January 27, 2020 – March 12, 2020
North Lobby, The Claremont Colleges Library
L’Aventure en Ballon: 18th-19th Experiments with Ballooning from the Carruthers Aviation Collection
The year 1783 marks a major milestone for human endeavor: on 5 June of that year, the Montgolfier brothers designed and successfully launched a hot air balloon, marking the first public ascension of an unmanned balloon. Then, on 21 November, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes took flight in a Montgolfier-designed balloon. This first manned hot air balloon flight was watched by nearly all of Paris, including the king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. What had once been fanciful imaginings was now real; the pursuit of human flight became a passion for many from then onward.
In the aftermath of the Montgolfier brothers’ success, enthusiastic Europeans and Americans alike took to the skies, competing for ballooning “firsts” – ascending higher into the atmosphere; flying the longest distance; designing the most elaborate balloons and gondolas. Early aeronauts were in a race to invent new and better ways to inflate, stabilize, and steer the balloon. In the wake of such feverish excitement, new areas of scientific inquiry were born and important developments were made, particularly in the field of meteorology. Hot air balloons offered meteorologists a new and more accurate mode for measuring and calculating barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity.
Balloon ascensions were also major entertainment events that appealed to the public’s love of spectacle. Ballooning exhibitions were regular features at parks, parade grounds, and other public spaces where society gathered. Men and women aeronauts were celebrities, and first-hand accounts of their exploits were devoured by the public. Many periodicals in England such as Gentleman’s Magazine featured a regular ballooning news column. By 1790 several plays that featured balloons as plot devices and punch lines of jokes had been performed in England. Hot air ballooning became a familiar theme of adventure novels by the mid-19th century, most famously in Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, which can be seen on display in this exhibit along with numerous other materials from the Carruthers Aviation Memorial Collection.