Reviews — From the January 2014 issue

Flights of Fancy

A history of ballooning

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Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, by Richard Holmes. Pantheon. 416 pages. $35.

Some years ago, when I lived in California, a colleague — a distinguished silver-haired English historian — got a surprise birthday present from his wife: a sunset hot-air-balloon trip. “It sets the perfect stage for your romantic escapade,” the balloon company’s advertising copy reads, recommending balloons as ideal platforms for marriage proposals as well as weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. “Your loved ones will thank you for the time of their lives!” Champagne and soft drinks are part of the package: $350 a couple for an hour in the air. For my colleague, what began as fantasy ended in farce. Caught in unfavorable winds, the balloon came down where it was not meant to. Dignity wounded, but not much else, the couple, their picnic basket, and the empty champagne bottles were decanted into the middle of a suburban boulevard, to hoots of derision from a small pack of adolescents.

Modern ballooning can be a mass spectacle too. Every year in October, hundreds of hot-air balloons launch into the blue skies above Albuquerque, New Mexico, and almost a million people come to watch. The special-shapes section of the event has had balloons in the form of a saguaro cactus, a Halloween pumpkin, a champagne bottle, a Pepsi can, SpongeBob, and Airabelle the Flying Cow with her Beautiful Udder (advertising a local dairy).

Apart from the occasional high-rise scientific experiment, sky-dive record attempt, and Richard Branson–sponsored transatlantic adventure, that’s pretty much what ballooning has become — the Ascent of Man as brief encounter with the lower atmosphere, as photo op, as advertisement, as intimate romantic gesture. But that’s not how it all started: in its late-eighteenth-century beginnings, ballooning was a Romantic gesture on the grandest of scales, and it takes one of the great historians and biographers of the Romantic era to retrieve what it once signified.

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teaches history of science at Harvard.

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