Biographer Richard Holmes was born in London, England on 5 November 1945 and educated at Downside School and Churchill College, Cambridge. His first book, Shelley:The Pursuit, was published in 1974 and won a Somerset Maugham Award. The first volume of his biography of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge: Early Visions, was published in 1989 and won the Whitbread Book of the Year award. Dr Johnson & Mr Savage (1993), an account of Johnson's undocumented friendship with the notorious poet Richard Savage, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography) in 1993. The second volume of his study of Coleridge, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, was published in 1998. It won the Duff Cooper Prize, the Heinemann Award and was shortlisted for the first Samuel Johnson Prize awarded in 1999.
Richard Holmes writes and reviews regularly for various journals and newspapers, including the New York Review of Books. His most recent book, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000), continues the exploration of his own highly original biographical method that he first wrote about in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985). He is also editor of a new series of editions of classic English biographies that includes work by Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe and William Godwin.
His latest book, The Age of Wonder (2008), is an examination of the life and work of the scientists of the Romantic age who laid the foundations of modern science. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the British Academy and was awarded an OBE in 1992. He was awarded an honorary Litt.D. in 2000 by the University of East Anglia, where he was appointed Professor of Biographical Studies in September 2001.
Jorge Luis Borges once said that “reading is a form of happiness.” For days after reading Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards I walked around with a lighter step and a vague sense of altitude, as if I’d just received a gift or made a discovery that was bound to smooth out all the rough patches of my life, if only I could remember and make use of it. I kept asking myself: What was it that I was so pleased and excited about? No, I hadn’t unexpectedly received a large sum of money, nor had I found the universal key to a life of perpetual delight. I had merely – merely! – read a good book.
Falling Upwards is a history of manned ballooning from the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 to the Wright brothers in 1903. It’s chock full of wonderful stories and miniature biographies. There’s Charles Greene’s Dantean night flight above industrial Liege. There’s balloon performer Sophie Blanchard in her white dress aboard a silver gondola illumined in fireworks. There’s Thaddeus Lowe’s creation of a balloon corps during the American Civil War. There’s James Glaisher’s and Henry Coxwell’s near death of asphyxiation – for science – at 7 miles above the English midlands. There’s the daring balloon post out of Paris during the Prussian siege of the city in 1870-71. There’s Salomon Andree’s doomed attempt to reach the north pole by balloon just before the invention of airplanes. There’s more too, all of it wonderful.
Richard Holmes’s prior book, The Age of Wonder was among the two or three best things I read in 2012. In that title, which plumbed the relationship between Romanticism and the second, post-Newtonian scientific revolution, he also spent a little time on the early balloonists. Here, however, we get so much more, and it’s all delivered with such skill and love that the only possible response in a reader is gratitude. Solidly penned and lushly illustrated, Falling Upwards is light-as-air but deeply satisfying and one of the best books I’ve had the happiness to read in 2013.
Le Droit au vol - The right to fly, or rather perhaps how humans lifted themselves into the air using ingenuity, courage, silk, varnish, rope, wicker and coal gas.
Falling Upwards - that sensation and movement of uncontrolled ascent - is subtitled how we took to the air (William Collins UK paperback 2014). It is a superb book in that it does indeed show how men and women took to the air, but also with great insight and human drama it weaves their stories into and alongside those balloons.
I found the stories of these balloons and the men and women absolutely fascinating: I marvelled at the sheer courage and intrepid nature of these early aeronauts; I was astonished at the sheer size and capacity of balloons built and flown in the late 18th century and into the 19th: I was amazed at the heights reached and distances travelled and honestly aghast at how they took risks for science and entertainment.
For example in the late 1790s there were balloon flights with fireworks attached to the baskets, and the first man and woman's successful recorded parachute jumps in 1797 and 1799 respectively - yep that's right the seventeen hundreds; had you asked me I'd have said around WWI for this.
