Four Fantastic Aeronauts

Posted on Fri, January 27, 2017

Intrepid men and women who earned their livelihoods in the sky—the aeronauts—emerged as well-known public figures during the 19th century. They were a new breed of aerial showmen, capturing headlines with spectacular ascents and long distance voyages. The Italian Vincenzo Lunardi, Englishmen James Sadler and Charles Green, and the American Thaddeus S. C. Lowe were among the best-known members of this new profession.

Portrait of balloonist.

Vincenzo Lunardi
Stipple Engraving, English, 1784

Vincenzo Lunardi
Vincenzo Lunardi (1754-1806), secretary to the Neapolitan Ambassador to the Court of St. James, made the first flight in a gas balloon from English soil on September 15, 1784 at the Artillery Ground, London. He took a cat, dog, and carrier pigeon on his flight. 

Less than a year later, Lunardi invited the actress Letitia Anne Sage and Colonel George Biggin to fly with him on June 29, 1785. When the party proved to be too heavy, Lunardi, the only trained balloonist in the group, stepped out of the basket and allowed his two guests to ascend. Fortunately, they landed safely two hours later. Sage became the first English female aerial traveler.

  • Portrait of early balloonist.

    Vincent Lunardi Esqr.
    Lithograph, English, 1784

    A less attractive portrait of Lunardi.

  • Etching of men standing in a crowd. Balloons are in the background.

    Birds of a Feather
    John Kay
    Etching, English, 1784

    The seven men standing together were all involved in early English and Scottish ballooning. Vincent Lunardi, right of center, is extending his hand to shake that of James Tytler, left of center. On August 25 and 27, 1784, Tytler made two short flights in a hot air balloon from Edinburgh, becoming the first Britain to fly from British soil. The following month, Lunardi made the first gas balloon flight in England. The small hot air balloon is up-ended and descending over head, trailing smoke. The hot air balloon on the left represents Tytler's Edinburgh "fire balloon" of August 1784. The balloon to the right is Lunardi's craft.

    The Catalogue of British Portraits Preserved in the Department of Portraits and Drawings in the British Museum identifies the men as: 1. John Mitchell 2. John Neilson, 3. James Tytler, 4. Vincent Lunardi, 5. Jos. Lulson [?] 6. John Spottiswood 7. Myles McPhail.  

  • Portrait of balloonist.

    Vincent Lunardi Esqr., His Dog & His Cat
    Engraving, English, 1784

    Vincent Lunardi with his dog and cat. When he ascended from the grounds of the Honorable Artillery Company, London, on September 15, 1784, he was accompanied by a cat, dog, and carrier pigeon.

    "London, Pub'd. Novr. 1st, 1784 by Edwd. Hedges, No. 92, Cornhill."

  • Portrait of early balloonist.

    Vincent Lunardi Esq.

    English, 1784

  • Etching of balloonist is standing in his balloon basket.

    Vincent Lunardi in his basket

    Vincent Lunardi
    John Kay
    English, 1784?

  • Large balloon inside structure with crowd below.

    Lunardi’s balloon on display in the Pantheon, a London exhibition hall, 1784.

    Aquatint engraving
    English, 1784

  • Depiction of balloon, landscape looks small in distance.

    Lunardi’s Celebrated Air-Balloon


  • Colorful watercolor of balloon in the air with crowds at the bottom.

    Lunardi makes the first ascent in a hydrogen balloon from English soil, the Artillery Ground, London, September 15, 1784.

    Watercolor, English, 19th century

  • Balloon begins ascent.

    Another view of Lunardi’s ascent, September 15, 1784.

    Etching ,English, 18th century

  • Colorful painting of balloon landing.

    Lunardi lands safely near Warn, Hertfordshire, September 15, 1784. A small girl helps him to disentangle his balloon from a tree.

    Watercolor, English, 19th century

  • Black and white etching of balloon in air.

    An Exact Representation of M. Lunardi's New Balloon. As it ascended with himself 13 May 1785

    English, 1785

  • Colorful etching with striped yellow and red balloon at center.

    A Representation of Mr. Lunardi's Balloon from ye Artillery Ground, London May 13, 1785.

    Etching, English, 1785

  • Two images of a balloon flight.

