Anyone who’s spoken to me for any length of time will know that, as far as steampunks go, I’m very odd (I’m odd in other ways too, but that’s for another day). The main reason I’m so odd is that I can’t actually manage vast amounts of enthusiasm for the Victorian era. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it was great, and I’ve dabbled with it as much as the next girl, but it’s not really where my heart is.
No, that space belongs to the Romantic Age.
This is the period around the Regency (a word that I’ve stopped using lately to avoid Jane Austen connotations) which was between 1811 and 1820. But the Romantic Age can be said to extend beyond this narrow space into a woolly area somewhere between the 1760s and the beginnings of the Victorian era. The period that is of particular interest to me between 1780 and 1820.
For about the last year, I’ve been working on steadily developing my own form of Romantic Age steampunk which along the way has picked up the cute little monkier of ‘dreampunk’. If you don’t understand why, then you soon will.
In starting to develop a steampunk setting in any time and place, the first thing to do is look at the technology, right? And when you start doing that with the Romantic Age, what jumps out at you as really encompassing the sheer spirit and wonder of the age boils down to one thing: the hot air balloon.
So, let’s start with them, shall we?
The first real, genuine, documented and manned hot air balloon flight happened in France in 1783. The balloon was built by the Montgolfier brothers, two paper merchants from Ardèche who had supposedly discovered the massive potential of flight while watching laundry drying. As the story goes, Joseph Montgolfier watched a woman’s slip billowing over the fire where it had been hung to dry, and suddenly conceived of the possibilities of hot air rising.
This sort of ‘eureka moment’ is not unusual in Romantic science. You find it everywhere. In fact, you even find it in places where it never actually happened, such as with Herschel’s discovery of the Georgius Sidius (later to be called Uranus). But that’s a story for another time.
The Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon (later known as the montgolfière after its creators) was constructed almost entirely from paper and paste. The gallery for its passengers was ring-shaped to accommodate the brazier in the centre. This brazier was fed by a mixture of damp straw and wool, and could be raised or lowered to adjust the amount of lift fed up into the ballonet.
The pilot of this inaugural flight was one Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a physician and chemist living in Paris. You will be hearing much more about him a little later on, believe me. Pilâtre de Rozier was an aviator cast straight from the Romantic mould: Small, slight and energetic with an almost crackling enthusiasm and a rebellious temperament, he was the ideal man for the job. However, the ring-shaped structure of the gallery necessitated a counterweight, and for this purpose François Laurent d’Arlandes was chosen.
Supposedly fearless and audacious, d’Arlandes quickly proved that he wasn’t best-suited to air travel. Contemporary reports have him shouting “We must land! We must land now!” across at Pilâtre de Rozier as the balloon drifted over Paris, occasionally interspersed with “What are you doing? Stop dancing! ”
Pilâtre de Rozier, on the other hand, was overcome with a kind of ecstasy, retorting: “Look, d’Arlandes. Here we are above Paris. There’s no possible danger for you. Are you taking this all in?”
This flight was the starting point of a ballooning craze that would sweep across the whole of Europe, catching everyone up in its dreams of flight. The next major breakthrough came only ten days later, with the invention of an entirely different sort of flying balloon.
So far, we have focused purely on the hot-air-style montgolfière ballonet that was so famously described as “putting a cloud into a paper bag,” however the balloon that launched from the Tuileries Gardens just over a week later was of a completely different nature.
Named the charlière (again after its creator, Jacques Alexandre Charles), this balloon was powered not by hot air, but by hydrogen.
The charlière was striped pink and yellow, and the gallery beneath it was not the ring-shape of the montgolfière, but was shaped like a small wicker boat festooned with flags and ribbons and hung beneath the massive envelope of the balloon.
The charlière flew for twenty-seven miles with Jacques Charles and his scientific assistant, M. Robert, who again experienced the sense of awe and wonder documented by d’Arlandes and Pilâtre de Rozier. Later, Charles wrote:
“Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles forever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstasy. My companion Monsieur Robert murmured to me – I’m finished with the Earth. From now on it’s the sky for me! Such utter calm. Such immensity! ”
This the sort of wonder in the face of Nature and humanity’s achievements that the Romantic poets would later call the Sublime: the mixture of ecstasy and terror a person feels when faced with the immensity of the Nature and the unbridled sky.
A year later, the ballooning craze finally made it across the Channel to England. It did it in the form of twenty-five year old Italian aethernaut, Vincenzo ‘Vincent’ Lunardi. Lacking official sponsorship from either the Crown or the Royal Society (who still generally believed ballooning to be a fad without any real, practical applications), Lunardi funded his venture by turning it into a spectacle.