In 1859 there was an attempt to introduce a East-to-West mail service across the US. It failed but set a world distance balloon record, including being the first humans to fly over Niagara Falls, of 809 miles in 24 hours and 40 minutes; a record that would stand until 1910. The story of this adventure and the run in with the Great Lakes is like Buchan or Rider Haggard adventure story.
In September 1862 Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher achieved the world altitude record of c30,000 feet (possibly as high as 37,000*) without oxygen in a balloon using coal gas at Wolverhampton, England. * The balloon was 80 feet tall equipped with accurate measurement apparatus, but at the recorded height Glaisher was near unconscious as it kept rising. Coxwell was near to collapse but by climbing up to the balloon he untangled the quick release valve and just managed to release the gas to descend.
There were military uses and attempts at observation, siege breaking and communications from the 1861-65 American Civil and the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian wars. Attempts or plans to sail across the Atlantic as well as tragic and failed attempts to reach the North Pole are here - this latter in an age when the North Pole had already consumer great explorers and ruined their attempts and almost cost their lives.
The use of scientific instruments and recording details of pressure, height, speed and temperature as well as other experiments is truly a marvel. The starting to really understand meteorology and weather, including winds and pressure and how these change or are variance in higher altitudes.
Descriptions of what the first men and women saw in flight and how they experienced butterflies and insects tens of thousands of feet in the air are captivating and illuminating - much like the cola iron furnaces in the Liege and Ruhr regions.
Publicity and adverts, and newspapers and of course books - perhaps most notably Jules Vernes' Around the World in 8o Days - and their authors such as the aforementioned Verne along with Victor Hugo, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Mayhew, H.G Wells and Rudolf Erich Raspe all visit the book's pages.
It is not a history of ballooning so if you want this you'll need to find other sources and accounts, but if you wish to read a dazzling and exciting, yet thought provoking read of men and women who took to the air against many odds to learn, enjoy, explore and even save others then you'll do well curling up with Richards Holmes's book. with a balloon glass of Gin and tonic.
This is an eccentric book about the history of ballooning from 1783 to present. Holmes covers balloons used in warfare such as the 1794 Battle of Liege, spotting troop movements during the American Civil War, and communicating with the outside world during the 1870 siege of Paris in the Franco Prussian War. He includes balloons used in entertainment, daredevil acts, and of the first ballooning accidents. He mentions balloons in literature, poems, and plays. He details the mechanics, improvements, and various methods used for lift. He portrays the scientific uses for mapping, weather, and studying atmospheric heights. One of the highlights is the coverage of Salomon August Andrée’s expedition by balloon that attempted to reach the North Pole in 1896-1897.
This book provides everything you ever wanted to know about balloons, and more! It documents adventures, misadventures, explorations, and inspirations. It is told in an entertaining way. I tend to enjoy quirky books that contain a mixture of science and history. I found it delightful.
I enjoyed this quirky history of 19th century ballooning a lot. I’d previously read this author’s The Age of Wonder, which includes a fun chapter on the 18th century origins of ballooning; this book does not reiterate that material but rather picks up where that chapter left off. It is arranged chronologically and includes plenty of stories of daring, danger, showmanship and science, from the antics of Sophie Blanchard, a Napoleonic Wars-era entertainer who set off fireworks from the tiny gondola beneath her balloon, to the moving story of the use of balloons to break the siege of Paris in 1870. Also included are tales of long-distance flights both pleasant and disastrous; the birth of meteorology and the daring scientists who explored the upper atmosphere; and the use of balloon surveillance in the American Civil War.
Overall it’s an uplifting book (har har), educational though it feels a little indulgent, rather like ballooning itself I suppose. Holmes takes the opportunity to write at length about what’s interesting to him, and has a talent for making that interesting to the reader as well, whether it’s biographies of balloonists or the treatment of ballooning in literature and culture. His research is well-documented and while his writing is accessible, it never feels dumbed-down. I was sorry that it ends on a downer story, about three Swedish explorers and their doomed attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon. And I would have appreciated a little more discussion of the technicalities: only having seen hot-air balloons myself, I was a little confused about the functioning of the hydrogen and coal-gas balloons apparently more popular in the 19th century, and why they were more popular at all since the hot-air type seems to have been invented first. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it.
