Balloon mania: news in the air

Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
Balloon mania: news in the air
Mi Gyung Kim
Department of History, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-8108, USA
The hot-air balloon, invented by the Montgolfier brothers
in 1783, enabled the French King to project his glory, the
nobility to exhibit their valor, the literary public to
transmit the ideal of the Enlightenment and the plebian
public to rejoice in a scientific spectacle. The ensuing
balloon mania helped create an integrated public that,
because of its size and composition, can only be
described as ‘democratic’ just a few years before the
French Revolution. The monumental impact of the
balloon was well represented in a flood of poetry,
pamphlets, books, journal reports, academic papers
and consumer items. Sifting through these artifacts
and considering the crowd that witnessed the ascent of
the balloon will bring us to the historical moment when
things, spectacles, and events (rather than words)
shaped public and popular opinion.
“Scientific Discoveries in general, even those from
which men expect the most advantage, like those of
the compass and the steam-engine, were greeted at
first with contempt, or at best with indifference.
Political events and the fortunes of armies monopolized almost entirely the attention of the people.
But to this rule there are two exceptions – the
discoveries of America and of aerostatics, the
advents of Columbus and of Montgolfier” [1].
With these words, Dominique-François-Jean Arago
drew attention to the rare historical moment when the
promise of a new empire took science to the forefront of
public attention. The ‘majestic’ balloon ascent had created
a public exposure for science that was unique, unprecedented and powerful. By taking human existence closer to
the realm of God, the ascent induced the public to make a
leap of faith in their perception of human capabilities.
Aeronauts were greeted with the question: ‘Are you men
or gods?’ [2]. The sheer number of spectators, often
estimated at a half (or even two-thirds) of the entire
population of Paris (200 000–600 000 people), fundamentally altered the composition of what was considered to be
the ‘public’ for science.
“This swarm of people was in itself an incomparable
sight, so varied was it, so vast and so changing. Two
hundred thousand men, lifting their hands in
wonder, admiring, glad, astonished; some in tears
for fear the intrepid physicists should come to harm,
some on their knees overcome with emotion, but all
following the aeronauts in spirit, while these latter,
unmoved, saluted, dipping their flags above our
Corresponding author: Mi Gyung Kim ([email protected]).
heads; what with the novelty, the dignity of the
experiment; the unclouded sun, welcoming as it were
the travelers to his own element; the attitude of the
two men themselves sailing into the blue, while
below their fellow-citizens prayed and feared for
their safety; and lastly the balloon itself, superb in
the sunlight, whirling aloft like a planet, or the
chariot of some weather-god – it was a moment
which can never be repeated, the most astounding
achievement the science of physics has yet given to
the world” [3].
When the Montgolfier brothers flew their first hot-air
balloon in 1783, scientific news had been circulating in the
Republic of Letters for over a century through the printed
medium and personal contacts (hence the term the
Republic of Science). The primary audience for scientific
news was the literary ‘public’ who attended lectures, read
books and journals, and participated in the conversational
culture of salons, coffeehouses and Masonic lodges. The
enlightened sociability that cultivated the taste for science
operated within a social boundary that was policed by
literacy, personal contact and rules of polite conduct [4].
However, with the growth of provincial academies and
published journals during the second half of the 18th
century, the network of savants who exchanged news
expanded considerably. L.W.B. Brockliss argues that the
imagined, singular republic of shared ideals gave way to
many mini-republics that catered to the needs of local
dignitaries, scholars, artists and scientists [5]. The
expanding commerce of words, goods and services that
maintained these mini-republics fostered localized public
spheres in which new scientific experiments were enacted
for the benefit of the public. The power elites took a
paternalistic and patriotic interest in this growing
transmission of useful knowledge to the lower ranks of
society. If science as a discursive system circulated within
the Republic of Letters, science as a material culture
necessarily established a ‘contact zone’ between the
aristocratic culture and the artisanal. Provincial Affiches
(newspapers) attest to a vibrant ‘bazar economy’ that
encompassed the elite reading public, merchants and
tradesmen alike [6].
