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The pioneer ascents of James Tytler and Vincent Lunardi

THE FIRST HYDROGEN BALLOON to be launched in Great Britain was sent up by Count Francesco Zambeccari in 1783 from Moorfields

THE FIRST HYDROGEN BALLOON to be launched publicly in Great Britain was sent up by Count Francesco Zambeccari in 1783 from Moorfields, London. The balloon came down two and a half hours later near Petworth, Sussex, forty-eight miles away. The old woodcut illustrates the balloon being cut free.

A SUDDEN August squall robbed Edinburgh of its chance of being the starting place of the first recognized aerial voyage in the United Kingdom; but the honour of being the first man in the country to make a balloon ascent belongs to an Edinburgh pioneer.

He was James Tytler, a courageous and enterprising experimenter who was consistently unlucky and unsuccessful. All preparations had been made by him in Comely Gardens, near King’s Park, Edinburgh, on August 7, 1784. This was some nine months after the world had been set talking by the news from Paris that Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes had travelled across that city in a balloon (see the chapter “The First Aerial Voyages”).

Fired by their example, James Tytler determined to emulate the Frenchmen, although he was not well equipped for the task. He had a superficial knowledge of science, but no practical experience or skill, and no money. Worst of ill, he had no luck. Everything that he undertook seemed destined to fail. His most successful aeronautical achievement was a qualified one, for his balloon did not rise above 500 feet, and his flights were so short that he himself ailed them “leaps”.

On Tytler’s first attempt fire damped his balloon. The following day, August 8, the weather was against him, and an untimely gust of wind deflated the balloon and caused further damage.

After hasty repairs had been made, Tytler made another attempt on August 25, 1784. He rose to a height variously estimated between 350 and feet, and thus gained the distinction of being the first man in the United Kingdom to make an ascent.

The balloon, which was of the hot air type, was only about 40 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, yet Tytler hoped to make it carry a stove weighing between to and three hundredweight. He reconstructed the stove for another attempt in September 1784; but bad weather hindered his efforts, and in the meantime the honour of making the first recognized aerial voyage in the United Kingdom had gone to Vincent Lunardi.

VINCENT LUNARDI, an Italian, was living in Great Britain when his interest in aeronautics developed. He was First Secretary to the Neapolitan Embassy. A handsome man, he was well connected and particularly suited to popularize the new art of ballooning. His many ascents from Great Britain and the Continent were notable for the courage he displayed and the good fortune that attended him.

In everything that Tytler lacked, Lunardi seemed to excel. He was young, handsome, well connected — and lucky. He is believed to have been born at Lucca, Italy, on January 11, 1759, and was sent to the East Indies in early life. Later, the Neapolitan Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s brought him to London, where he subsequently became First Secretary to the Embassy.

Lunardi’s interest in aeronautics seems to have been inspired by his picturesque compatriot, Count Francesco Zambeccari, a sailor of fortune. Zambeccari, having studied mathematics and the sciences at Parma, was enlisted by the King of Spain and served against the Moors and off the coast of America. In 1783 he fell foul of the Spanish Inquisition and fled to London.

Having heard of the Montgolfiers’ experiments in France, he gave Londoners their first sight of a balloon.

Zambeccari launched the balloon from a friend’s house in Cheapside, on November 4, 1783, and it came down at Waltham Abbey, Essex, some thirteen miles away. Although launched privately, the balloon, which was about 5 feet in diameter, created a sensation in the City, and was watched by excited crowds at Highgate.

Another balloon, of twice the diameter, was launched publicly by Zambeccari from Moorfields, London, on November 25, and came down two and a half hours later at Graffham, near Petworth, Sussex, forty-eight miles away. This was the first public exhibition of a balloon’s ascent in England.

The sending up of small balloons soon became quite fashionable, but few people seem to have considered seriously the possibility of sending up an aeronaut in a larger balloon. Vincent Lunardi was one of the few.

It is certain, also, that Zambeccari had the project in mind, for he announced, in February 1784, an ascent from Hyde Park. But he was unable to raise the money for the ascent, and and left England for a time. Lunardi was more persistent.

In July 1784 Lunardi wrote to Sir George Howard, Governor of Chelsea Hospital, for permission to use the grounds of the hospital — “a picturesque and propitious spot” — for a balloon ascent. King George III became interested, and permission was granted, subject to Lunardi dividing the profits of the venture among the Chelsea pensioners.