I'm pretty certain I will never float into the air in the basket of a hot air balloon. But this book, which I absolutely loved and devoured with ardor, is the next best thing.
Holmes, in his trademark prose that makes for compelling reading, tells the long century of the pioneering of human flight under the balance of hot air or hydrogen within a balloon. We forget that flight didn't begin with Kitty Hawk; human flight truly began with the Montgolfier hot air balloon launched in London in the late 1700s and truly ended from the primary method of achieving exploratory flight in 1897. There are triumphs of daring and harrowing tales of foolhardiness that ends in vivid tragedy (in fact, the stories of air tragedy will certainly stick with you as cousins of the Hindenberg and the Titanic). Handsomely and amply illustrated throughout the book, you will not find it easy to stop reading. You may stay up all night as many of the aeronauts did in their balloons. But if you want to discern the early nature of aeronautics, this book is a the place to start, and worthy continuations of issues explored here are David McCullough's book on The Wright Brothers (as well as his book The Greater Journey if you like the chapter on the 1870 siege of Paris though it doesn't cover flight) as well as Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. The pioneers of balloons were just as innovative as the Wrights or NASA, except they weren't in a metal bucket but a wicker basket. One of my new all time favorite books.
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week: In this heartlifting book, the Romantic biographer Richard Holmes floats across the world following the pioneer generation of balloon aeronauts, from the first heroic experiments of the 1780s to the tragic attempt to fly a balloon to the North Pole in the 1890s.
In a compelling adventure story, dramatic sequences include an unscheduled early flight over the North Sea, the crazy firework flights of beautiful Sophie Blanchard and the heart-stopping escape of two families from East Germany.
Early balloons also played a role in warfare - with the legendary tale of sixty balloons that escaped Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870, and a memorable flight by General Custer in the American Civil War.
These are stories where scientific genius combines with extraordinary courage and the power of an imagination that dares to claim the airy kingdom for itself.
Episode 1 (of 5): Every balloon tells a story, and more often than not it is one of courage in the face of great perils.
Two determined balloonists take to the skies to raise money for charity. Over two hundred years separate them, but both find themselves sailing out over the sea with nothing but danger ahead.
Read by Rory Kinnear Abridged and produced by Jill Waters A Waters Company production for BBC Radio 4.
Pirms gadiem astoņiem izlasīju šī autora grāmatu The Age of Wonder, kas diezgan padziļināti izpētīja kādu britu zinātnes laikaposmu, sasienot kopā Heršela, Banksa un Dievija dzīvesstāstus vienā lielākā zinātnes stāstā. Autors spēj pasniegt skatījumu uz tehnoloģiju attīstības procesu visnotaļ savdabīgā veidā, viņam tas nav vienkāršs faktu un atklājumu uzskaitījums, tas ir process, kur otrajā plānā notiekošais nav mazsvarīgāks par priekšplānu.
Gaisa baloni un lidojumi ar tiem nemaz nav tik sena parādība, ja skatāmies uz cilvēces vēsturi kopumā. Pirmie bija ar karstu gaisu pildīti baloni, kuri it kā esot lidojuši jau virs Dienvidamerikas jau pirms Mongolfjēra, taču to popularitāte bija atkarīga no daudziem faktoriem. Karaļa labvēlības, tehnoloģijas attīstības un sabiedrības uzmanības. Krist uz augšu bieži vien beidzās ar krišanu lejā, neveiksmīgs lidojums, kurš sagadīšanās dēļ beidzās kapsētā varēja tikt uzskatīts par sliktu zīmi, kas pārvilka aeronautikai treknu strīpu uz daudziem gadiem.