If medicine and science made the social boundary
between the Republic of Letters and the illiterate ‘people’
somewhat porous, the balloon ascension obliterated it. As
‘news in the air’ that was witnessed by nearly the entire
population of Paris, the balloon became an object of
universal veneration that broke down the boundary
between the literary ‘public’ and the illiterate ‘people’
(or, as Jürgen Habermas put it, between the bourgeois 0160-9327/$ - see front matter Q 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2004.04.010
Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
public sphere and the plebeian public sphere) [7]. If
making balloons mobilized the set of material, social and
literary technologies that constituted the Republic of
Letters, flying balloons blew the carefully maintained
social boundary of this Republic to pieces. In other words,
the balloon ascension offered a scientific spectacle that
oriented the plebeian public toward the literary public. It
is thus not surprising that princes and nobles sought to
control the representation of this potent display. As a
sublime spectacle beheld by the entire population, the
balloon ascension seemed to offer an extraordinary
opportunity to promote royal splendor and power. As a
result, it created a composite public – made up of the
sovereign, the nobility, the literary public and the plebeian
public – that brought a set of competing political agendas
to the scene of this remarkable scientific achievement.
A glorious invention
The invention of the hot-air balloon followed a scenario
that was familiar in the ancien regime that involved
provincial inventors desiring priority and profit, the
Paris Academy acting as the scientific tribunal and the
sovereign wishing to bask in the inventor’s glory [8].
Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, the younger sons of a
paper manufacturer from Vidalon, utilized their precarious educations (Joseph’s more so than Etienne’s) and
robust imaginations to construct an ‘ascending machine’.
As soon as their trial balloons showed success in December
1782, Etienne begged Nicolas Desmaret, his one connection to the Academy, to announce it to the Academy or in
some journal ‘so that no one poaches on our preserve in the
meantime.’ Etienne’s earlier experience in the capital
while he was studying architecture had taught him the
value of priority in securing royal patronage and public
prestige. However, Desmaret, the lofty academician, was
not convinced by this urgent plea from a provincial
papermaker without adequate proof. He deemed that
‘a good drawing and a detailed description are essential’
before he could announce Etienne’s machine to the
Academy. Unable to secure their priority via the Academy,
the Montgolfier brothers staged a public demonstration,
despite the adverse weather, at Annonay on 4 June 1783 to
obtain a formal approbation from the Vivarais Estates
then in session. It was this maneuver involving local
notables that secured priority beyond anybody’s poaching
for the Montgolfiers. Although a promising alternative
that won over the academicians (Jacques Alexandre César
Charles’ hydrogen balloon) emerged soon after, the royal
favor was to be bestowed primarily on the Montgolfier
brothers, because the inventor’s genius and glory would
reflect favorably on the crown.
The reaction of the Academy was much more cautious.
When the minutes of the Vivarais Estates reached Lefèvre
d’Ormesson – the controller general of finance – he wrote
promptly to the permanent secretary of the Academy, the
Marquis de Condorcet. Following their usual protocols,
the Academy assigned the case of the balloon to a
committee, reserving judgment until all the facts were
in. In their first report, the commissaires (commissioners)
expressed caution because the best mechaniciens
(physicists) had already concluded such an ascending
device was ‘impossible, at least as impracticable.’ The
academy soon went into summer recess, although the
committee continued to follow the Montgolfier’s progress.
As a royal institution, the Academy could not ignore the
sovereign’s wish to honor the inventor who could project
royal glory to the public. However, as the highest scientific
tribunal in the Republic of Letters, the Academy sought to
observe proper procedures, to curtail vulgar enthusiasm
and curiosity, and to present an ‘authentic’ account that
would ‘merit all the confidence of the public.’ Despite the
popular frenzy over the balloon ascension, the Academy
oriented the research toward the ‘direction’ of the
aerostatic machine that would make it most useful.
In contrast, public enthusiasm brewed quickly, outpacing even the royal reception. After a brief report in the
Feuille hebdomadaire on 10 July 1783, the Journal de
Paris (the only daily newspaper in France) carried a more
detailed piece on Montgolfier brothers’ ‘quite singular’
experiment on 27 July 1783. Although the report assumed
a factual tone, giving the physical dimensions of the
balloon [35 feet (1 footZ0.3048 meters) in diameter and
500 livres (1 livreZ489.5 grams) in weight, with excess
force of 578 livres for the lift] and the details of the flight
[the balloon reached the height of 500–1000 toises
(1 toisesZ1.949 meters) and remained afloat for 10
minutes], the wheels of Parisian entertainment machinery began to turn immediately. When Barthélemy Faujas
de Saint-Fond (a well-to-do amateur naturalist patronized
by Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon) opened a public subscription to raise funds for the construction of a balloon at
the Café du Caveau near the Palais Royal, it filled quickly
even without public announcements. Faujas engaged
Charles, a public lecturer of physics, to construct a hydrogen balloon with the help of two well-known instrument
makers, the Robert brothers. Charles designed a much
smaller balloon (12 feet in diameter and 25 livres in
weight) made of an impermeable fabric (taffeta coated
with rubber) to prevent the escape of the hydrogen gas.