In August the balloon was exhibited publicly at the Lyceum, London. It was 33 feet in diameter, 103 feet in circumference, and of 18,200 cubic feet capacity. Instead of relying on the inferior hot-air method of inflation, favoured by Tytler, Lunardi planned to inflate his balloon with hydrogen. To defray the costs of the venture, which were considerable, Lunardi proposed to sell tickets to the spectators. He announced his intentions in an advertisement which said that the balloon was being constructed “at the Lyceum near Exeter-Change, Strand”.

The advertisement mentioned that a gentleman would ascend in the balloon, and concluded in the following quaint terms:

“ONE GUINEA Ticket will admit a Person Four different Times to see the Construction, and likewise into the Garden, intitled to have a Chair near the GLOBE to see it launched off.

“A HALF GUINEA Ticket will admit a Person to see the Construction Twice, and likewise into the Garden, intitled to have a proper Bench to sit down on, next to the above Subscribers.

“FIVE SHILLING Tickets will admit a Person Once to see the Construction, and likewise into the Garden to have a proper Bench to sit down on.

“The above room (at the Lyceum) is now open from Ten o’Clock till Eight o’Clock, for the Admission of Subscribers, where the Construction, Gallery, Oars, and Wings, together with other Balloons may be seen.

“Admittance for Non-Sub scribers Two Shilling and Six-pence each.”

Despite the attractions offered, the financial support did not come up to Lunardi’s expectations. But worse was in store, for at the last moment the permission to use Chelsea Hospital Grounds for the ascent was withdrawn. This was because another proposed ascent at Chelsea had proved a fiasco, and caused a riot when the balloon failed to rise.

Lunardi was undefeated, either by the practical difficulties of finding a new starting place, or by the fear of mob violence if the ascent proved disappointing. He courageously went forward with his plans; and he obtained permission to ascend from the Artillery Ground at Moorfields, though it cost him one hundred guineas, paid to charity.

THE FIRST FLIGHT of Lunardi’s second balloon was not a great success, although the balloon was much larger than its predecessor. Lunardi promised to make another ascent from St. George’s Fields without making a charge to spectators. The ticket shown here enabled the holder to witness the inflation of the second balloon by hydrogen.

Further obstacles arose, but he was equal to them all. At the last moment the proprietor of the Lyceum — where the balloon was made — threatened to withhold it, and it was not till the day before the date of ascent that Lunardi got possession of the balloon. It was taken to Moorfields, and Lunardi sat up all night, superintending the inflation.

The morning of September 15, 1784, was fine, and more than 20,000 people paid to see the balloon ascend. The Prince of Wales (later King George IV) was there, and other distinguished spectators were Pitt, Fox and Burke.

Another prominent figure was George Biggin, Lunardi’s patron and friend, who was to accompany Lunardi in the balloon. But by midday it became evident that the lift of the balloon was insufficient for two people, so Lunardi shook hands with the Prince — who wished him well — and climbed into the car, accompanied only by a cat and a dog.

Amid intense excitement the balloon was released shortly before 1 o’clock, and rose slowly over London, heading west.

Despite its slow start the balloon rose well, and Lunardi himself estimated that it reached an altitude of four miles. Its westerly course soon changed northwards.

At North Mimms, Hertfordshire, some sixteen miles from the starting point, the balloon descended to the ground long enough to enable Lunardi to release his cat; it had been an unwilling passenger, greatly troubled by the cold of the higher altitudes, and it was taken into the charge of a countrywoman.

AN ALTITUDE OF FOUR MILES was the estimated height to which Lunardi climbed during his first balloon ascent, depicted in this woodcut. He took a cat and dog with him. The cat was so distressed by the cold at great heights that Lunardi put it out of the balloon when he touched ground at North Mimms, Hertfordshire. Lunardi finally landed near Ware, Hertfordshire.

A Hertfordshire farmer, much astonished, saw the descent at North Mimms, and his sworn testimony describes it vividly:

