Vincenzo Lunardi – The Daredevil Aeronaut

Vincenzo Lunardi, known as the “daredevil aeronaut,” followed in the Montgolfier brother’s footsteps and gained fame as the first aerial traveler in England. He was also the person who initiated a ballooning frenzy because Lunardi, unlike the Montgolfier brothers, was not rich, and to offset the costs of his ballooning, it became a matter of necessity that the balloon pay for itself. His balloon was set to be released on 15 September 1784, the year when Jane Austen would have been nine years old. The balloon was to ascend from the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Companyand the entrance to the event was one guinea for chairs close to the balcony, a half-guinea for seats behind the first row of chairs, and admission to view the construction of the balloon was four times the cost of the balcony chairs.

Vincenzo Lunardi Ascending from the Artillery Ground

Vincenzo Lunardi ascending from the artillery ground. Public domain.

There were mixed feelings about Lunardi’s ascent. Horace Walpole, the English art historian, antiquarian and Whig politician, thought the whole affair ludicrous. He wrote to the American educational reformer Horace Mann stating that “he would not stir one step or pay one guinea to see one Lunardi, an Italian, mount into the clouds.”[1] Other people thought differently. The statesman and author Edmund Burke was excited about seeing the ascent, and he along with the British statesman William Windham, traveled to witness it. In fact, it seemed as if there was universal interest in the event because before “dawn … every available corner near the scene of the ascent had been taken possession of.”[2]

As the hours ticked by, the crowd increased. The process to fill the balloon was tedious and slow, and when the balloon did not lift off at the appointed time, the crowd became impatient. As time passed, the crowd became more restless, and Vincenzo Lunardi fearing that the crowd might damage his balloon, decided to reduce the weight of the balloon by leaving his flying companion George Biggin behind. Instead he took his dog, cat, and pigeon. At 2:30pm the cords were released:

“[The] balloon sailed away amid the shouts of the populace … When the balloon had risen to a certain height the pigeon managed to escape, and its flight through the air was greeted with acclamation by the gazing crowd.”[3]

Vincenzo Lunardi, Public Domain

Vincenzo Lunardi. Public domain.

During the voyage — a two hour and fifteen minute flight — Vincenzo Lunardi dined on cold chicken. He also wrote letters, three of which he dropped from the balloon “trusting to the chance that some kind Samaritan might pick them up and post them.”[4] At least one was posted, for in it Lunardi wrote:

“I could distinguish St. Pauls, and other churches from houses; I saw the streets in lines all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but who I should otherwise have a difficulty in describing … I had not the slightest sense of motion in the machine; I knew not whether it ascended or descended, whether it was agitated or tranquil, save by the appearance of the objects on the earth.”[5]

Ballooning was still so new in England three incidences show the public excitement surrounding Lunardi’s ascent. First, a woman saw something drop from the basket while Lunardi’s balloon was in flight. She thought it was the aeronaut himself and supposedly died from fright. The next incident involved a jury considering the fate of a notorious highwayman: The court adjourned to watch Lunardi’s balloon pass over, and “the jury to save time acquitted the prisoner.”[6] Lastly, the Cabinet Council was in session. It also disbanded so it members could watch the balloon through a telescope. The King who was also in attendance, supposedly remarked, “we may resume our deliberations at pleasure, but we may never see poor Lunardi again.”[7]

Vincenzo Lunardi

A represenation of Lunardi’s balloon when exhibited at the Pantheon in France. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The balloon traveled towards Hertfordshire. It was similar to the Montgolfier’s balloon, but also furnished with wings “to excite a breeze when it was becalmed, and oars to lower it by means of a vertical motion.”[8] Vincenzo Lunardi used the wings to achieve a safe landing in Welham Green, a village in the parish of North Mymms. This was also where the air sick and freezing cat was allowed to go free. Later, the cat’s flight became a point of contention with Walpole. He wrote to Lady Ossory, formerly Duchess of Grafton, complaining that he did not care if Lunardi endangered his life but he should not have done so with the “poor cat.”

The spot where Vincenzo Lunardi landed was at the corner of Huggins Lane and Parsonage Lane (although some people claim it was further north). Thereafter the spot was marked by a stone plinth and known as “Balloon Corner.” Lunardi did not stay long in this spot because he ascended once again and traveled for another half hour before achieving a safe landing “in a large and beautiful meadow, which he found … near Ware in Hertfordshire.”[9] His successful flight resulted in him acquiring a stellar reputation among English royalty: King George III complimented him and the Prince of Wales “admitted him to his private friendship,”[10] but what was of most interest to Lunardi was his finances, which greatly improved after his successful flight.

The Stone Plinth at Balloon Corner, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The stone plinth at balloon corner. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Vincenzo Lunardi became so popular and was considered such a bold adventurer, his name was commemorated in the introduction of a fashionable young ladies bonnet called the “Lunardi” and popularized in a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. As for Walpole, he continued to grumble and complain about aeronauts floating in the skies. In another letter to his friend Mann, Walpole noted that Lunardi was exhibiting “his person, his balloon, his dog and cat at the Pantheon for one shilling each visitor.”[11] Walpole also wrote about Lunardi’s rival, the pioneering balloonist, Jean-Pierre [François] Blanchard, and then commented, “I expect they will soon have an air fight in the clouds.”[12]

References:

  • [1] Eclectic Magazine, 1898, p. 362.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] The London Quarterly Review, 1875, p. 60.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Eclectic Magazine, p. 362.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 363.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.

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