Grāmatas autors ikdienā nodarbojas ar biogrāfiju rakstīšanu, un šīs grāmatas izpētē viņš ir pamatīgi iedziļinājies agro aeronautu biogrāfijās, kas savā ziņā padara šo grāmatu unikālu. Manā bibliotēkā ir pāris gaisa baloniem veltītas grāmatas, taču salīdzinot ar šo, es tās varētu ierindot sausu tehnoloģiju vēstures aprakstu grāmatās. Tur aeronauti ir tikai vārdi un lidojuma skaits, bez nekāda ieskata viņu personīgajās ambīcijās un ietekmes, kuru tie atstājuši cilvēku prātos.
Baloni lielākoties sākās kā izklaides pasākums, agrīnie balonisti mīlēja laisties gaisā un šaut raķetes, lai ielīksmotu cilvēkus svētkos. Pasākums nebija no lētajiem, un arī risks bija visai augsts. Ne reizi vien veiksmīgs uzņēmējs nositās piezemējoties degošā balonā. Brīdī, kad balonos sāka lietot ūdeņradi gadījās pa kādam neuzmanīgam skatītājam, kas pīpē pie ūdeņraža ģeneratora, ar visam no tām izrietošām sekām.
Šeit savukārt var uzzināt, kur Žils Verns smēlies idejas savam gaisa balona stāstam, par to kā Edgars Alans Po savulaik radījis viltus gaisa balonu, kura Atlantijas šķērsojumu “dzīvajā” drukāja kāda avīze (fake news!). Par slaveno Parīzes aplenkumu, kur gaisa baloni nodarbojās ar pasta piegādi un kontaktu ar ārpasauli, par to, kā tas ietekmēja literātu prātus. Par aeronautiem, kuriem ambīcijas bija vairāk par veselo saprātu.
Jau tai laikā cilvēki bija kā traki uz rekordiem, Gleišers mēģināja pārspēt augstuma rekordu, lai noskaidrotu cik augstu cilvēks var uzlaisties un kādi ir laika apstākļi atmosfēras augstākajos slāņos. Un nemaz nerunāsim par Andrē lidojumu uz Ziemeļpolu, kur lepnība, entuziasms un neprasme izmest pareizo balasta daudzumu padarīja šo ekspedīciju par traģisku pasākumu.
Gramatai lieku 10 no 10 ballēm, ja interesē ne tikai tehnoloģijas, bet arī laikmets, tad silti iesaku izlasīt. Autors raksta aizraujoši un interesanti. Nevajag sacerēties uz mūsdienu gaisa balonu sasniegumu aprakstiem, tie gan ir pieminēti, taču tikai garāmejot.
I lost myself reading The Age of Wonder, the previous book by Richard Holmes, becoming completely caught up in its enticing panorama of the Romantic Age of Europe, when there were still far flung parts of the globe to explore, most of the chemical elements awaited discovery, and poets and scientists looked to each other for inspiration, so I started Falling Upwards with great anticipation and it largely lived up to my expectations.
Like the previous book, Falling Upwards has a mix of art and scientific discovery, and is full of fascinating, colorful characters, but here they are all involved in the science, circus-like demonstrations, or military uses of ballooning. It spends most of its pages on the dangerous but exciting early stages of ballooning from around 1780 through the early 1900’s, though there are some stories about more recent balloon exploits, like a risky escape over the Berlin Wall. It’s not a conventional history but in a clever and effective move the book uses ballooning to explore evolving attitudes, technologies, culture, and beliefs. The idea of flight thrilled people, ballooning gave us our first mind-expanding vision of the world as seen from on high, and Falling Upwards successfully captures the excitement and joy of discovery.
For me one of the most interesting episodes described is the use of balloons to try to break the punishing 1870-71 siege of Paris when Bismarck set out to cut that city off from the world and let Parisians starve. The book’s only negatives from my perspective are that it has a little too many details about the science of ballooning, and a few too many characters to keep track of, but the enthusiasm of Holmes is infectious and the book is a wonderful read.