“This deponent on his oath sayeth that, being on Wednesday, the 15th day of September instant, between the hours of three and four in the afternoon, in a certain field called Etna, in the parish of North Mimms aforesaid, he perceived a large machine sailing in the air, near the place where he was on horseback; that the machine continuing to approach the earth, the part of it in which this deponent perceived a gentleman standing came to the ground, and dragged a short way on the ground in a slanting direction; that the time when this machine thus touched the earth was, as near as this deponent could judge, about a quarter before four in the afternoon. That this deponent being on horseback, and his horse restive, he could not approach nearer to the machine than about four poles, but that he could plainly perceive therein a gentleman dressed in light coloured cloaths, holding in his hand a trumpet, which had the appearance of silver or bright tin. That by this time several harvest men coming up from the other part of the field, to the number of twelve men and thirteen women, this deponent called to them to endeavour to stop the machine, which the men attempted, but the gentleman in the machine desiring them to desist, and the machine moving with considerable rapidity, and clearing the earth, went off in a north direction and continued in sight at a very great height for near an hour afterwards. And this deponent further sayeth that the part of the machine in which the gentleman stood did not actually touch the ground for more than half a minute, during which time the gentleman threw out a parcel of what appeared to this deponent as dry sand. That after the machine had ascended again from the earth this deponent perceived a grapple with four hooks, which hung from the bottom of the machine, dragging along the ground, which carried up with it into the air a small parcel of loose oats, which the women were raking in the field. And this deponent further on his oath sayeth that when the machine had risen clear from the ground about twenty yards the gentleman spoke to this deponent and to the rest of the people with his trumpet, wishing them goodbye and saying that he should soon go out of sight. And this deponent further on his oath sayeth that the machine in which the gentleman came down to earth appeared to consist of two distinct parts connected by ropes, namely that in which the gentleman appeared to be, a stage boarded at the bottom, and covered with netting and ropes on the sides about four feet and a half high, and the other part of the machine appeared in the shape of an urn, about thirty feet high and of about the same diameter, made of canvas like oil skin, with green, red, and yellow stripes.

“Nathaniel Whitbread.”

“Sworn before me this twentieth day of September, 1784. William Baker.”

On leaving the field at North Mimms Lunardi threw out more ballast, including provisions, plates, knives and forks. He records that he had ascended so high that the condensed moisture round the neck of the balloon had frozen. His final descent was made in a field in the parish of Standon, near Ware, Hertfordshire.

He alighted safely and his balloon was secured, though not without considerable difficulty. Lunardi had been in the air for about two hours and a quarter, and had covered a distance of some twenty-four miles. The first balloon voyage in England had been a triumphant success.

Lunardi’s second balloon

THE COLOURS OF THE NATIONAL FLAG of Great Britain were used effectively on Lunardi’s second balloon, the largest hydrogen balloon in existence in 1785. With something of the showman’s instinct, Lunardi decided that his balloon should appeal to the eye and also express a compliment to the country of his adoption. Most of the early aeronauts carried a large flag, with which they waved reassurance to spectators below. The contemporary illustrations of early balloons generally show light oars of various kinds; but experience was to prove that the attempts at propulsion by such means were fruitless and oars were discarded by the balloonists of a later date.

A silver medal was struck to commemorate the success of the young Italian, and he was presented at Court. He became a popular hero, but soon his good looks and charm of manner lent colour to envious reports that he was spoilt by success; he was, however, destined to prove his courage as an aeronaut in unmistakable fashion.

His second ascent was fixed for May 13, 1785. An improved balloon, larger than any other hydrogen balloon then made, was to be used; and Lunardi announced that his “ingenious friend”, George Biggin, would accompany him, and also a lady. When the time came the balloon would only carry one, so Lunardi again ascended alone. He had a disconcerting experience, for the balloon, after passing over Gray’s Inn, descended rapidly and came to ground near the Adam and Eve Gardens in Tottenham Court Road. Here a great crowd handled Lunardi rather roughly; for as well as enthusiasm for the new art of aeronautics there was prejudice against it among ignorant people, especially since several attempted ascents (not by Lunardi) had failed completely, and left a suspicion of fraud.

Lunardi had faith in his new balloon, however, and announced that he would ascend from St. George’s Field, Newington Butts, London, without any charge to spectators. As a compliment to the country of his adoption he had painted the balloon in the colours of the Union Jack, and over 100,000 people assembled to see the ascent.

First Englishman to Ascend

It was announced that several people would go up in the balloon, including George Biggin and a lady. But again the lift of the balloon had been overestimated, so Lunardi stepped out and permitted Biggin to ascend with Mrs. Sage, who was henceforth to describe herself as the “first English female aerial traveller”.

The ascent took place on June 29, 1785. The two aeronauts passed over Westminster and Piccadilly, and then crossed and recrossed the Thames to descend near Harrow, Middlesex, after having been up for nearly an hour. Biggin managed the balloon remarkably well, and Mrs. Sage’s complete composure is evident from the many notes she made in a book carried for the purpose.

The courage of the aeronauts and their good fortune are both noteworthy. Only a fortnight earlier, on June 15, 1785, the first fatality of the air had occurred. The gallant Pilatre de Rozier, who had made the world’s first balloon ascent, gained also the mournful distinction of being in the world’s first fatal air crash. He was killed near Boulogne with a companion named Romain when their balloon caught fire during an attempt to cross the English Channel.

