I once followed an air balloon. It wasn’t hard to keep up with, and indeed I even got so close that I could read the name “Virgin” written on the red sign on the basket. It wasn’t hard at all, because it was driving along a curving A-road in England, quite secured to the ground, and I was in a car behind it.
As it drove along, I wondered if Richard Branson would ever use it to trick some small village into thinking aliens had landed or something. Balloons are fantastic things, quite out of the everyday they were once the the technological innovention of the century. Capable to some minds of doing anything. In modern times we ponder on the power of technology, of spy satellites and rockets and super weapons. In the past it was once pondered, half in jest perhaps, that Napoleon might send an armada of air balloons to invade Britain. The men (and women) who flew in them were not so far removed in their contemporaries eyes from how we view today’s astronauts.
They were called Aeronauts, contemporaries called them Ærostratists, most people called them insane. At a time when the speed of a ship and the speed of a horse were the fastest modes of transport around, a device as precarious as a basket connected to a balloon could propel a body vertically at speeds of 84mph.
Today a hot air ballon is a quaint thing to do on a more than adventurous holiday, or if you are wildly romantic, a place to propose to your girlfriend. Either way though it’s still considered a bit bonkers, but in the late 18th century it’s not overreaching to say that the first balloonists were essentially the first astronauts.
Apart from the upper atmosphere, there isn’t a physical barrier or wall between sky and space. Anyone interested in spaceflight therefore should be interested in Davies’ biography of one of the pioneers of flight. It’s quite apt indeed that this method of aeronautics should come into its own at around the same time as the first rockets were being adopted by the army.
Put the two endeavours of ballooning and rocketry together and you have the two elements necessary to open the way to Space. This is why stories like that of James Sadler resonate in the “Satellite Age”, not least because we get to see what an 18th century mind considered as space age technology.
Davies’ life of Sadler, the pioneering British Aeronaut, is a deeply researched biography that explores not only his glamorous and dangerous ascents, but his work in the field of arms manufacture, and his personal life, bringing this neglected man, who will easily become one of the most unusual people you’ll probably read about for a while, back into the spotlight and like all good biographies it puts a spotlight on the times in which he lived as well.
For those wishing to read something different, or those interested in flight and the wider history of the exploration of the upper atmosphere, you couldn’t do much better than picking this book up and learning about the King of all Balloons.