'Philosophical Playthings': The Spectacle of Air-Balloons

Few cultural phenomena captured the popular imagination of late eighteenth-century Britain more intensely than the rage for air ballooning, or the “balloonomania” as critics sometimes called it. “The term balloon is not only in the mouth of every one, but all our world seems to be in the clouds,” declared a 1785 book titled London Unmask’d (137). The excitement had begun in France when the Montgolfier brothers launched the first human flight in front of the Royal Family and 100,000 spectators, on October 15, 1783. The first flight in England, by Vincento Lunardi the following September, attracted an estimated 150,000 spectators. The Morning Post reported that “St. Paul’s Cathedral took the advantage of Lunardi’s Balloon excursion, by raising the price, which used to be only twopence for going to the top, to two shillings, and both the galleries had a great number of spectators, many of whom in the stone gallery fell down the recesses and broke their shins, as they were walking round and gazing at the Balloon” (Sept. 23, 1784).

Ballooning’s ability to draw such huge audiences was doubled by its radical heterogeneity as a form of visual culture, from the legimate ascents of serious aeronauts, as they were called, to the more dubious efforts of opportunistic showmen such as Mr. Uncles, who proposed to ascend in a balloon that would be steered by four trained eagles in front of a paying audience at Ranelagh, to various forms of lavish indoor displays. Betsy Sheridan dutifully waited in line to see Lunardi’s famous balloon at the Pantheon during a trip to London the month after his ascent. There she saw it “suspended to the Top of the Dome,” carrying “Lunardi, and his poor fellow travelers the Dog and Cat” who had accompanied him and “who still remained in the Gallery to receive the visits of the curious” (24). These sorts of relatively straightforward exhibits, in which spectators were invited to witness firsthand the balloon and the travellers it had carried, were doubled by other displays that had more to do with fashionable sociability than anything that could be aligned with science. A masquerade at the Pantheon three months later was “elegantly illuminated and embellished with the appendage of Lunardi’s balloon” (MP February 9, 1785). Yet another masquerade four months after that  combined decorations “representing the Grand Saloon of the Doge of Venice, decorated and ornamented in the most elegant taste” with “the BALLOON, [which] will likewise be suspended, with the Gallery and the whole of the apparatus” (MP June 6, 1785).

This spectatorial appeal carried over into an equally strong fascination with the representation of ballooning across a range of genres, from watercolour paintings that captured the grandeur of these flights, to heroic portraits of the areonauts themselves, to endless satirical prints that either focussed on ballooning directly or incorporated references to ballooning as part of their ironic account of other social issues. A series of at least twelve watercolour paintings by George Woodward, several of which depicted Lunardi’s various ascents, conveyed the visual magnificence as well as the heroic aura of the early flights, but predictably, the satirical sketches emphasized ballooning’s immersion within the perceived excesses and distractions of commerce and fashion. Running through all of this was a widely shared sense that ballooning’s appeal reflected the paradoxes that characterized people’s more fundamental experience of modernity. Lavishly decorated but hollow, bouyant but rudderless, an emblem of the Enlightenment’s thirst for knowledge and a focus for the worst excesses of consumerism, balloons circulated as an emblem of the most deeply rooted tensions of the age.  Horace Walpole’s sarcastic description of them as “philosophical playthings” evoked this sense of ambivalence perfectly, but as Walpole also recognized, this did little do diminish the strength of ballooning’s extraordinary appeal within the world of Romantic visual culture.

General Bibliography

Primary Materials

The Adventures of an Air Balloon, Wherein Are Delineated Many Distinguished Characters, Male and Female. 5th ed. London: Printed for H. Hogge.

The Aerial Voyage: A Poem, Inscribed to Richard Crosbie, Esq. Dublin: R. Marchbank, 1785.

The Air Balloon, A New Song.

The Air Balloon: Or a Treatise on The Aerostatic Globe, Lately Invented by the Celebrated Baldwin, Thomas. Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the Eighth of September, 1785. London: Printed for the author by J. Fletcher; and sold by W. Lowndes; J. Poole, Chester; and other booksellers, 1786.

