Hot Air Balloon Launch Riot!

Being an aeronaut, in the early days of hot air balloons or hot air balloons, was a risky business. You could pass out in thin air. Your balloon could crash into a house or go up in a blazing fire. And then there was always the risk of your craft being torn apart in a classic hot air (or gas) balloon riot.

Such occurrences were surprisingly frequent. Sarah Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin) witnessed a in Paris:

The Balloon should have risen at 4 o’clock, by means of air rarefied by the fire. The balloon caught fire and the experiment did not succeed… People were furious and threw themselves on the Balloon, and each shredded it, taking away a sample; some large enough to make a mattress and I believe the author would have suffered the same fate had he not been escorted by a detachment of the French Guard.

In these early days of ballooning, launches were highly experimental and therefore prone to failure. When it looked like failure was imminent, the crowd’s mood began to turn. The balloons had to be filled slowly, because the hydrogen was produced by pour sulfuric acid on iron filings. This meant that for every event – especially the gas balloon – there was a long period of suspense during which it was uncertain whether or not the balloon would succeed in rising – plenty of time for the crowd to become agitated and uncomfortable.

The aeronauts were forced to make risky calculations: was it better to wait until the crowd became more and more restive or to take off in a badly inflated balloon? In 1784, Vincenzo Lunardi successfully launched the first manned balloon in England. The pioneer aeronaut was forced by a impatient crowd to ascend early, in a half-inflated gas balloon that looked more like an upside-down pear. The gamble paid off and Lunardi became an instant national hero, but it could easily have gone the other way.

Stereograph of a gas balloon, 1850s-60s

Other incidents began when the mob began to suspect she was being cheated. Balloonist Henry Coxwell was about to take off when a the rumor spread through the crowd that “the ball then present was not my biggest and newest ball, but a small one.” His balloon was torn and the car burned down; scraps of cloth were sold on the street.

The hot air balloon riot was the other side of the coin massive enthusiasm for ballooning which soon followed the first successful launch, in France, in 1783. As news of the launch spread, balloons began to appear on every surface imaginable. Soon, you could wear it all your life: for the house, there were balloons tea canisters, chairs, saucers, plates, flower pots, cupsand clocks; for the body, ball watches, tissues, Fans, snuff boxesand vests. Women wore not only balloon earrings and balloon pins, but also “balloon ribbons” and “balloon side buckles”. Toy manufacturers soon began producing tiny hot air balloons, so anyone could recreate a miniature launch at home. One liqueur maker even advertised a “aerostatic cream.”

It was a time of great optimism and great uncertainty. In the press, the writers quarrel over the scope of the new invention: these air balloons are the sign of the triumph of man over nature; hot air or gas balloons were a dangerous fad that infected the populace with “ballomania”. Hot air balloons would make transcontinental travel quick, easy, and enjoyable; hot air balloons would become the new naval fleets and turn the sky into a war zone.

Designs for the top and four sides of a snuffbox with scenes depicting the ascent of a hot-air balloon
Designs for the Top and Four Sides of a Snuffbox with Scenes Illustrating the Ascent of a Hot-Air Balloon, ca. 1784-89

Indeed, as Paul Keen suggests in “Balloonomania: science and entertainment in 1780s EnglandBritain’s balloon riots were probably motivated in part by xenophobia. Mockery of French “fashion” combined with concern about the potential of the new device. A political cartoon showed French and English balloons bombarding each other with cannon fire, accompanied by a caption claiming that such sites would be common by the year 1800. Anxiety over the potential of the new invention gave the impression that the aeronauts were devious foreigners seeking to deceive the British public, take their money and make them look like fools.

However, balloon riots were not unique to Britain. In Philadelphia, a riot in Vauxhall Gardens broke out when the guards injured a boy who was trying to scale a fence to get a better view of the star. They beat him unconscious and the crowd responded by breaking the fence and tearing up the ball. This points to another potential incitement (or at least a potential aggravation) for the balloon riot: an overreaction by local authorities. Indeed, it appears that the riot that destroyed Coxwell’s balloon only became destructive after a policeman hit a woman in the crowd, leaving her bleeding on the ground.

Authorities tended to be wary of “balloon-mad” crowds, which were seen as unruly and lower-class. This may have been shaped by the way balloon-goers were depicted in the press, which often reflected an upper-class resentment of working-class people doing other things than, well, working. This attitude is on full display in this quote from The Times of London:

[I]It is high time that a restraint was brought to the madness of their frequent travels through the air, without a single good goal being produced. If the number of manufacturers it takes out of their employment were calculated, a very alarming loss for the nation would appear to the reader, which all the money spent by foreigners in this nation will not compensate for; not to mention the dissipation, idleness and misdeeds which are the natural consequences of workers taking vacations.

Or, as a poem Put the:

Lunardi’s movements in the sky,
Has spread the passion to be high;
And tempted those on earth glad
Before, wish for an ascent.


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