A test-flight in the small garden attached to his house at
the Place des Victoires attracted intense curiosity from the
Parisians. To avoid the people crushing against the guards
and causing a street scene, he had the half-inflated balloon
transported during the night to Champ de Mars. The
stage was set for the first Parisian demonstration of the
aerostatic machine.
On 27 August 1783, the publicized date for the first
Parisian ascension, a lighted wick gave the signal for the
experiment to begin at precisely 5 p.m., and two shots of a
canon announced the event to the public. Soon, the globe
was elevated and in a few minutes it disappeared from
view. Two more cannon shots marked this last moment. As
the cloud that eclipsed the globe dissipated, the crowd
gained a sight of the Globe once more, its small volume
indicating the considerable height it had reached.
Repeated applause gave new proof of public interest.
Although the description of the ascension in its physics
section was largely factual, the Journal de Paris also
published a long poem by Gudin de la Brenellerie, a
Marseilles academician, characterizing the balloon as a
patriotic invention that would build an ‘empire of airs’.
If poets dreamed of an empire that would bring glory to
Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
the French nation, much of the population, who were
ignorant of the new invention, were terrified of it when it
appeared out of nowhere. The landowner who first
broached the news of a ‘truly curious show’ in a letter to
the Feuille hebdomadaire could hardly conceal his sentiment that he reproached the Montgolfier brothers’
‘expensive’ apparition for terrifying his peasants. When
Charles’ balloon came down in Gonesse, the frightened
villagers tore it to shreds with their muskets and
pitchforks (Figure 1). In the wake of these incidents, the
government had to issue a proclamation to safeguard
future balloons. In order to allay the ‘astonishment & even
the terror the apparition in the air or the fall of this
aerostatic machine could produce’ among those who did
not have knowledge of these experiments, the Journal de
Paris also took the extraordinary measure of sending
several thousand exemplars of the account of the experiments to the local administrators of the villages where the
journal was normally not circulated, accompanied by a
letter from the Baron d’Ogny ordering their distribution.
These official proclamations and extra exemplars would
have resulted in public readings to convey the message to
the illiterate, thus drawing more of the plebeian public
into the vicinity of the literary public and fuelling the
balloon mania [9].
The speedy realization of Charles’ balloon design
indicates that the material, social and literary technologies that were required for its construction were readily
available in the Republic of Letters and the commercial
sphere [10]. Except for the large quantity of hydrogen,
which was produced by a long and dangerous procedure,
the rest of the materials necessary to construct a balloon
were easily obtainable. Making balloons also required
savants with some knowledge of mechanics, hydrodynamics and the behavior of gases, as well as administrative approval and means of public communication.
Above all, they required a substantial amount of capital,
Figure 1. Panic at Gonesse. The startling landing of Jacques Alexandre César
Charles’ balloon scared the villagers of Gonesse, and they proceeded to attack the
stricken construct. Image supplied by, and reproduced with permission from, the
USAF Mcdermott Library, Special Collections Branch.
which was often raised by public subscription (an established means of publishing expensive books such as the
Encyclopédie and the Histoire naturelle) [11]. According to
the Journal de Paris: ‘princes, ministers, academies, men
of letters, [and] artists’ rushed in their subscriptions,
proving their ardor and zeal for ‘useful and brilliant
experiments’. Daily and weekly newspapers provided an
easy means of circulating the news among the reading
public and beyond. The circulation of print literature could
mobilize even the illiterate ‘people’, as mémoires judiciaries (popular legal briefs) had done in scandalous court
cases [12].
