Birth of a Legend

07 07 weather balloonI did consider trying to find something else to tell you about today, as this is already well-trodden ground, particularly on the internet, but today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On this day in 1947, the crashed wreckage of something was found on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. It was reported to the Sheriff’s office, who notified the military. They came and picked it up and took it away. At first it was reported that a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered, which was a bit mysterious. But the military announced that what had been recovered was a weather balloon. Years of speculation have led many to believe that it was a bit more that that. And it was. In the 1990s, the military admitted that they had been using weather balloons, with surveillance equipment attached. They were trying to find out if the Russians had developed and were testing a nuclear weapon and were hoping to pick up disturbances in the atmosphere that would tell them if that had happened. The equipment included a radar reflector, made from thin metal foil, which was used to track the balloon and the balloon itself would have probably been made from neoprene, a sort of synthetic rubber. It was a very secret project named ‘Project Mogul’. The balloons did detect the first Russian nuclear bomb in 1949, but the project was shelved in 1950. As a secretive method of surveillance, a massive balloon wasn’t really all that successful. A colonel, who had been in charge of the project said: “It was like having an elephant in your back yard and hoping no one would notice it.”

Earliest reports of the wreckage described strips of rubber, tin foil, paper and sticks. A lot of the what-ever-it-was had been fastened together with Scotch tape. Some of the tape had flowers printed on it. The material that was collected from the crash site weighed about 5 lb. There were no large pieces of metal, nothing that indicated it might have had an engine. It was bits of a balloon that had had something fastened to it. No one thought much more about it until around 1978.

Between 1978 and 1990, UFO researches interviewed hundreds of people who claimed to had a connection to the event at Roswell. They also received documents that supposedly contained secret information leaked by insiders. A document known as ‘Majestic 12’ claimed that an alien spaceship had crashed and that alien technology had been recovered that could be exploited. Then someone who claimed to be connected to the case said that there had been alien beings on the ship and promised footage of an interview with one of them. Nothing materialised. Majestic 12 is now widely thought of as a forgery, but it was the beginning of a really good story. People were fascinated by the thought that we could have been visited by beings from another planet and that the whole thing had been hushed up by the government. Books were written on the subject and a wild and unsubstantiated rumour amongst a few people moved into the mainstream consciousness.

07 07 roswellIn version one of the story, ‘The Roswell Incident’ published in 1980, a spaceship was struck by lightening and crashed in the desert, killing the aliens. The whole thing was covered up by the government. Some archaeology students, from an unidentified university, saw the crash site and the bodies. The material recovered was not a balloon but some strange, new, super-strong material. A photograph of the rancher posing with the recovered material had been faked. Witnesses had been hushed up. It was a popular book and others started to come up with their own versions.

By 1991, in a book called ‘UFO crash at Roswell’, a second crash site had been added to the story. The whole area had been crawling with military police trying to keep people away. Shortly after that, the story of three alien bodies being held at the Roswell Army Air Base emerged. It was the start of the ‘alien autopsy’ thread. This was followed up by a purported film of the autopsies. Its maker has since admitted that he faked to footage using rubber models, chicken entrails, sheep’s brains and raspberry jam. The following year, another book was published which claimed there had been two flying saucers and eight aliens, two of whom had survived.

In 1997, a book called ‘The Day After Roswell’ was published by a former army officer, Philip J Corso. He claimed to have seen the alien bodies from Roswell stowed in crates and that later, he was given material from the crash site. His job was to reverse engineer the objects he was given, so that alien technology could be exploited for corporate use. He claimed to have found technology which helped with the development of lasers, fibre optics, bullet-proof vests and microchips. Again, a fascinating story, but it seriously undervalues the work of all the scientists who actually worked very hard, over years and years to develop those things. There was one piece of equipment though, that he claimed he could do nothing with. It was a helmet that he believed the aliens had used to steer the ship telepathically. Recently, our scientists have come up with a way of controlling a computer directly from the brain. One day, it will be brilliant for people who are paralysed. They will be able to control their wheelchairs, switch on the TV, use a computer. And we’ve done that all by ourselves, with no help at all from Philip Corso.

Human beings are clever. I think it’s wrong to underestimate our ingenuity. I don’t think we needed outside help with our technology, any more than I think the ancient Egyptians needed alien advice when they built their pyramids. We are an inventive and curious people and we always have been. We are good at making objects and we are also good at making stories. What we probably have at Roswell, which is most interesting to me, is the birth of a legend.

It makes me think about the two completely separate lives of Roger Bacon, one real and one imagined. It makes me think about the Trojan War. It was fought by the gods and the children of gods and was thought to be just a legend. But now there is some archaeological evidence that it may actually have happened. There must have been years and years of people retelling the story, half remembering things, adding bits to make it more exciting. Conspiracy theories like Roswell are probably just no more than modern myths that fulfil our need for wild stories. We have no exciting pantheon of gods now, no Prometheus to bring us fire. We have aliens who bring us microchips and lasers.

Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb

Up, Up And Away

06 04 montgolfiersToday, I am celebrating the first public demonstration of the hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. There were sixteen Montgolfier siblings. I don’t know much about the others but I can say they were, and still are, a family of paper makers. For today though, I shall focus on Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne.

A year earlier, Joseph had been sitting by his fire musing, for some reason, on the fortress of Gibraltar which was impossible to attack by either land or sea. There was laundry drying over the fire and as he watched it billow upward in the rising hot air, he began to wonder whether an air attack might be possible. Joseph was an inventive sort of a chap and he built himself a very thin wooden frame about 3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft which he covered in taffeta. He put crumpled paper underneath and lit it. The box rose into the air and hit the ceiling. He demonstrated it to his brother Étienne who was extremely impressed and they set about building another three times the size. Before they had even finished filling it with hot air, the contraption floated away. It landed in a field over a mile distant. We don’t know exactly what happened but Étienne tells us that it was destroyed due to the ‘indiscretion of  passers by’.

Étienne, who was the more practical of the two, was concerned that someone else might steal their idea and wrote to a friend in Paris asking him to mention it at the Academy of Science. He could see how it could be used to carry messages, goods, even people, relatively cheaply. But he didn’t send any drawings so his friend didn’t know what on earth he was talking about and kept the letter to himself.

Even so, they set about building a much larger model which was spherical in shape and made from sackcloth. They had lined it with paper to help keep the air in and it was made in four pieces which were held together with 1,800 buttons.

On June 4th, a small crowd gathered in their home town of Annonay to witness a large but uninspiring sackcloth bag being strung between two poles. The weather was not good but there was a diocesan assembly in town which meant that there were a lot of important people around. They lit a brazier near the eight foot square opening of the bag. It soon began to fill with air and four men were needed to hold it down with ropes. As soon as they let go the balloon leapt five or six thousand feet into the air and was carried for about a mile and a half. Unfortunately a last minute decision to fasten the brazier beneath the balloon meant that it caught fire when it landed. People working nearby were too frightened of the strange object to put out the fire so it was quickly consumed by the flames. Still, everyone was pretty amazed and the king soon got to hear about it.

On 19th September they were able to demonstrate an even bigger balloon to King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette at Versailles. It was made of blue taffeta and decorated in gold with suns and signs of the zodiac. It must have been an incredible sight. Also this balloon was to carry passengers. The king had wanted to launch two criminals but instead the inventors decided on a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. The sheep was chosen because it was the approximate size and weight of a human, the duck because it could fly and wouldn’t come to much harm and the cockerel to see what would happen to a bird that didn’t usually fly much at all. The flight lasted eight minutes, achieved a height of around 1,500 ft, covered about two miles and landed safely.

06 04 manned flightIn October, the first tethered flight was made with a human passenger, and the following month, the first free flight. The balloon travelled around five and a half miles and landed with enough fuel to have flown four or five times the distance. In fact, it landed with so much fuel it almost caught fire. Nevertheless, it was a huge sensation. Engravings were made to commemorate the event. You could buy mantel clocks with balloons painted on the face, crockery decorated with balloons, even balloon-backed chairs. Everyone was very excited, and rightly so.

The following year saw the first ever female aeronaut, so it’s worth celebrating her as well today as we know little else about her, other than the fact that she was the abandoned spouse of a Lyon merchant. She is especially worth celebrating as she was dressed as the goddess Minerva and sang a couple of duets with her co-passenger as they flew. Her name was Élisbeth Thible and her friend was a Monsieur Fleurant. He credited her with the success of the flight as she had been the one who fed the fuel into the firebox all the way.

Balloons and Catacombs

04 06 nadar in a balloonToday is the birthday of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known by his nickname: ‘Nadar’. He was born in 1820 possibly in Paris, maybe Lyons. Initially, he was training to be a doctor and was particularly interested in the emerging field of psychiatry, but gave it up, probably due to lack of funds. His nickname seems to have come from a tendency among his friends to extend any word by adding ‘dar’ to the end of it. It was a sort of code, a little like pig Latin, but it was a sort of mock medieval French. Hence he became ‘Tournachondar’ then ‘Tournadar’ then just ‘Nadar’.


Nadar had a pretty lean time in his youth and soon fell in with similarly impoverished aspiring artists and writers. He wrote, edited and drew caricatures for a couple of satirical magazines called ‘Le Charivari’ and ‘Petit Journal Pour Rire’. One of his fellow artists was Gustave Doré, who I wrote about in January. In 1854, someone persuaded him to open up a photography studio, specialising in portraits. He left the running of it to his brother as he had a lot of drawing to do. But his brother wasn’t great at it and Nadar soon became interested in photography himself.


