CHAPTER IV. The First Balloon Ascent in England

It has been said that the honour of making the first ascent in a balloon from British soil must be awarded to Mr. Tytler. This took place in Scotland. In this chapter we will relate the almost romantic story of the first ascent made in England.

This was carried out successfully by Lunardi, the Italian of whom we have previously spoken. This young foreigner, who was engaged as a private secretary in London, had his interest keenly aroused by the accounts of the experiments being carried out in balloons in France, and he decided to attempt similar experiments in this country.

But great difficulties stood in his way. Like many other inventors and would-be airmen, he suffered from lack of funds to build his craft, and though people whom he approached for financial aid were sympathetic, many of them were unwilling to subscribe to his venture. At length, however, by indomitable perseverance, he collected enough money to defray the cost of building his balloon, and it was arranged that he should ascend from the Artillery Ground, London, in September, 1784.

His craft was a "Charlier" - that is, it was modelled after the hydrogen-inflated balloon built by Professor Charles - and it resembled in shape an enormous pear. A wide hoop encircled the neck of the envelope, and from this hoop the car was suspended by stout cordage.

It is said that on the day announced for the ascent a crowd of nearly 200,000 had assembled, and that the Prince of Wales was an interested spectator. Farmers and labourers and, indeed, all classes of people from the prince down to he humblest subject, were represented, and seldom had London's citizens been more deeply excited.

Many of them, however, were incredulous, especially when an insufficiency of gas caused a long delay before the balloon could be liberated. Fate seemed to be thwarting the plucky Italian at every step. Even at the last minute, when all arrangements had been perfected as far as was humanly possible, and the crowd was agog with excitement, it appeared probable that he would have to postpone the ascent.

It was originally intended that Lunardi should be accompanied by a passenger; but as there was a shortage of gas the balloon's lifting power was considerably lessened, and he had to take the trip with a dog and cat for companions. A perfect ascent was made, and in a few moments the huge balloon was sailing gracefully in a northerly direction over innumerable housetops.

This trip was memorable in another way. It was probably the only aerial cruise where a Royal Council was put off in order to witness the flight. It is recorded that George the Third was in conference with the Cabinet, and when news arrived in the Council Chamber that Lunardi was aloft, the king remarked: Gentlemen, we may resume our deliberations at pleasure, but we may never see poor Lunardi again!"

The journey was uneventful; there was a moderate northerly breeze, and the aeronaut attained a considerable altitude, so that he and his animals were in danger of frost-bite. Indeed, one of the animals suffered so severely from the effects of the cold that Lunardi skilfully descended low enough to drop it safely to earth, and then, throwing out ballast, once more ascended. He eventually came to earth near a Hertfordshire village about 30 miles to the north of London.