balloon riots

The first public demonstration of a lighter-than-air machine took place in 1783, in Annonay, France, when Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, two brothers who owned a paper mill, sent up an unmanned hot-air balloon.

early balloon found here

After their success, the brothers went to Paris and built another larger one. On September 19, 1783, in Versailles, the Montgolfiers flew the first passengers in a basket suspended below a hot-air balloon—a sheep, a rooster, and a duck.

Miss Dietrich with her duck in a basket found here

On August 27, 1783, Jacques Alexandre César Charles launched the first balloon inflated with hydrogen gas in Paris. Unlike the Montgolfier balloon, his hydrogen-inflated balloon was closed to contain the gas. The sphere ascended from the Place des Victories in Paris to a height of nearly 3,000 feet (914 meters) and came down some 15 miles (24 kilometers) away where terrified peasants attacked and destroyed it.

image found here

A flying craze arose in France and Scotland with James Tytler, Scotland’s first aeronaut and the first Briton to fly, but a year after the invention of the balloon, the English were still skeptical, and so George Biggin and ‘Vincent’ Lunardi, “The Daredevil Aeronaut”, decided to demonstrate a hydrogen balloon flight at the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company in London in September 1784.

Lunardi found here

Lunardi first tried to obtain permission to go up from the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital. However, somebody else had already beaten him to it – a Frenchman, de Morel, who had made the first attempt with a whimsical hot air balloon shaped like a Chinese temple. This monster declined to leave the ground, which disappointed and infuriated the spectators; in their rage they destroyed the balloon.

image found here

In Lunardi’s case, because the 200,000 strong crowd had grown very impatient with delays in fully inflating the balloon, the young Italian had to take-off without his friend Biggin, but he was accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon. The flight travelled in a northerly direction towards Hertfordshire, with Lunardi making a stop in Welham Green, where the cat was set free as it seemed airsick.

flying cat found here

The 24 mile flight brought Lunardi fame and began the ballooning fad that inspired fashions of the day—Lunardi skirts were decorated with balloon styles, and in Scotland, the Lunardi Bonnet was named after him, and is even mentioned by Robert Burns in his poem ‘To a Louse’, written about a young woman called Jenny, who had a louse scampering in her Lunardi bonnet.

balloon bonnet found here

Lunardi went on to build larger and better balloons decorated with Union Jacks, in which manner he ‘wished to express his respects and devotion to everything which the word “British” stands for’. His faithful friend Biggin and a Mrs Letitia Sage, an actress, were to have accompanied him on a trip from Moorefields, but the lifting capacity of the balloon was poor, so Lunardi started alone. Soon afterwards he had to come down again, near Tottenham Court Road, because the envelope turned out to be leaking. The well-tried patience of Biggin was finally rewarded later that year when, on 29 June, he was able to ascend himself, accompanied by Mrs Sage.

Letitia Sage found here

Mrs Sage was described as Junoesque, and apparently weighed in at over 200 pounds. On the day she wore a very low cut silk dress, apparently to aid ‘wind resistance’. Her fellow passenger was the dashing George Biggin, a young and wealthy Old Etonian.

no wind resistance found here

Unfortunately the balloon was overloaded. (Afterwards Mrs Sage blamed herself because she hadn’t told Lunardi her weight and he’d been too polite to ask). Lunardi seemed to have no qualms about stepping out and letting the apparently inexperienced Mr Biggin take to the air with Mrs Sage. Unfortunately in his haste to depart, Lunardi failed to do up the lacings of the gondola door. As the balloon sailed away over Picadilly the beautiful Mrs Sage was on all fours re-threading the lacings to close the door. Apparently the crowd assumed she had fainted and was perhaps receiving some kind of intimate first aid from Mr Biggin.

daisyfae had to lace me into this corset in Chicago 2011

In fact she was coolly re-threading the lacings to make the gondola safe again. In due course the two of them were lunching off sparkling Italian wine and cold chicken, occasionally calling to people below through a speaking trumpet.

The flight followed the line of the Thames westwards finally landing heavily in Harrow on the Hill where the balloon damaged a hedge and gouged a strip through the middle of an uncut hayfield, leaving the farmer ranting abuse and threats. The honour of the first female aeronaut was saved by the young gentlemen/boys of Harrow school who had a whip-round to pay off the farmer and then carried Mrs Sage bodily, in triumph, to the local pub.

Later there was much speculation at Mr Biggin’s club as to whether he had been the first man to “board” a female aeronaut in flight…….

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