Summary of Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes

Flying off to a new destination is often just a matter of booking a flight. Unless you have a fear of flying, you don’t give much thought to how you get from one place to the other. However, flight has not always been so uncomplicated. In fact, one man’s first attempts at flight were with balloons. 

Now, as much as you may think it is funny, the history of hot air balloons is actually fascinating. From their very first successful attempt at flight, balloonists were among the brightest and most eccentric people of their time. Balloons didn’t just represent transport – they provided adventure, freedom and even romance. They may have remained quietly in the background but it’s time we give hot air balloons a little more respect.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The beginnings of the hot air balloon
  • Daring flights that cannot be forgotten
  • How hot air balloons became a recreational activity

Key lesson one: The beginnings of the hot air balloon

The first successful hot air balloon took flight in 1783 over Paris. People were mesmerized by the site and it quickly became popular in both entertainment and military operations. Captain Charles Coutelle was the first person to pilot a hot air balloon during the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Using a hot air balloon was a huge advantage for the French. The bird’s eye view that the balloon provided enabled the French to see their enemies movements. With this information, the French could anticipate attacks and reposition their soldiers if needed. 

This allowed the French to be successful in many subsequent battles. In fact, the balloons would intimidate the enemy as they knew they were being watched. However, the balloons soon became a very visible target to the enemy. As soon as a balloon took to the sky, they were targeted. Enemies of the French knew that if they took out the balloon, the French would lose their intel. Besides this, as much as the balloons were useful, they were also tricky. Firstly, there was a delay in the transfer of information. As much as they had a vantage point, they could only communicate their findings when they were back on the ground. Secondly, if it was too windy there was a risk of the balloon drifting off if it could not remain anchored to the ground. The balloons still remained popular in the military until the end of the nineteenth century.

In terms of entertainment, hot air balloons were used for aerial shows. As one can imagine it attracted daredevils looking to thrill audiences with incredible acrobatic feats. The most renowned of these daredevils was Sophie Blanchard who was married to balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Sophie was a completely different person whilst in the air compared to when she had her feet on the ground. She was a daring, confident and magnetic performer whilst in a balloon. Even Emperor Napoleon hired her to announce the birth of his son in 1811 by throwing out leaflets as she flew over Paris. For the boy’s christening, she enthralled audiences by setting off fireworks from the basket she was in. Unfortunately, fireworks would ultimately contribute to Sophies’s death. In 1819, she launched fireworks which ignited the gas in her balloon. Sophie’s success as a hot air balloon entertainer came to a fiery end.

Key lesson two: Daring flights that cannot be forgotten

Since its discovery, hot air balloons come with a certain amount of risk. That is why the most notorious balloonists were just a little eccentric as well. One of the first such balloonists was Major John Money. He set out in his balloon in 1875 to raise money for the Norwich and Norfolk hospital in England. He experienced a problem-free launch. However, his balloon got in the wind and was pulled out to sea. Major Money’s quick thinking led to him cutting off his basket when he eventually sank to sea level and climbed onto his balloon loop. This allowed him to be dragged through the water, much like how a kitesurfer would do today. He was found by a rescue boat soon after.

Lucky for Major Money, his quick thinking allowed him to survive but not all who try are successful. Even modern-day attempts can end badly. This is exactly what happened to Brazilian priest, Father Adelir Antonio de Carli. He also wanted to raise money for the poor and being an experienced balloonist, he wanted to attempt to attach 1000 helium balloons to a chair to complete his flight. Despite his experience and reaching an impressive 19 000 feet, his GPS navigator failed and he lost contact with the people tracking him on the ground. The rescue team sent to search for Father Adelir was called back after 10 days when he was not found, they knew he would not be alive as he did not have enough supplies to last that long. Father Adelir’s body was only found three months later floating at sea. Unfortunately, unlike Major Money, when Father Adelir landed in the ocean, sharks found him before the rescue boats.

Hot air balloons were not just used by those who dared to be different. They were also used as a means to escape unnoticed. For example, two families attempted to escape East Germany in 1978 using a balloon. They worked to build their balloon in secret in a hidden attic. They used old clothes to make the balloon. It took them an entire year and several unsuccessful attempts before they actually succeeded. In the end, their balloon was almost 90 feet tall and four gas tanks to fly. When they eventually launched, they got lost due to the darkness but kept flying in hopes to avoid detection from the searchlights below. The top of the balloon eventually burst and they crash-landed not knowing where they had landed until they saw a tag on an electricity pylon with the name of a West Germany company. 

So, even though they are a risk, hot air balloons provided a daring way for people to escape undetected. Even in earlier years, it was considered a clever way to escape as early weapons had some difficulty taking them out if they reached great heights. When the French were surrounded by the Prussian army and cut off from all outside communication in 1871 they used balloons to escape the Prussians. 

Key lesson three: How hot air balloons became a recreational activity

When balloons first became popular, the dream was to achieve global balloon exploration. However, by 1830 they lost their lustre. A big contributor to this was the development of railway travel. Trains provided speed, safety and reliability – people no longer had to fear being caught in a gust of wind. Therefore, by the second half of the nineteenth century, ballooning became a recreational activity for those who still wanted a bit of a thrill. 

Balloons became larger to accommodate more passengers for leisurely flights across the scenic countryside. Although earlier balloons used helium, these balloons took advantage of the cheap coal which was available due to the railways. Thus commercial ballooning began, offering people a chance to view their towns from above. It became popular in numerous European cities. 

As commercial ballooning grew, it also managed to inspire a new form of literature. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall was among the first science fiction books published. He detailed the story of a man who travelled to the moon in an air balloon. The book was incredibly detailed for having been published in 1835. Not only did Poe describe the balloon and its instruments in detail, but he also went on to describe space travel and aliens. It contained everything expected from a modern science fiction novel. 

Nowadays, there is no way that ballooning can compete with modern technology. The invention of the aeroplane left no need for hot air balloons at all. Planes can easily deal with a change in the wind direction or other rapid changes in weather. They are much safer than balloons and of course, more reliable. Hot air balloons are still mostly used for recreation or as a hobby for the rich. The use of hot air balloons by the rich came from the historic use of them by eccentric aristocrats who wanted to have balloon races and parties in the sky.  

However, even though their use today was not what was imagined by its creators, the fact that hot air balloons still exist today are indicative of their longevity and popularity. 

The key takeaway from Falling Upwards is:

Nowadays, hot air balloons are seen as a romantic or fancy way to sightsee around the world. When they first emerged, they held so much more promise. They provided not only a means for travel, but they had a military purpose, served as a stage for daring entertainers and fuelled the imaginations of many. We can even go so far as to thank the hot air balloon for bringing science fiction to literature. Hot air balloons have an important place in history and should always remind us of how a little bit of eccentricity and risk can go a long way.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Falling Upwards:

Hot air balloons are a lot safer now than they were back in the nineteenth century. They can cover much larger distances and are therefore a great way to see the world from a different perspective. Often, we are so caught up with our own routines, we only pay attention to the areas we are familiar with. A hot air balloon can give you an entirely different view of the city you call home.

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