TWO PASSENGERS AND LUNARDI were to have been carried on the second ascent of Lunardi's second balloon in 1785 When the time came for the balloon to be released, however, there was insufficient lift for three people and Lunardi stepped out. The balloon stayed up for nearly an hour piloted by George Biggin, a friend of Lunardi, and Mrs. Sage.

Undeterred by this news, Lunardi planned an extensive tour of ascents in Great Britain. In July, 1785, he went to Liverpool, travelling via Oxford, where he met James Sadler — the first English aeronaut — to whose good nature and generosity Lunardi paid tribute. Having arrived at Liverpool on July 12, Lunardi secured permission to ascend from the fort near the entrance to the Mersey. He ascended on July 20 to an estimated height of 10,000 feet, and came down twelve miles away, near Symmonds Wood, after a voyage of a little more than an hour.

On August 9, 1785, he made a second ascent from the same place, and came down one hour and eight minutes later. “I descended,” he wrote, “in a cornfield near Tarporley, and, from thence, by the impetuosity of the wind, was dragged a considerable way over hedges, trees, and a small village, called Tiverton, where the balloon struck against a house, the chimney of which it pulled down. At last I succeeded in securing it, with the assistance of several people, in a lane half-way betwixt Beeston Castle and Tarporley, though not till my back was much hurt and my limbs sadly bruised.”

Lunardi’s next ascent was from Edinburgh, on October 5, 1785. His balloon was carried over the Firth of Forth, and when he alighted at Callinge, three miles from Cupar, he had travelled forty-six miles, thirty-six of which had been over water. Cupar presented him with the Freedom of town, as did St. Andrews, where he was also elected a member of the exclusive Society of Gentleman Golfers.

Kelso churchyard was the scene of his next ascent, on October 21. On this occasion he travelled twenty-five miles in an hour and twenty minutes, ascending to a height of 7,700 feet. He next accepted an invitation to ascend from Glasgow, and his voyage from there on November 23 is remarkable for the fact that, being extremely tired, he slept in the air for twenty minutes on a voyage that lasted for an hour and a half. Another ascent was made from Glasgow on December 5, but on this occasion the car had not been secured properly to the envelope, and it almost overturned in the air. On descending, near Campsie, the car broke in two and Lunardi narrowly escaped serious injury, but he returned to Edinburgh to make a second ascent from there.

This took place on December 20, and might easily have ended disastrously, for Lunardi descended onto the sea, about a mile from the Fidra rock. For two hours he was dragged through the water by his balloon, until rescued by a fishing boat.

In the following year he made his third ascent from Edinburgh on July 31; and he also ascended successfully from York on August 23, 1786; but a few weeks later an accident at Newcastle-upon-Tyne distressed him so much that he made no further flights in Great Britain.

The accident at Newcastle occurred on September 19. The balloon was being inflated at Spital Ground. When the balloon was about one-third full a mishap to the gas-making apparatus caused most of the people holding the guide-ropes to let go. One young man, Ralph Heron, had twisted a rope round his arm, and was carried up by the balloon above the steeple of St Nicholas’s. Church, when the rope gave way. Heron fell and died almost immediately — the first air fatality in Great Britain.

Lunardi returned to Italy in 1787, and made several notable ascents there, twice in the presence of the king. A few years later he made some remarkable voyages in Spain, and on one occasion his arrival from the air convinced some peasants that he was a saint from heaven, so he was carried in triumph to the local church. From Spain he went to Portugal, where he made an ascent from Lisbon on August 24, 1794. But he was fated never to leave Portugal, and he died of a decline on July 31, 1806, at Barbadinas, Lisbon.

Despite his wide and varied experience in the air, Lunardi added virtually nothing to the scientific knowledge of aeronautics. Although he wrote full accounts of his ascents, they chiefly recount his emotions. In the technical aspects of ballooning he had little interest, and he characteristically alludes to the all-important inflation with hydrogen as the “Chemical Part of the Business”. One of his greatest virtues, however, was that he hated to disappoint his public. When the new art of ballooning was first exhibited to the public it would have been impossible to find a better showman than Lunardi. His resourcefulness, his good fortune and, above all, his courage have given him an unassailable place in the records of pioneer aeronauts.

NOTES WERE MADE by Mrs. Sage during her balloon voyage with Biggin from Newington Butts, London, to Harrow, Middlesex. The number and nature of these notes indicate her complete composure throughout the voyage. After her balloon flight Mrs. Sage described herself as the “ first English female aerial traveller.” Although Biggin had little knowledge of aeronautics, he handled the balloon well.

You can read more on the “The First Aerial Voyages”, “First English Aeronaut” and “Flights of Fancy” on this website.

Britain’s First Aerial Voyages