In the year 1774, the year following the Montgolfier brothers’ historic balloon flight, everyone in England was balloon crazy. Partly because it meant that people could fly for the first time ever, which was completely amazing. But also because they were slightly worried that the French were going to use their new invention to spy on them, or worse still, launch an invasion. England definitely needed a balloon of her own. Several small ones had been released but none had yet succeeded in carrying a human. There had been a manned flight in Scotland and a previous attempt in London which had ended in failure and a fire, followed by a riot in which the balloon and also nearby property were destroyed.
The first successful flight in England was made by Italian born Vincenzo Lunardi on September 15th 1774. Along with his partner, George Biggin, Lunardi planned to make his ascent from the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital. But the hospital declined, fearing another riot. They managed to secure permission to use the Artillery Grounds at Moorfields on the proviso that they put aside £500 to pay for any damages and give £100 to establish a fund to support the families of deceased artillerymen.
The balloon was 33 feet (10 m) in diameter and made from blue and red oiled silk. Rather than use hot air, which meant lighting a fire, a chemist, Dr George Fordyce was employed to build equipment to manufacture hydrogen and fill the balloon with it. It took all the previous night and most of the day to inflate the balloon. A massive crowd of around 100,000 had gathered and they were becoming restless. The plan had been for both Lunardi and Biggin to make the historic flight. But they were worried about how the crowd would react if they were kept waiting too long. In the end Lunardi took off without his partner in a partially inflated balloon. He was not completely alone though, he had a dog, a cat and a pigeon with him. He also had a massive pair of oars, which he was convinced would help him on his journey. The balloon flew for thirteen miles before landing at Welham Green in North Mymms to drop off the cat, who was not at all happy. Having also deposited some ballast the balloon rose into the air again. Lunardi wrote a flowery note about how lovely the clouds were, which he dropped over the side and made a final landing in a field at Standon in Hertfordshire. He frightened some farmworkers there who would not go anywhere near him and was assisted in his landing by a young woman who grabbed the rope that he threw out. He had flown a total of twenty-four miles
Lunardi’s flight was a massive success. He was presented to King George III dressed in a uniform given to him by the Artillery. He became famous. Wigs, coats and skirts with balloon motifs were named after him, as well as the Lunardi bonnet, a balloon shaped hat that was about two feet high. He also became quite wealthy after he exhibited his balloon at the Pantheon in Oxford Street.
Balloons became fantastically popular and people started to think of more and more outlandish ways of using them. In the course of our research, we found a man who died following his attempt to parachute from a balloon. He had failed to account for the weight of his parachute in his calculations, it weighed 250lb (113 kg), and he plummeted to the ground like a stone. The oddest one we found though was a man who went up in a balloon with a leopard. The only evidence we could find for this was a poster advertising his second flight with the leopard. So presumably the first one wasn’t fatal.