace as the Apollo Belvedere. When the arts are brought to such perfection in Europe, who would go, like Sir Joseph Banks, in search of islands in the Atlantic, where the natives in six thousand years have not improved the science of carving fishing hooks out of bones or flints! Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and the 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 result 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.


Horace Walpole

From a letter to Horace Mann. In 1782 the Montgolfier brothers found that heated air trapped in lightweight material caused it to rise; they demonstrated the finding in June 1783. That November the Marquis d’Arlandes and the physicist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier flew over Paris in the first untethered hot-air balloon trip, inaugurating the era of human flight. “We think of nothing here at present but flying,” wrote Benjamin Franklin from Paris that December. “The balloons engross all conversation.” Walpole saw it all as a passing craze.