Recently, our nation’s attention briefly turned toward balloons and the boys they may carry. Young Falcon’s illusory journey sparked fervent discussion in the media and in casual conversation. This dialogue, however, lacked a critical element: the history of balloons themselves.
Bereft of context, colleagues meet in hallways and remark, “This balloon story is quite unlike any other I’ve heard. It certainly bears no resemblance to the Hindenburg disaster of 1934.” This chat is inevitably uninformed, especially considering the Hindenburg crashed in 1937.
But this ignorance need not continue. Through the last several centuries, balloons, blimps, and zeppelins have established a rich narrative of exploits in America and abroad, often conveying notable figures and participating in notable events. The following is a selection of historical balloons and balloon passengers that may be of interest to a respectable audience.
Josef Stalin’s Steel Dirigible
As madness descended upon the dictator’s paranoid mind, Stalin convinced himself that superior Soviet technology could shock nations into submission after the Second World War. To that end, he conceived of a giant flying fortress made of steel, his namesake alloy. He would terrorize the nations of the West by floating this monstrosity over major cities for weeks on end, like a malevolent metal moon waiting to rain death upon the Earth.
His vision never came to fruition. When at first it wouldn’t lift off, Stalin ordered that it be fitted with a high-propulsion rocket engine. Ironically, the leader had already executed any scientist capable of telling him that he had just created a giant, hollow missile with no aerostatic properties. The vessel’s first and only test flight crashed and seriously injured its single passenger, actor Aleksei Dikij, Stalin’s propaganda stand-in. He had been put on board to fool the Soviet people into believing that Stalin himself was testing the aircraft, such was his faith in its success. Ever the cunning propagandist, Stalin turned the well publicized failure to his advantage, appearing unscathed in public a week later and proclaiming himself to be “invulnerable to all physical injury.”
Mary Poppins’s Orbital Drop Parasol
Many have wondered why the British did not take a more active role in the post-war space race between the United States and the USSR. In reality, the UK did fund several secret expeditions to near-space in the late ’50s and early ’60s, with cooperation from the US Air Force’s Excelsior project (featured in this famous Boards of Canada video). But while America’s project sought to discover the limits of human technology and physiology, and to probe the reaches of our planet’s gravity, the British were more concerned with delivering compassionate at-home care to aristocratic children.
Director Robert Stevenson attempted to publicize this undocumented, multi-billion pound operation (as well several Scotland Yard experiments on the coercive properties of hallucinogenic drugs) in his 1964 documentary, but the film was fictionalized and musicalized by the Walt Disney Company before its release. The files associated with these programs remain classified.
Isaac Newton’s Airborne Gravity Demonstrator
Widely acknowledged as one of history’s great geniuses, Newton was also a relentless self-promoter. His bitter feud with Gottfried Leibniz over the invention of calculus is well known, but Newton went to similar extents to publicize each of his other major discoveries.
After publishing his Law of Universal Gravitation in 1687, Newton devised a novel way to demonstrate his concept to the public. The mathematician took to the skies in a basket suspended beneath a large canvas canopy, lifted by the heat of an open fire. From his perch in the sky, Newton bombarded the cities of Europe with ripe apples, hoping to replicate his sub-arboreal epiphany en masse. When approached by the police about this seemingly destructive stunt, Newton replied, “I am feeding their minds as well as their stomachs.”
His attempt at education backfired, however, because of his flying vehicle, which seemed to contradict his teachings on gravity. Several cities labeled Newton “a deceitful wizard,” and fined him for littering their streets with rotting fruit. Any mention of Newton’s floating contraption was purged from the records, and it would take another hundred years for the hot air balloon to be rediscovered.