The Balloon, or Aerostatic Spy, a Novel Containing a Series of Adventures of an Aerial Traveller. London: W. Lane, 1786.

The Balloon Almanac, For the Year of our Lord, 1786. Philadelphia: Printed for John Steele, 1785.

The Balloon Jester; of Flights of Wit and Humour. London: Printed for W. Lane, 1784?.

Mons. Montgolfier of Paris. 4th ed. London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1784.

Cavallo, Tiberius. The History and Practice of Aerostation. London, C. Dilly, 1785.

London Unmask’d: Or the New Town Spy. Exhibiting a Striking Picture of the World as it Goes. London: William Allard, 1785.

Lunardi’s Grand Aerostatic Voyage Through the Air. London: Printed for J. Bew, J, Murray and Richardson and Urquhart, and R. Ryan, 1784.

Lunardi, Vincent. An Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, in a series of Letters to his Guardian, Chavlier Gherardo Compagni. London: Printed for the author and sold at the Pantheon; also by the publisher, J. Bell; and at Mr. Molini’s, 1784.

—. Mr. Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool, On Tuesday the 9th of August, 1785. London, 1785.

Martyn, Thomas. Hints of Important Uses, To be derived from Aerostatic Globes. With A Print of an Aerostatic Globe, and its Appendages. London: Printed for the Author, 1784.

The Modern Atlantis; or, The Devil in an Air Balloon, Containing the Characters and Secret Memoirs of the Most Conspicuous Persons of High Quality, of Both Sexes, in the Island of Libertusia in the Western Ocean. London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1784.

Raspe, Rudolph Erich, Baron Munchausen's Narrative Of His Marvellous Travels And Campaigns In Russia. Humbly Dedicated And Recommended To Country Gentlemen; And, If They Please, To Be Repeated As Their Own, After A Hunt, At Horse Races, In Watering-Places, And Other Such Polite Assemblies; Round The Bottle And Fire-Side. Oxford, 1786.

---. Gulliver Revived: Or, The Vice Of Lying Properly Exposed Containing Singular Travels, Campaigns, Voyages, And Adventures In Russia, The Caspian Sea, Iceland, Turkey, Egypt, Gibraltar, UP The Mediterranean, ON The Atlantic Ocean, And Through The Centre Of Mount Aetna Into The South Sea. Also, An Account Of A Voyage Into The Moon And Dog-Star; With Many Extraordinary Particulars Relative To The Cooking Animal In Those Planets, Which Are There Called The Human Species. By Baron Munchausen. London, 1786.

Thoughts on the Farther Improvement of Aerostation, or the Art of Travelling in the Atmosphere: with a Description of a Machine Now Constructing, on Different Principles from Those Hitherto Adopted. By the Inventor of the Machine. London: Printed for the Author, 1785.

Townshend, George. A Poetical Epistle on Major Money’s Ascent in a Balloon from the City of Norwich. Chester: Printed for the Author by J. Fletcher, 1786.

Walpole, Horace. The Correspondence of Horace Walpole. Ed. W. S. Lewis. London: Oxford UP, 1961. 1937-83.

The Wonderful Magazine, And Marvellous Chronicle; Or, New Weekly Entertainer. A Work Recording Authentic Accounts Of The Most Extraordinary Productions, Events, And Occurrences, In Providence, Nature, And Art (1793)

Secondary Sources

Benedict, Barbara. Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2001.

Clark, William, Jan Golinksi, and Simon Schaffer, eds., The Sciences in Enlightened Europe Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999.

Hodgson, J. E. The History of Aeronautics in Great Britain, From the Earliest Times to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1924.

Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. UK: Harper Collins, 2008.

Keen, Paul. “The ‘Balloonomania’: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006): 507-535.

—. Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800. Cambridge UP, 2012.

Lynn, Michael R. Popular Science and Public Opinion in Eighteenth-century France. Manchester, UK ; New York: Manchester UP, 2006.

—. The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010.

Rolt, L. T. C. The Aeronauts: A Dramatic History of the Great Age of Ballooning. New York: Walker and Company, 1966.


Paul Keen, Melissa Speener