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Fact: The First ‘Aeronauts’ Used Research Balloons (And Made History)

Fact: The First ‘Aeronauts’ Used Research Balloons (And Made History)

Jennifer Tucker

Security, Americas

From their balloons, the first aeronauts transformed our view of the world.

Near the beginning of the new film “The Aeronauts,” a giant gas-filled balloon called the “Mammoth” departs from London’s Vauxhall Gardens and ascends into the clouds, revealing a bird’s eye view of London.

To some moviegoers, these breathtaking views might seem like nothing special: Modern air travel has made many of us take for granted what we can see from the sky. But during the 19th century, the vast “ocean of air” above our heads was a mystery.

These first balloon trips changed all that.

Directed by Tom Harper, the movie is inspired by the true story of Victorian scientist James Glaisher and the aeronaut Henry Coxwell. (In the film, Coxwell is replaced by a fictional aeronaut named Amelia Wren.)

In 1862, Glaisher and Coxwell ascended to 37,000 feet in a balloon – 8,000 feet higher than the summit of Mount Everest, and, at the time, the highest point in the atmosphere humans had ever reached.

As a historian of science and visual communication, I’ve studied the balloon trips of Glaisher, Coxwell and others. Their voyages inspired art and philosophy, introduced new ways of seeing the world and transformed our understanding of the air we breathe.

The first balloon flights

Before the invention of the balloon, the atmosphere was like a blank slate on which fantasies and fears were projected. Philosophers speculated that the skies went on forever, while there were medieval tales of birds that were so large they could whisk human passengers into the clouds.

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