By Jason Pearl
Flight was invented not by the Wright brothers in the early twentieth century but by the Montgolfiers, also brothers, in the late eighteenth. Over a hundred years of ballooning—for show, for fun, for war, for science—precede the advent of steerable, heavier-than-air aircraft. Now, a new movie brings this history to life.
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts tells the story of the first ascent to the stratosphere, a revolutionary achievement in both the science of weather and the technology of mobility and transportation. The film portrays three figures in the early history of ballooning: James Glaisher, a scientist, and one of the founders of modern meteorology; Sophie Blanchard, an aerial performer, and the first woman to work as a professional balloonist; and Margaret Graham, another entertainer, who was the first British woman to fly solo. Harper omits a great deal and invents backstories and personalities to fill out a feature-length film. Notably, he switches Glaisher’s pilot, Henry Coxwell, with the fictional “Amelia Rennes,” an amalgam of Blanchard and Graham. And yet the movie is true to the experience itself, capturing at once the rapture and terror of floating among the clouds. The result is a film that says a lot about aeronautics but little about the aeronauts in question.
In the film, Glaisher is a young bachelor played by Eddy Redmayne; in fact, he was 53 years old, had a large family, and was Secretary of the Royal Meteorological Society. Obsessed with the science of weather, he wanted to study the sky at different levels and, most important, to discover the limit at which animal life was no longer sustainable. On September 5, 1862, he found that limit and learned, the hard way, just how cold and thin the air gets seven miles up—cruising altitude for today’s commercial airplanes. Suffering what we now call hypobaric hypoxia, Glaisher lost the use of his arms first, then his legs, then his mouth and even his eyes, falling unconscious in a corner of the basket. Meanwhile, Coxwell climbed up the rigging to untangle a rope and, finding his hands frozen and immobile, had to pull the valve line with his teeth to lower them to safety. Harper must have doubted Glaisher’s motives, finding them more suitable to a young man looking for recognition. The real Glaisher was at once more boring and more baffling: a stolid man of science, he needed nothing but risked everything simply to continue his work. Too old to climb mountains, he rose in a balloon to study the upper atmosphere.
Glaisher recounted his flights in Travels in the Air (1871), a mostly scientific treatise accented with vivid descriptions. At one point, he writes that “a flood of strong sunlight burst upon us with a beautiful blue sky . . . and beneath . . . lay a magnificent sea of clouds, its surface varied with endless hills, hillocks, and mountain chains, and with many snow-white tufts rising from it.” At night, he looked down and reflected on “the plan-like appearance of London and its suburbs; the map-like appearance of the country generally” (79). His purpose, though, was to convey not the pleasure but the usefulness of ballooning and to prove that aerostation, with assiduous data collection, could help us understand the weather—and perhaps predict it. Of course, he was right about the potential of ballooning: the science of meteorology was forever changed, and even today we use weather balloons to study the atmosphere. Glaisher is now credited as a pioneer of modern forecasting.
For performers such as Blanchard, the balloon was a means of drawing and amusing an audience. The real-life aeronaut was timid and birdlike, afraid of crowds and loud noises, and thus very different from the boisterous character played by Felicity Jones. It is said that Blanchard, uncomfortable on the ground, was more at ease in the air, sometimes ascending on a still night and sleeping up there until dawn. She wore elaborate outfits and rode a tiny gondola-shaped car, launching rockets and dropping fireworks on parachutes above the Tivoli and Luxembourg Gardens. At the time, it was still a novelty, almost a scandal, for a woman to pilot a balloon. Nonetheless, Blanchard was appointed by Napoleon Aéronaute des Fêtes Officielles and, according to rumor, put in charge of a secret mission to invade England by air—ultimately impossible due to the westerly winds over France. Indeed, balloons were powerful symbolically but mostly powerless on the battlefield. They were dangerous to fly, and Blanchard died on July 6, 1819, aged 41, when the fabric above her, inflated with hydrogen, was ignited by fireworks about 500 feet up and caused her to collide with a roof and tumble violently onto the stone street below. In the film, Rennes is a widow, just as Blanchard was, but Harper pairs her with Glaisher and stops just short of making their relationship romantic. It’s as if the movie needs love to explain the acceptance of risk, whereas Blanchard herself seems to have liked flying solo.
Graham, the other half of Rennes, was a performer, as well, one of the most well-known aeronauts in England, or at least the most accident-prone. She gave rides to passengers such as the “mad” Duke of Brunswick, who, she claims, jumped out of the basket before it landed, causing the balloon to shoot up rapidly so that she lost her balance and fell from a great height. Pregnant with her eighth child, she miscarried soon after. For the coronation of Queen Victoria, Graham ascended over a massive crowd in London, and all was well until the balloon descended unexpectedly, compelling her to drop the grapnel, which dislodged a stone from a building that killed a pedestrian below. In a celebration of the Great Exhibition, her balloon failed to lift and almost hit the Crystal Palace before smashing every building in its path and depositing the passengers, unconscious and with several broken bones, on a rooftop. Still Graham continued with a courage at once impressive and almost ludicrous, surviving every fiasco and dying old in her bed. It seems she was impervious to doubt and sorrow, nothing like Rennes in the movie, who must be coaxed and cajoled to pilot another mission. Whereas Rennes is traumatized, Graham was undaunted. She had a large family, and ballooning is how she supported it.
The history of aerostation is thus a mixture of success and disaster, and so it remains, inasmuch as the mechanics are mostly the same. Even now, balloons can’t be steered; they’re totally dependent on the elements. Harper’s film paints a picture of triumph, and indeed the science of weather owes much to ballooning, but Glaisher himself wrote that “the Balloon should be received only as the first principle of some aerial instrument which remains to be suggested” (1). With the invention of the airplane, balloons, once regarded as the culmination of Enlightenment science, even the Scientific Revolution itself, were now seen as eccentric, whimsical playthings.
And yet the balloon, as an object, is good to think with. We live in a time of technological narcissism, when the discoveries of the past are portrayed as quaint anecdotes, mere preliminaries to the achievements of the present. The first aeronauts learned valuable lessons: the human body is small and fragile; the world around us is wonderful and dangerous. It’s the achievement of The Aeronauts to remind us of these lessons. Air travel today entails a presumption of safety, despite the occasional high-profile catastrophe. We complain about the seats and snacks and barely look out the window, which divides us from the sky as a movie screen divides us from fantasy. In contrast, Glaisher, Blanchard, and Graham regarded the atmosphere with respect and humility, in awe of its power and mystery. Whatever their courage, they flew with, not against, the air around them, understanding, as we’ve forgotten, its power of life and death.
Jason Pearl is an associate professor of English at Florida International University. He is author of Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel, and book reviews editor at Digital Defoe. His current project is about ballooning and literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. You can find him on Twitter at @jasoninmia.
Holmes, Richard. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Pantheon, 2013.
Kim, Mi Gyung. The Imagined Empire: Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.
Tucker, Jennifer. “Voyages of Discovery on Oceans of Air: Scientific Observation and the Image of Science in the Age of ‘Balloonacy,’” Osirus, vol. 11 (1996): 144-76.
Wright, Sharon. Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky. Pen and Sword, 2018.
 Glaisher, Camille Flammarion, Wilfrid de Fonvielle, and Gaston Tissandier, Travels in the Air, ed. Glaisher (London: Richard Bentley, 1871), 50.
 See Sharon Wright, Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), 58.