The aerial theater
In Paris, the literary and the plebeian public quickly
converged on the scene of the scientific spectacle. The
audience for science was no longer limited to the ‘public’
created by the circulation of words, but included the
‘people’, whose ‘vulgar’ curiosity often interfered with the
proceedings of the balloon ‘experiments’ and threatened to
cripple them. The proximity of the plebeian to the literary
public also made the balloon ascension a promising event
for re-constructing and re-valorizing the authority of the
sovereign, which had been severely undermined by the
emergence of public opinion as the supreme political
tribunal. Although royal spectacles had been mostly
confined to Versailles since the reign of Louis XIV,
occasional royal processions through Paris still invited
numerous crowds, as was evident in the large number of
spectators killed during the marriage celebration of Louis
XVI to Marie-Antoinette [13]. In a political milieu that had
fundamentally desacralized the divine right of the king
[14], the balloon seemed to offer a new instrument of
inscribing the sovereign’s power and glory into the minds
and souls of the populace. As an object of universal
veneration, the balloon embodied a set of values – truth,
virtue, honor and glory – that princes and nobles could not
afford to part with. The power elites thus mobilized
traditional political symbols and rituals to insert their
rank and authority into the moment of consecration that
the balloon ascension engendered among the people. In
other words, the balloon seemed to offer an aerial theater
that could display the sovereign’s uncontested glory to
their admiring subjects.
The task of constructing a royal balloon naturally fell to
the inventor of the original balloon, whose genius and
industry could only add to royal glory. To facilitate this,
Etienne Montgolfier was brought to Paris where he set up
a workshop at Réveillon’s royal paper factory to prepare
for a demonstration at Versailles. The cost was born by the
Ministry of Finance. Etienne’s easy entrée into the royal
establishment had his family walking on clouds, albeit
with caution. They expected glory, fame and profit from
this venture. In contrast to Charles’ simple stripe design,
the Montgolfière (as the hot-air balloon came to be called)
Etienne constructed for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
was a glorious object bearing the royal insignia and
beautifully decorated in blue and gold fleur-de-lis, the
long-established symbols of the French monarchy since
the Middle Ages [15]. It was meant as an aerial theater
that would represent the absolutist king’s glory and power
Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
as it floated above the people. On 19 September 1783, the
stage was set at the Château de Versailles. Etienne
Montgolfier, washed and shaved to wipe off the exhaustion
caused by working day and night to make a new balloon
because of an accident that ruined the first one [16], was
brought to the king’s levée (rising ceremony) to present an
account of the experiment in person. Afterwards, the king
inspected the launch site with his entire entourage and
made known his affection for the inventor. At 1 p.m.,
surrounded by ‘a prodigious concours of spectators’, the
balloon was elevated, carrying a barometer, a duck, a
rooster and a sheep. The king had prohibited human
passenger from the Versailles demonstration as a gesture
of his benevolence. It reached about 200 toises and was
afloat for about 27 seconds before it descended in the forest
of Vaucresson, about half a league (1 leagueZ4.82802
kilometers) from the château. Pilâtre de Rozier arrived
first at the scene and found the barometer intact and the
animals alive. Meanwhile, Etienne was led to the royal
apartments and found the king observing the balloon with
his field glasses. The controller general invited Etienne to
dine with the members of the Academy, causing him to
decline numerous other dinner invitations. Court ladies
sought his company throughout that evening, which
ended with an audience with the queen. Dazed by this
Figure 2. The first hot-air balloon flight in which the craft was released from its
moorings, which took place on 21 November 1783. Image supplied by, and
reproduced with permission from, the USAF Mcdermott Library, Special Collections Branch.
courtly reception, Etienne was ‘willing to admit that, in
spite of a philosophy that appreciates things at their true
value, I have not been insensible to the pleasures of this
day, and I have forgotten the work, the trouble, and the
worry it cost me.’
The new argonauts
An ‘empire of airs’ required aerial vessels directed by
aeronauts. The utility of the balloon lay in its potential to
carry passengers and goods. From the beginning, Etienne
sought to persuade the Academy of the validity of his
invention on this basis, arguing that it could be used to
carry bombs over fortifications in wartime sieges or as a
means of cheap transportation. No sooner had Charles’
balloon demonstrated the possibility of ascension did
people begin to imagine an ‘aerial voyage’ directed by
‘aerial navigators’. An ‘amateur of fine arts’ wrote a letter
to the Journal de Paris proposing a vessel shaped like
Pegasus that would combine grace, facility of movement
and safety of the voyager:
“His body would serve as recipient of gas; his head,
the hair before it, would serve as the office of bows;
his wings would moderate the elevation & determine
the speed; his tail would be the helm; & the four feet,
in the posture of a galloping horse, charged in their
extremities with a weighing body, proportioned to
the rest of the machine, would serve as the ballast &
assure the Aerial Cavalier a constant posture.”