I've always felt there's something almost subconsciously fascinating and terrifying about the symbolism of a hot-air balloon. Holmes clearly feels the same and has written a book about the human yearning for discovery through the story of 18th and 19th century ballooning. Like Holmes' "The Age of Wonder", the book is largely structured as a series of biographical vignettes and accounts of famous events through the lens of his chosen topic. I found that approach greatly sharpened in this book (and I really liked The Age of Wonder), as you get a deeply incisive but also narrowly focused view into the attitudes that shaped a period of explosive scientific and humanistic growth through a seemingly insignificant fringe technology. Many of the anecdotes Holmes recounts are funny, some are uplifting (ha), some are tragic, and the account of the polar expedition that closes the book is a truly harrowing account of existential horror. Good god, is it haunting. Anyone who is interested in the history of science and technology, Georgian and Victorian society and entertainments, women's contributions to science and spectacle, adventure stories, or feeling a vertiginous sense of tiny, striving man (and woman) in the face of the unimaginable vastness of nature, this book is for you. Many people have laughed when I told them I was reading a history of ballooning, but this book is about much, much more.
Coming to this book with high expectations, it initially disappointed me - the first few chapters seemed to float too close to the ground, weighed down by some leaden puns and sagging anecdotes which left me feeling ... well, deflated. But it pays to persevere. Holmes only really gets into his element in the chapters on military and scientific ballooning, which fully reveal the significance for human self-understanding of "falling upwards" that is the book's real subject. (Those expecting a standard history of ballooning should look elsewhere. This is a metaphorological study masked as a collective biography of nineteenth-century ballomaniacs, not a comprehensive survey.) It is fascinating to watch Holmes chart the process by which the balloon fell from being a lofty emblem of human freedom (Shelley, Hugo) to an instrument of colonial domination (Verne) and, ultimately, a plaything of the idle rich. The sections on Nadar, the French photographer, author and shamelessly flamboyant self-promoter who got the balloon postal service off the ground during the siege of Paris by the Prussians, are particularly rewarding. By the final chapter, which retells the tragic story of S.A. Andree's quixotic attempt to conquer the North Pole by balloon, the book had me wholly under its spell. Highly recommended.
A fantastic miscellany. The thread of lighter-than-air travel runs throughout, but much like a balloon it drifts here and there, sometimes lurching abruptly in time or place. Overall it's very enjoyable, and touches on some fascinating artefacts -- the Flammarion engraving, Merryweather's Tempest Prognosticator, &c. It's also very good for narrative tension of specific exploits -- early in the book, mostly lacking antagonists except the elements themselves, but later when it gets into the history of the US Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war, it really gives you a sense of how air travel began to have a real impact on warfare even before the invention of the airship or aeroplane.
Its central point perhaps is the recurring inspiration of the balloon, which led diverse writers to record memoirs (both true and fictional) of long-distance travel and speculate endlessly on the future (of warfare, of travel, of ...). I will definitely be re-reading this one.
What a quirky niche of history to explore! We all know that balloons are fun, exhilarating, and adventurous. But who knew that balloons were part of reconnaissance in the Civil War? Or provide mail services during some of France’s complicated politics? In a compelling narrative, Holmes breaks down various aspects of ballooning history—pleasure, exploration, scientific breakthroughs, and politics. Recommended for those who love everything Victorian, the spirit of discovery, or French history.
One of the strengths of this story is the way Holmes centered the different categories around the people involved in them. He created a connection between the innovators and the reader, so that you were really rooting for whatever success the different ballooners were reaching for.
The other touch of genius was breaking up the broad topic of ballooning into the different subtopics. That kept things from becoming overwhelming, boring, or choppy. Characters overlapped, so there was a sense of unity that Holmes maintained with ease and expertise.
My favorite sections were the exhibition flights and the French politics. French politics is always entertaining, but when you add a siege, balloons, pigeons, and microfilm, it’s hard to beat.
An interesting look at historical hot air balloon flight in sections of entertainment, war, exploration and science. Not all of the sections were as interesting as others but there is no doubt Holmes goes into great detail, a bit too much at times in terms of quotes. There are plenty of illustrations to look at but some are repeated. I did like the extra information at the bottom of the page in some cases. Instead of marking with an asterisk we get a balloon. In these comments the text becomes more conversational and we get to see some of the personality of the author, who certainly has a liking for hot air balloons.