04 06 nadar studioHe soon became a much sought after portrait artist and, in 1860, moved in to much larger premises. You can see his studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines on the left. A glass fronted building with his signature on the front of it in huge letters. I wonder what those people on the roof are doing… Nadar depicted his subjects simply and did not surround them with props. He enjoyed being able to put people at their ease and saw his work very much as a collaboration between himself and his sitter. He believed that by applying what he called ‘the psychology of photography’ he could produce an intimate portrait that more closely resembled his subject. He photographed so many famous people that it’s hard to know which to show you. Below are Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote ‘The Three Musketeers’ and his friend and fellow flying enthusiast Jules Verne. The other picture is a series of twelve self-portraits. Someone has thoughtfully made them into a gif, which I can’t post here, but if you want to see Nadar twirling round and round you’ll find him here. The originals were taken in about 1865, that’s several years before Muybridge’s galloping horses.

04 06 gustave dore04 06 alexandre dumas04 06 jules verne04 06 twelve nadars


04 06 catacombs parisHis work was not just confined to portraiture, in 1858, he became the first person to take aerial photographs. He did this by taking his camera up in a balloon. This was even less easy than it sounds because the glass plates he used had to be prepared, exposed and developed during the flight. As well as taking pictures from the air, he was also the first to take photographs underground. In 1861, he used an early kind of arc lamp to give enough light to photograph the catacombs underneath Paris.


In 1863, he commissioned the building of the biggest balloon in the world It was called ‘Le Géant’. The balloon was 196 ft (60 m) high with a capacity of 6,000 cubic metres. It carried a two storey wicker basket that had six cabins including a printing room and a toilet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success. It was mainly the landings that were the problem. It’s second flight took its passengers 400 miles, but it hit a strong air current as it descended and almost hit a moving train. Nevertheless, the huge balloon inspired Jules Verne to write his first adventure novel ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’  and Nadar himself was the inspiration for the character Michael Ardan in Verne’s ‘Rocket to the Moon.’


The failure of the balloon led Nadar to the conclusion that the future of flight was in heavier than air machines. He and Jules Verne established  ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. Nadar was president, Verne was secretary. I’ve been unable to find out if there were any other members. Maybe I didn’t look too hard because it’s quite fun to imagine it was just them. Nadar didn’t totally give up on balloons though. In 1870/71 during the siege of Paris he helped organise balloon flights carrying mail, connecting the besieged city with the rest of the world. It was the first air mail service.

04 06 balloon basket

Balloon Crazy

09 15 balloon launchIn 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.

09 05 lunardi balloonThe 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

09 15 lunardi skirtLunardi’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.

Flight Of Fancy

08 08 ballon 1Today I want to talk about balloons. I mentioned the Montgolfier brothers historic flight back in June. I assumed theirs was the first hot air balloon, but I have found a prior claim. On 8th August 1709 a Jesuit priest called Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão demonstrated his hot air balloon to King John V of Portugal.

Bartolomeu was born in the Portuguese colony of Santos in Brazil in 1685. He was educated in a seminary in Cachoeira and there, sometime before 1699, he invented a machine that would carry water up hill. He was granted a patent by the King of Portugal in 1707. It was the first patent to be granted to a Brazilian.

He sailed to Portugal in 1708 and managed to get an audience with the King and Queen. He asked to be granted another patent, this time for what google translate tells us was an instrument for walking in the air which is delightful, but probably not quite right. It was granted in April 1709.

08 08 balloon 2Bartolomeu was pretty secretive about his plans but everyone was pretty interested. The only person who had access to the place where he was working on his invention was a fourteen year old boy called Francisco who was his student. Francisco made a rather fanciful drawing of a flying machine which is really nothing like the balloon that Bartolomeu was working on. The priest didn’t want anyone else stealing his idea so the two decided to publish the drawing, just to throw everyone off the scent. The drawing, which shows an unlikely bird-shaped contraption, suggests that it was propelled by magnets and could be kept afloat using bellows. The ruse worked pretty well. Even his Wikipedia entry says this is what he was building.

He demonstrated his balloon at the Royal Palace in Lisbon in August of that year. It relied on some kind of heat source to make it rise. He made several attempts, some of which caught fire and at least one was knocked down by servants because they feared (probably with good reason) that is was going to set the curtains on fire. The most successful flight was on 8th August when the balloon rose right up to the ceiling before floating gently down. There seems to have been another demonstration in October which was witnessed by several people including a cardinal who later become Pope Innocent XIII.

Bartolomeu’s balloon idea did not really catch on. People were worried that they might fly away and set fire to things. Really the same sort of concerns we have about sky lanterns today. He may have come up against some opposition from the Inquisition as a result of his godless flying machines. He certainly moved to Spain rather suddenly. By the time the French came to investigate the story after the Montgolfier flight of 1783 all that was left of his work were Fransisco’s drawing and a few people who remembered that he had been given the surname Voador (Flying Man).