In October, Etienne was preparing for the first manned
flight amid intense public curiosity. Besieged with
requests for subscription that would secure a place in his
garden, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon posted a public
announcement in the Journal de Paris stating that the
approaching experiments would be interesting only to
savants and would not afford amusement for the merely
curious. Nonetheless, when the experiments began on
15 October 1783, the spectators grew with each trial. The
attached flights conducted by Rozier easily convinced one
of his companions, Gerond de Villette, that ‘this machine,
though somewhat expensive one, might be very useful in
war to enable one to discover the position of the enemy, his
maneuvers, and his marches; and to announce these by
signals to one’s own army’ [17].
The first free flight, in which the balloon was completely
released from its mooring, took place on 21 November 1783
(Figure 2) at the Château de la Muette, the residence of
the two-year old dauphin. To make sure that it was
appropriate for the location, the balloon had been
designed with care. The upper part was embroidered in
gold with fleurs-de-lis and the twelve signs of the zodiac.
The middle part alternated between the monogram of the
king and figures of the sun. The lower part was garnished
with masks, garlands and spread eagles (Figure 3).
Charles and Robert’s ascension in the hydrogen balloon
took place on 1 December 1783 at the Tuilleries. Although
their balloon was of relatively simple design (a stripe of
red and yellow, with the upper hemisphere covered by
a cord netting), their ‘car of triumph’ was ‘so extravagantly shaped and so elaborately bedizened with painted
cloth and decoration that it resembled some mythical
Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
Figure 3. The hot-air balloon designed for the 21 November 1783 flight by Etienne
Montgolfier complete with livery to honor the King of France. Image supplied by,
and reproduced with permission from, the USAF Mcdermott Library, Special
Collections Branch.
chariot of the gods as conceived by a master of the
baroque. symbolizing the conquest of the air and the
heroic stature of the aeronauts’ [18] (Figure 4). When
the balloon descended at Nesles, the aeronauts were
greeted by the Duc de Chartres, the Duc de Fitz-James,
and an Englishman, Farrer, who had followed the balloon
on horseback.
The first aeronauts – or the new ‘aerial Argonauts’ –
received public acclaim that exceeded that of the Montgolfier
brothers’, garnering poetry and praise, and setting off
spontaneous parades and festivals. Jean-Baptiste Le Roy,
an academician no less, called for a subscription to forge a
gold medal for Rozier. Others wanted to erect ‘a historical
monument’ to mark the site where the machine landed. The
manner in which the aeronauts were celebrated in the
provinces provides us with a vivid picture of their role in
creating a popular mythology of science. After a longawaited flight in Lyon, where Joseph Montgolfier had
constructed a large balloon commissioned by the royal
intendant Jacques de Flesselles, the jubilant crowd of
4000–5000 accosted Joseph and some other aeronauts in a
carriage (which they flagged down and then tried to eject
those female passengers who were in it) that was taking
them back to the town under the escort of a brigade of
mounted police. After Prince Charles invited them to
dinner, Flesselles took them to the opera where they
Figure 4. French balloonist Jacques Alexandre César Charles receiving a wreath
from Apollo, while cherubs and an angel surround his balloon. This image was
taken from a steel engraving by E.A. Tilly, after Nageon. Image supplied by, and
reproduced with permission from, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs
Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02190.
stopped the performance and crowned the aeronauts with
garlands. Supper followed at the residence of the military
commandant, and the ball that followed was opened with a
minuet by Madame de Flesselles. The noblemen who had
fought with their swords and pistols to become aeronauts
– compromising the balloon and nearly killing themselves
– spent the day as folk heroes next to the inventor.