If there's one thing I never ever want to do, it's to go up in a balloon. That said, Holmes' history of balloon flight is a brilliant read, full of inspiring and horrifying stories, major heroes and self-serving publicity hounds. His final story of a Swedish attempt to fly over the North Pole is harrowing. I think I'll try and remember instead Sophie Blanchard in her silver cradle, amusing Parisians with her bravery, or Felix Nadar, who used his balloon Le Geant to break the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870. Amazing book.
Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes is a book about the golden age of aviation, written with the love of a hobbyist. It is a book that trips annecdotally through the early history of lighter than air craft. Other authors have refered to the age of lighter than air flight as the cul de sac of aviation; but to men like Holmes and yours truly, it is a cul de sac we might give our eye teeth to live on.
Focusing almost exclusively on unpowered balloons, Holmes's writing vividly recreates scenes of early aeronauts succeeding spectacularly, mostly on luck and fearlessness, and failing spectacularly when the luck ran out. He writes about an age when scientists were likely to be poets, and men and women routinely conquered fear of crushing injury or death in the name of showmanship and/or patriotism.
As a steampunk fan, this is not the first non fiction work about balloons I've listened to or read. Still, Holmes was able to work in several things I'd never read before, even including facts about my own nation's civil war. He finishes up with the story of S.A. Andree's attempt to reach the north pole. Despite the fact that I only recently finished , I hung on this different angled retelling's every word.
A warning though: Holmes is able to throw such a romantic light upon the pioneers of ballooning, that you may be left with a desire to emulate the early aeronauts he writes about. Like me-- I can't shake the hope that I can combine modern aviation knowledge with 19th century daring do, to one day cobble together the world's most dangerous sailing ship in the hypothetical man-shed of my retirement years. I'm serious. I already have the mustache wax.
Holmes' earlier book, The Age of Wonder was a masterful history of the era when science and literature were holding out for a new world, where technology might free human kind. It explored the scientists and their circles striving to understand the cosmos. Falling Upwards covers a similar subject and period, but sadly I found it didn't really hold together as a book and came across as a series of anecdotes not worthy of the book's subtitle, however fascinating they might be.
Fascinating history of early ballooning. Very informative, well documented, and interesting. Written in a style that makes you feel you are there. My wife read this first and has for a long time wanted to ride in a hot air balloon; these tales may have enhanced that or may have scratched that. Watching the move "The Aeronauts" and telling my brother to watch, as the movie was good; he informed me that the movie was based on the book, Falling Upwards. All I can say is read this book and watch the movie, both are worth your time.
A little like ballooning, this book meandered a bit, although there were also some interesting anecdotes. As a warning, I thought this book would deal with the history of powered flight, but it is solely focused on the history of ballooning from about 1780 to 1900. So, it's a sort-of-interesting look at what is now a rather obscure part of aviation history. I would only recommend this book if you're really interested in learning about the history of early ballooning.
Research usually isn't this wonderful! I listened to this audiobook to get some ideas for my air ship and pilot. This gave me more insight than I even knew I wanted. It was so useful, not to mention beautifully written, that now I plan to get a hard copy to refer to as I write. And non-fiction usually doesn't make me cry, but this one did and that -- to me -- is the highest compliment.
Did I miss my calling as a Victorian balloonist. Clearly, the answer is yes. Oh and I learned about this, true story: after I fly a balloon to the North Pole, I'm going to whip out my circa 1897 camera & die like it ain't no thang http://tinyurl.com/pt8jaan
My rating reflects that this is a great, inspiring subject filled with fantastic anecdotes and details, but a bit inconsistent at times. I think the book gets better as it goes on.
I did find it really compelling all up and it made me think more and more about the excitement of balloons and ballooning. I was fascinated by the little details and wanted to share them with others - they were too good to be kept for myself. I do think the author's enthusiasm was infectious.