For several weeks before the flight of Lunardi’s balloon (which was hydrogen-powered in the charlière style), the red-and-white-striped envelope was on display at the Lyceum Theatre on the Strand. He sold front-row tickets for the launch, took his cat and dog up with him, sold his story to the Morning Post, and arrived to see the Duchess of Devonshire dressed in her jockey colours of blue and chocolate. Lunardi was a natural showman, and very much a man after Pilâtre de Rozier: small, handsome, and with an indomitable enthusiasm. But, more than this, he had a real flare for the spectacle of it all. Lunardi also believed firmly that balloons could be guided and steered by the use of ‘airial oars’, which would allow the pilot to row through the skies as if through deep water.
The following year, in 1785, Lunardi further capitalised on this ability to cause shock and spectacle by taking a woman up on a flight. The woman in question was Mrs Sage. An actress renowned for her voluptuous figure, she arrived for the launch in a low-cut silk dress, and made history as the ‘First Aerial female’.
Mrs Sage was far from the last. Years later, Sophie Blanchard (wife of the late balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard) was another female aethernaut, and famed throughout France for much of Napoleon’s rule. Sophie continued on in the showy style that was started by Lundardi, using her balloon for performances that included flags, parachutes, fireworks and acrobatics.
However, before we move on, there is one final kind of balloon that we should look at alongside the charlière and montgolfière – and that is the ill-fated rozière.
Remember how I mentioned that you’d be hearing more about Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier? Yep, well here’s why:
In the same year that Lunardi was taking Mrs Sage up with him in his charlière (and causing all the expected scandal and rumours to boot), Pilâtre de Rozier was dreaming up a balloon of his own.
As far as he could see it, both kinds of balloon that had been invented and used so far had their own merits, and their own drawbacks: The hydrogen of the charlière provided a lifting power far superior to any hot air balloon, while the adjustable brazier of the montgolfière allowed for a greater degree of manoeuvrability. What was really needed was a kind of balloon that had both the power to lift, and the ability to be adjusted…
As you are probably beginning to guess, Pilâtre de Rozier made a decision that was perhaps not the wisest that he could have made: he decided to combine the two.
The rozière balloon was beyond ahead of its time – most people today would say that it was madness. In the arms race between the British and French to be the first to cross the Channel, Pilâtre de Rozier designed a balloon that looked like a flying sceptre. Made of paste and silk and rubber layered over one another, the rozière was composed of a large, spherical envelope filled with hydrogen at the top, beneath which was a longer, column-shaped section that would be filled with hot air from the brazier.
As you are all no doubt imagining by now, this did not end well.
Shortly after take-off, sparks were seen dancing in the air around the brazier, and Pilâtre de Rozier was witnessed tugging frantically at the cord attached to the release valve at the top of the hydrogen balloon. Not long after that, the entire envelope of the balloon disintegrated into flames. The rozière went into freefall, and by the time they found the bodies of Pilâtre de Rozier and his companion Pierre Romain, they were so badly broken and ruptured that they were buried almost immediately.
It was a tragedy only deepened by the fact that a few days later, Pilâtre de Rozier’s mistress took her own life.
The funny thing about it, though, is that modern research has suggested that actually Pilâtre de Rozier wasn’t so stupid after all. The possibility has been raised that his design was sound, and that it was only a freak accident that caused his death. Certainly, the fact that the first balloon to complete a flight around the world was a rozière (although it was filled with helium instead of hydrogen) would seem to support this. As far as we can understand it today, something went wrong with the release-valve in the top section of the balloon, and the friction that Pilâtre de Rozier created by continually trying to release it ignited the hydrogen inside. And that sort of tiny, stupid detail resulted in the deaths of two men, and a darkening in the balloon craze that was sweeping across Europe. If nothing else, the use of the rozière-style balloon was almost completely abandoned after the crash.
The steampunk in me can’t quite help but respond to that. It’s that little voice that whispers away at the back of my head, saying over and over again: “what if? ”.
What if Pilâtre de Rozier had lived? What if he had successfully crossed the Channel? What if his dream of combining hot air and hydrogen had come to fruition? What would have happened next?
And speaking of that little, niggling, ‘what if?’ question, before we leave off ballooning in the Age of Wonder, there’s one more person that we need to look at, and that’s Jean Baptiste Meusnier.
Most people think of dirigibles, zeppelins and airships as a uniquely Victorian or Edwardian invention, but the fact of the matter is that the Romantics have them beat. In this same incredible few years between the Montgolfier brothers’ first flight in 1783 and the death of Pilâtre de Rozier in 1785, a man with a whole sentence of a name – Jean Baptiste Marie Charles Meusnier de la Place –invented the world’s first airship.
The meusnier took the form of a boat-shaped basket suspended beneath an elliptical ballonet and driven by hand-cranked propellers. Meusnier’s designs were presented to the Académie des Sciences, but ultimately came to nothing: The French Revolution brought Meusnier into a war, and he died after being injured at the Siege of Mainz. Yet another tiny, random coincidence that changed the whole future of Romantic technology irrevocably, it again leaves us with that little, nagging question bubbling away at the back of our minds…