Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Item of the Day: Lunardi’s Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England (1784)

Full Title: Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gherdo Compagni, written under the Impressions of the Various Events that affected the Undertaking. By Vincent Lunardi, Esq. London: Printed for the Author, 1784.

[In London with the Neapolitan Ambassador to the English court, the eighteenth-century “astronaut” Vincent Lunardi made the first ascent in England by hydrogen balloon on September 15, 1784. The twenty-two year old Lunardi, along with by his dog, cat and a pigeon, took flight from the Honourable Artillery Company’s Grounds at Moorfield. He landed at North Mimms in Hertfordshire to release his apparently frightened cat, and then took off again and touched down for a second time at Stondon in Hertfordshire. In this work published in 1784, the young balloonist chronicles, in a series of letters, his experience and impressions of this twenty-four mile flight.]

At five minutes after two, the last gun was fired, the cords divided, and the Balloon rose, the company returning my signals of adieu with the most unfeigned acclamations and applauses. The effect was, that of a miracle, on the multitudes of which surrounded the place; and they passed with incredulity and menace, into the most extravagant expressions of approbation and joy.

At the height of twenty yards, the Balloon was a little depressed by the wind, which had a fine effect; it held me over the ground for a few seconds, and seemed to pause majestically before its departure.

On discharging a part of the ballast, it ascended to the height of two hundred yards. As a multitude lay before me of a hundred and fifty thousand people, who had not seen my ascent from the ground, I had recourse to every stratagem to let them know I was in the gallery, and they literally rent the air with their acclamations and applause. In these stratagems I devoted my flag, worked my oars, one of which was immediately broken, and fell from me. A pidgeon [sic] too escaped, which with a dog, and a cat, were the only companions of my excursion.

When the thermometer had fallen from 68° to 61° I perceived a great difference in the temperature of the air. I became very cold, and found it necessary to take a few glasses of wine. I likewise eat the leg of a chicken, but my bread and other provisions had been rendered useless, by being mixed with the sand, which I carried as ballast.

When the thermometer was at fifty, the effect of the atmosphere, and the combination of circumstances around, produced a calm delight, which is inexpressible, and which no situation on earth could give. The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful. My horizon seemed a perfect circle; the terminating line several hundred miles in circumference. This I conjectured from the view of London; the extreme points of which, formed an angle of only a few degrees. It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it. I could distinguish Saint Paul’s, and other churches, from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous beehive, but the industry was suspended. All the moving mass seemed to have no object but myself, and the transition from suspicion, and perhaps contempt of the preceding hour, to the affectionate transport, admiration and glory of the present moment, was not without its effect on my mind. I recollected puns* on my name, and was glad to find myself calm. I had soared from the apprehensions and anxieties of the Artillery Ground, and felt as if I had left behind me all the cares and passions that molest mankind. . . .

*In some of the papers, witticisms appeared on the affinity of Lunatic & Lunardi.

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