Also, the illustrations and photographs in the book were marvellous and really lent to the overall information and inspiration of the book. Other details - like the little balloon-symbol-notes - were cute and showed some well-thought out formatting (even if some of the notes were a little lengthy and indulgent).
The beginning of the book was a bit ordinary, and to be honest and I felt too much ordinary info, not enough excitement, and I found it harder to get into the book. I could see how some might not get past this. Also, at times it seemed to not have enough focus - the book was a bit this way and that in explaining history, and in between had bits of the author's whimsy.
I did like learning about how ballooning may have been used in meteorology and I found this some good scientific detail. In terms of science, though, as some other reviewers have noted, I would have liked a bit more info on how balloons worked and more on the differences between them and even on the developments on the structure in the baskets and so forth. I was a bit confused at times on the capacity of a balloon and how people sat or stood in one or what was needed to fly some of the balloons. Perhaps it was felt this wasn't needed because it was so variable. Perhaps the idea was that balloons were meant to be "dreamy", not bogged down in technical detail. However, I felt a little more of this detail would have helped me visualise the balloons better. The pictures were interesting and aided me but I wondered about accuracy vs artistic licence.
I really liked it later when some more fascinating details came in: America and balloons for spying was interesting, as was some of the discussion about the inspiration for writers such as Jules Verne. But I really enjoyed hearing about the French postal service and the carrier pigeons and the sad Arctic exploration, plus some of the daring entertainers from balloons. This was a real eye-opener of a book - showing that truth is truly stranger than fiction sometimes.
Richard Holmes's narrative spans the years between 1790 and 1900 (roughly), when exploration by air meant balloons, largely hydrogen-based structures made of tightly woven silk. While there are a few familiar names, like Montgolfier, most of the stories in the book are completely new to me, and cover the change from early scientific ascents, to popularization of balloon flights for mass entertainment, to a return to a final attempt, in 1897, to reach the North Pole using a meticulously planned and designed balloon journey which ended tragically, having never gotten within even a few hundred miles of the pole. One of the most fascinating chapters tells about how a balloon-based mail service during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-1871 got 2-3 million letters out of the otherwise-isolated city using a very early form of microfilm! Holmes's writing style is vibrant and readable, never bogging down in needless detail though covering the subject completely.
The book is about the early history of ballooning, more or less until airships became popular. Although the very first flight was made in a hot air balloon, shortly after that gas ballooning proved to be more reliable and convenient, therefore the book is more related to the latter. There are many prominent balloonists mentioned, many fascinating stories of how balloons were used for different tasks, all of which is inspiring to know for a balloon pilot. I'm not sure if the book would be so enjoyable for a non-pilot, mainly because it's just hard to understand the craziness of the adventures if you're not familiar with the routine, but the writing is compelling and easy to read. There's a good selection of pictures, which is necessary, because ballooning always was (and is) a spectacle to observe. Just like those beautiful and inspiring stories in the book.
A fascinating history of flight, and more specifically ballooning before the advent of heavier than air flight which began with the Wright brothers in 1903. The book communicates equally both the thrill and danger that ballooning in this era had, and indeed still does in this modern era.
Holmes has a masterly way with description, making the reader feel as if they are right there with those involved. I personally learnt an awful lot from this book, as it is a subject I didn't know much about before I began reading.
I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the history of human flight and I believe that this would be a good companion book to David McCullough's biography of the Wright brothers.
This was presented in 5, 13-minute segments. I rated it only 3 stars based entirely on the subject matter, which is interesting, but not something I'd be inclined to pick up and read about. But the stories of the history of this sport (science?) are amazing. I can't imagine what drove these men to embark on what surely they knew was likely to be their death simply out of curiosity or the unlikely chance of making a discovery. (People must have been very bored back then. Kidding, not kidding.) But people did do that sort of thing once upon a time. And thank goodness for that, because where would we be without them? Long live the Darwin Awards!