The most intense aspects of the rage for ballooning had subsided by the late 1780’s, but balloons remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. This image appeared as part of a humorous 1845 article by Horace Mayhew in George Cruikshank's Table-Book that suggested an ironic list of supposedly practical “avocations to which the balloon might lend its accelerating influence.” The article offered a tongue-in-cheek argument for the use of balloon’s to increase vertical lift – “a matter of professional competition” amongst ballet dancers – as well as for other supposedly practical roles. “Sherriff’s officers should never be without one; soldiers, too, who are too bashful too face the enemy, and smugglers, who have cargoes of goods to run.” The article’s subsequent comment that “we are confident the balloon will take its stand eventually by the side of the steam engine” highlighted the extent to which ballooning had already shifted from an emblem of modernity at the time of its discovery in the late eighteenth-century, to a form of technology that already seemed antiquated in contrast with the new industrial world of steam engines.
Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin, Madison
George Cruikshank’s Table-Book. Ed. Gilbert Abbott à Beckett. London: Punch Office, 1845.
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The image was printed in a table book of caricatures and humorous essays, for entertainment and social commentary.
The appearance of Mayhew’s article in Cruikshank’s text reflects ballooning’s ongoing popularity in England throughout the nineteenth century.
Horace Mayhew (1816-1872), writer, “had a lengthy career in journalism, serving as sub-editor of Punch with Douglas Jerrold and William Makepeace Thackeray and as editor of the Comic Almanac. In 1845 he was on the staff of contributors to George Cruikshank's Table-Book, and was an early contributor to The Illustrated London News” (ODB).
Traveling across the Atlantic in a hot air balloon is suggested in the Mayhew article to be something to consider (Cruikshank, Table Book 245-247). Trans-Atlantic travel by sea was well known to be arduous and dangerous, as depicted in paintings like The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault (N. Wolf, Romanticism 54). The suggestion is, of course, rather tongue-in-cheek, but the new notions of flight were opening many possibilities in the minds of scientists and of the public.
The accompanying text by Horace Mayhew is called "A Hint to Projectors." It has many humorous and absurd suggestions about how the hot air technology could help the human race: "Balloons have hitherto been used only for traversing the skies. We are confident if they were applied to terrestrial purpose, they might give persons a lift who have great difficulty of getting on in the world...We suggest that each American should be provided with a jacket inflated with gas sufficient to take him off his legs. The consequence would be, he would feel so buoyant, that he could jump over the Atlantic with as much ease as he would step over a puddle."..."Amongst ballet dancers--with whom ascending to the greatest height is always such a matter of professional competition--only consider how the balloon might help them rise to the top of their profession" (Cruikshank, Table Book 245-247).
This is a satirical illustration of a ballet dancer with a hot air balloon attached to himself which, according to Mayhew, would help the dancer “achieve greater heights.” The facing page exhibits the way a personal balloon might be useful in during accidents. The image is of a horse and his rider who encounter a ravine into which the horse stumbles, but the rider is magically lifted away to safety by his personal balloon.
The article which accompanied this illustration offered a comic list of potential uses for balloons, though by 1845 this focus was animated, not by a sense of ballooning as an extraordinary new technology, but as a cultural phenomenon that seemed to hearken back to an earlier era.
The article’s meditation on balloons’ practical usefulness echoed a longstanding debate about the topic from ballooning’s earliest days. The question of what use balloons could possibly be had generated great debates about whether balloons could eventually be steered through the sky (see the illustration in this entitled “Grave par Beauble”), as well as earnest accounts of their many possible uses. An anonymous text entitled The Air Balloon: Or a Treatise on The Aerostatic Globe, Lately invented by The Celebrated Mons. Montgolfier of Paris (1784) had offered list of possible applications. “On the first report of a country being invaded,” it suggested, “an Air Balloon would save the expences of messengers, posts, &c. from the coasts to the main army.” “A general likewise in the day of battle would derive singular advantage by going up in one of these machines.” “Observations at Sea,” which could be made at a greater distance, and with a greater certainty than at present,” would be “useful in time of war, and preventative of accidents at all times.” Thomas Martyn’s Hints of the Important Uses, to be Derived from Aerostatic Globes (1784) offered a similar list of possibilities, stressing balloons’ potential usefulness in providing night signals, a service that “would be of the most essential utility to the inhabitants of a besieged town”; military reconnaissance; experiments with lightning; and astronomical observation. Mayhew’s tongue-in-cheek tone gained its comic effect from the fact that, a half century later, few if any of these practical benefits had been realized.
This image epitomized the ironic to be of the accompany article, whose mock-seriousness about ballooning’s practical uses was thrown into relief by the article’s comparison with steam engines.
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"The Balloon Dancer" (from George Cruikshank’s Table-Book)