When I began reviewing for Booklist, Brad Hooper enlisted me to read new science titles. At some point I let him know that I would also review biography or history. So, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes was a perfect assignment - a book about the history of ballooning with generous technical details and biographical profiles. I chose it first from a shipment of books that Brad sent at the end of summer and was not disappointed.
I have never gone up in a balloon, but I have always thought it would be spectacular to float over the earth, getting a grand sweeping view of town and country. It never looked particularly dangerous to me, but a reader of Falling Upwards will learn that it can easily become deadly. Several of the pioneers of ballooning lost their lives in accidents, some in particularly dramatic fashion. Most notably, thousands of people witnessed the death of French heroine Sophie Blanchard as she fell from the sky over Paris in 1819. Also, Thomas Harris may have jumped from a plummeting balloon to reduce the weight and save the life of the mysterious and beautiful young woman that he taken for a ride in 1824. Other balloonists barely survived unforeseen circumstances only to repeatedly test the skies again and again.
In the late 18th and throughout the 19th centuries there were always unforeseen circumstances. Weather forecasting was just a dream, and balloonists had no actual means to steer their balloons. They might lose air or catch fire at almost any point. Some balloonists fainted from oxygen deprivation when they flew too high. The perils were numerous, but experimenters persisted in believing balloons were the key to modern rapid transportation of goods, communications, and people. Only the success of the Wright Brothers in introducing powered flight brought the balloon dream to an end.
In Falling Upwards, Holmes tells many great stories, including how scientists first learned about the upper atmosphere firsthand and how the French used balloons to get letters and witnesses out of besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. This entertaining history will appeal to many readers.
Holmes, Richard. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Pantheon Books, 2013. 416p. ISBN 9780307379665.