In Dijon, a city proud of its scientific prowess, the
academicians took the initiative in establishing a subscription to support the building of an aerostatic machine
that could be directed at will, taking care that this
endeavour did not take on the appearance of a vulgar
enthusiasm or curiosity in the eyes of the ruling crust of
the city – solemn magistrates, lawyers and royal administrators. However, public enthusiasm quickly eclipsed the
Academy’s reserved rhetoric. Poets of the literary city
poured out odes celebrating the future ‘empire of airs’, and
comparing the aeronauts to classical heroes. When the
aeronauts (Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau and Abbé
Bertrand) landed at Auxonne they were greeted by local
officials who invited them to dinner. The officers of the
artillery corps offered a fête in their honor. When they
opted to return to Dijon despite the late hour, the
Dijonnais who had followed the balloon accompanied
them, carrying trumpets and timbales. At least 25 horses
Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
and carriages enlarged the cortège further. They arrived
at Dijon late at night, having missed a spontaneous
festival that had broken out: men and women of all
stations had come out to line the long path from the port
Saint-Pierre to Cremolois that was a league and a half in
length. Carriages and horses abounded. Most of the
gathering had returned to the village with the approach
of the night, but quite a number still remained. When
the aeronauts finally arrived, preceded by the cavalcade and the sound of trumpets, fifs and drums, they
were greeted by renewed acclamations from the
numerous crowd that still remained and were crowned
with a bouquet of flowers [19].
The cult of reason
The popular coronations at the theater and in a ceremony
simulating the medieval entrées of kings and dukes – a
resurrection of political rituals from the Middle Ages –
bespeak of the popularity and authority the aeronauts
commanded among the people. They personified the hero
of the classical drama on the aerial stage and thereby
brought to life the image of the scientist (long cultivated by
Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Pierre-Louis Moreau
de Maupertuis, among others) as a virtuous hero, who
would overcome all obstacles and hardships that lay in the
pursuit of the truth with perseverance and courage [20].
Their moment of uncontested glory in the midst of the
composite ‘public’ poses interesting questions concerning
the role science played in shaping public opinion and
ideology during the last years of the ancien régime. Did the
balloons bring back the representative public sphere that
had been in decline since Louis XIV’s localization of royal
spectacles at Versailles, or did they mobilize the machineries of royal representation and Parisian entertainment
to create an egalitarian, moralistic, truthful and futuristic
public sphere in which all classes mingled together? The
fluid movement of the balloons between the royal institutions, the literary public sphere, the commercial sphere
and the plebeian public (including peasants) makes it
impossible for us to apply Habermas’ notion of the representative, bourgeois and plebeian public spheres as successive historical stages in the formation of modern public.
When successful, the balloon ascensions brought people
from all social stations together through their immediate
and universal capacity to inspire wonder. The exceptional
status of the balloons Arago mentioned was in large part
owing to their symbolic status that transcended social and
political divisions among the composite public. If the
construction of balloons mobilized local resources or royal
patronage, they commanded universal authority as ‘news
in the air’. Princes and nobles thus sought to harness the
power and the authority balloons and their pilots
commanded among the people. Through the balloons,
science now offered an exceptional opportunity for true
ennoblement that could be endorsed by the public, rather
than a paper entitlement that was often ridiculed in
practice [21]. However, in the instances when balloon
flights ended in failure they occasioned minor riots. The
makeshift physical barrier between the subscribers and
the people outside was extremely fragile. The near-failure
of the flight at the Château de la Muette invited mockery
from the crowd. The escalating tension was curbed only by
the efforts of the volunteers – ‘all those distinguished by
rank or knowledge’ – who saved the balloon and the
royal honor. When Abbés Miolan and Janninet failed to
fly their balloon at the time arranged at Luxembourg, the
crowd that had waited from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. broke down
the barrier:
“Sneers of derision made themselves heard on all
sides. A universal murmur, rapidly developing into a
clamour, arose amongst the multitude; then, wild
with disappointment, the frenzied populace threw
themselves upon the barricade, broke it, attacked
the gallery of the balloon, the instruments, the
apparatus, trampling them under foot, and smashing them in bits. They then rushed upon the balloon
and fired it. There was then a general mêlée. Far
from fleeing from the fire, everyone struggled to
seize and carry off a bit of the balloon, to preserve as
a relic. The two abbés escaped as they best could,
under protection of a number of friends” [22].
These oscillating moments of consecration and sacrilege that the balloons engendered among the ‘people’
capture the instances when things, spectacles and events
(rather than words) shaped public and popular opinion.
Subversive words did not simply trickle down from the
published literature. They attached themselves to the
discussions of the things seen by the people and assumed
‘the form appropriate to the way the events had happened’
[23]. Popular culture was shaped by acts of appropriation,
rather than by a trickle-down from the elite culture [24].
