The nineteenth century saw the birth of many inventions we take for granted today, but few were viewed with greater awe and anticipation than the hot air balloon. Crowds gathered every time the basket and uninflated balloon arrived on a wagon and watched as the bag was filled and the balloon rose into the sky. Ascensions, as they were called, were plentiful around London, from the various parks and Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Young ladies swooned over the prospect of being lifted aloft, and young men dreamed of being aeronauts. One of the most practiced in the art was Charles Green.
Green was the son of a fruit merchant. But he grew interested in ballooning in school and went on to build his own balloons and fly them. He also had a theory that coal-gas would be a more convenient and safer fuel than hydrogen gas, which was widely used at the time. At the request of the government, Green ascended from one of the London parks on George IV’s coronation day (July 19, 1821) in the first balloon filled with coal-gas. The crowds went wild.
But Green wasn’t finished with stunts. In August 1828, he took a pony aboard with him, ascended from the Eagle Tavern in London, and came down thirty minutes later in Kent. The proprietors from Vauxhall were so impressed they commissioned him to build them a balloon for the delight of their customers. He liked it so much he bought it back from them but continued to ascend from Vauxhall, taking groups of people around England.
In 1836, Robert Hollond, a member of Parliament representing Hastings, funded Green to fly the balloon from Vauxhall to Germany. Hollond and his friend Thomas Monck Mason had both dreamed of being aeronauts but had settled for more prosaic occupations. The two joined Green at Vauxhall for a grand send off, crossed the channel to Dover, and reached the countryside on the outskirts of Weilburg in Germany. They had traveled a total of 500 miles over land and sea in 18 hours. The record would not be broken until 1907. Green’s fame was assured.
But however much the crowds idolized the aeronauts and dreamed of flying themselves, ballooning was not for the faint of heart. Green set the record for a time for height, reaching more than 27,000 feet, with temperatures well below freezing. He fought his way through thunderstorms and rode the winds aloft at times nearly 100 miles an hour. He piloted a balloon where one of the first parachutes was tested (at the loss of life of the man testing it!). Once someone severed the ropes attaching the basket to the balloon, and he and his passenger had to climb onto the mesh of the balloon to survive. Still, by the time he retired, he had ascended more than 500 times!
The British Balloon and Airship Club still awards the Charles Green Salver for exceptional flying or contributions to the field of ballooning.
Me? I’m afraid I’m one of those terribly practical people who prefer their feet to remain safely on the ground!