19th century ballooning
19th CENTURY BALLOONING
When starting to research this project over twenty years ago, it would be fair to say that the last thing I had in mind was the importance that ballooning would have in our aviation heritage. I had no idea, but, as the years went by it became increasingly obvious that the UK, and England especially, really did have an extraordinary heritage.
The first balloon flights in the UK were by James Tytler from COMELY GARDENS in Edinburgh during August in 1784. Not long after the first balloon flights in France. From then on for several years the main thrust came from hot-air balloons, but it was already realised that having a gas envelope was a much better idea. The problem being that the supply of hydrogen was very limited and expensive.
But then, due to the industrial revolution taking place in the UK, coal gas was being produced initially to provide lighting to the main streets, town squares and the houses of the wealthly. Although nowhere near as effecient as hydrogen as a lifting 'agent', it became both plentiful and much cheaper. 'Plentiful' being a relative term.
Charles Green was perhaps the first to exploit this (?), and others followed. But first it needs to be explained how sensational a balloon launch was in those days. Virtually nobody had seen a human being in the sky! Any town deciding to host a balloon launch was, in effect, having their own 'Cape Canaveral' moon launch. Many thousands turned up and it was a major money making event for the town or city.
Also, a gas main had to be laid on.
As can be imagined, it took quite a bit of planning in advance. Generally speaking, as far I as can ascertain, a balloon launch would be proposed after a gas-works became available. These were usually quite small and had limited excess capacity. It appears that it sometimes took three to four days to inflate the balloon. The next problem was to restrict entry to the launch site to maximise revenue on the day.
A large castle was ideal, but in many cases a large arena was constructed. In many cases people could pay to talk to the aeronaut, and inspect his barometric instruments whilst the balloon was being inflated, out of sight of the general public.
And then came the day of the launch. In many cases the aeronaut risked his life taking off in much higher winds than planned, simply because this offered better chances of survival than being lynched by the mob, most of which had walked many miles to see this spectacle. Even if they couldn't afford entry to the actual launch site.
By the turn of the twentieth century, ballooning had become a most fashionable event - in south west London at least. See my listings for the RANELAGH CLUB and HURLINGHAM CLUB.