The factual description of balloon ascensions in the
Journal de Paris largely suppressed this participatory
dimension of a remarkable scientific spectacle. However,
one has to wonder if it was precisely this factual, and
seemingly politically neutral, description that enabled the
balloon to move freely between different social strata,
mobilizing the people to an unprecedented degree and
setting the stage for a people’s revolution that was not
sanctioned by the literary ‘public’. As Colin Jones put it,
‘a kind of subterranean, anti-authority journalism’ that
fashioned the citizen-consumer could evolve ‘beneath a
morass of prudent conformism and loyalist yea-saying’ by
the journalists. At the very least, the participation in these
scientific spectacles would have nurtured the cult of
reason that came to dominate the revolutionary rhetoric.
1 Marion, F. (1888) Wonderful Balloon Ascents; or, The Conquest of the
Skies. A History of Balloons and Balloon Voyages, Cassel (London,
United Kingdom), pp. 2–3
2 Darnton, R. (1968) Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in
France, Harvard University Press, p. 22
3 Mercier, L-S. (1783) Le premier décembre. Le Tableau de Paris 2,
pp. 886–889. Translated in Popkin, J.D., ed. (1999) Panorama of Paris,
The Pennsylvania State University Press, p. 196
4 Goldgar, A. (1995) Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the
Republic of Letters, 1680–1750, Yale University Press
5 Brockliss, L.W.B. (2002) Calvet’s Web: Enlightenment and the Republic
of Letters in Eighteenth-Century France, Oxford University Press
6 Jones, C. (1996) The Great Chain of Buying: Medical Advertisement,
the Bourgeois Public Sphere, and the Origins of the French
Revolution. American Historical Review 101, 13–40
Vol.28 No.4 December 2004
7 Habermas, J. (1991) The Structural Transformation of the Public
Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, MIT Press
8 The following account of the endeavors of the Montgolfier brothers is
drawn from Gillispie, C.C. (1983) The Montgolfier Brothers and the
Invention of Aviation, 1783–1784, Princeton University Press
9 Baker, K.M. (1987) Politics and Public Opinion Under the Old Regime:
Some Reflections. In Press and Politics in Pre-Revolutionary France
(Censer, J.R. and Popkin, J.D., eds), pp. 204–246, University of
California Press
10 See Shapin, S. (1984) Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s
Literary Technology. Social Studies of Science 14, pp. 481–520 and
Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. (1985) Leviathan and the Air-Pump:
Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton University Press
11 See Darnton, R. (1979) The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing
History of Encyclopédia, 1775–1800, Harvard University Press and
van Horn Melton, J. (2001) The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment
Europe, Cambridge University Press
12 Maza, S. (1993) Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes célèbres
of prerevolutionary France, The University of California Press
13 Farge, A. (1993) Fragile Lives: Violence, Power and Solidarity in
Eighteenth-Century Paris, Harvard University Press, pp. 204–225
14 See Merrick, J. (1990) The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in
the Eighteenth Century, Louisiana State University Press and
Graham, L.J. (2000) If the King Only Knew: Seditious Speech in the
Reign of Louis XV, University Press of Virginia
15 Bryant, L.M. (1986) The King and the City in the Parisian Royal Entry
Ceremony: Politics, Ritual, and Art in the Renaissance, Libraire Droz
S.A. (Geneva, Switzerland)
16 The first, larger balloon (70 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter) was
made of paper and was destroyed in the test flight in the presence of
academicians, leading to it being replaced by a smaller one (57 feet in
height and 41 feet in diameter) made of taffeta coated with varnish.
Both were decorated in blue and gold with royal symbols
17 Journal de Paris, 26 October (1783)
18 Rolt L.T.C. (1966) The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning, 1783-1903,
Longmans (London, UK), p. 50
19 Journal de Bourgogne, 4 May (1784)
20 Terrall, M. (2002) The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and
the Sciences in the Enlightenment, The University of Chicago Press
21 Smith, J.M. (1996) The Culture of Merit: Nobility, Royal Service, and
the Making of Absolute Monarchy, 1600-1789, University of Michigan
22 Marion, F. (1888), pp. 128–129
23 Farge, A. (1995) Subversive Words: Public Opinion in EighteenthCentury France, Pennsylvania State University Press, p. 36
24 Chartier, R. (1984) Culture as Appropriation. In Understanding
Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth
Century (Kaplan, S.L., ed.), pp. 229–253, Mouton (The Hague, The
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