    Mr. Lunardi afcending from the Artillery Ground; A Reprefentation of the manner of filling the Balloon.

    Woodcut, English, 1785

  • Three sit in a balloon basket.

    Lunardi invites actress Letitia Anne Sage and Colonel George Biggin to fly with him on June 29, 1785. When the party proved to be too heavy, Lunardi, the only trained balloonist in the group, stepped out of the basket and allowed his two guests to ascend. They landed safely two hours later.

    Etching, from an original painting by John Francis Rigaud
    English, 1784

  • Portrait

    Portrait of Mrs. Sage, The First English Female Aerial Traveller
    Lithograph, English, 1785

    Letitia Anne Sage, an actress, was the first English female aerial traveler, who ascended with Mr. Biggin in Lunardi's balloon from St. George's Fields on June 29, 1785.

  • Watercolor of a town with a balloon in the distance

    7th Dec. 1785. Mr. Lunardi ascending at Edinburgh in presence of a great concourse of mirthful Scotch people as seen from the Grass Market [missing] afterwards blown into the [missing] picked up by a sailing boat [missing].

    English, Late 16th century

  • Balloon floats in a distance with a crowd of onlookers in the foreground.

    29 Aug. 1786 - Lunardi ascended at Kittlewell's Orchard behind York, Minster and descended in a cornfield, the people flocking to the spot he reascended fearing the damage done to the corn, and went out of sight. This drawing represents the ascension.

    English, Late 18th century

    This flight was made with Lunardi's Royal Balloon from an orchard behind the York Minster cathedral. He rose to a "prodigious height," encountered rain, snow and hail, finally landing at Greencock, 20 miles away.

  • Portrait of man with balloon on his back.

    Aerostation out at Elbows or the Itinerant Aeronaut.

    English, Late 18th century

    This portrait of a down-on-his-luck aeronaut is assumed to be a caricature of Lunardi who travelled extensively with his balloon, though not usually carrying it on his back.

Side by side portraits.

Mr. Sadler, The first English Ærostatist. Mr. Arnold, The unsuccessful Aerial Adventurer.

English, 1784-1785

James Sadler
James Sadler (1753-1828), a pastry chef, was the second person and the first Englishman to fly from English soil, ascending from Oxford with a hot air balloon on October 4, 1784, just three weeks after Lunardi’s first flight. After several more ascents, he retired from ballooning, focusing his attention on steam engines.

Sadler, however, was unable to keep away. On July 7, 1810, 25 years after his last ascent, Sadler relaunched his aeronautical career flying a gas balloon from Oxford to commemorate the installation of a new Chancellor of the University. 

Pencil drawing.

A View of Edinburgh & The Surrounding Country from Lord Nelson's Monument. Novr. 3rd 1815. Sadler's Balloon from College.

Joseph Giar
Pencil drawing, English, 1815

Pencil drawing of the route of Sadler's balloon over Edinburgh, Scotland on November 3, 1815. Drawing shows a view of Edinburgh from Lord Nelson's monument, with sites labeled. The path of Sadler's balloon is shown on the left side of the drawing.

  • Etching of a balloon in the distance, crowd in foreground.

    Aerostation. Mr. Sadler's Ascent from Merton Fields, Oxford.

    Etching, English, early 19th century

  • Medallion with profile of balloonist.

    Pewter medallion Portrait of James Sadler
    English, 19th century

    English, D. Obverse shows the profile of James Sadler, the 'First English Aeronaut.' Reverse shows a balloon gondola. 'The 21 Ascent / October 7, 1811. / Ascended from Birmingham. Traversed upwards of 112 miles in 1hour & 20 minutes.'

  • Balloon landing in water.

    To The Worshipful the Mayor & Corporation of the City of Bristol. This Print, (of the Perilous Situation of Messrs. Sadler & Clayfield, who Afcended from Bristol on the 24th of Septr. 1810, at 20 Minutes past 1 O'Clock, and Descended in the Bristol Channel, near Watermouth, about 10 Minutes past 4 O'Clock, after pafsing over upwards of 80 Miles by Water, & 20 by Land in lefs than 3 Hours,) Is moft respectfully dedicated by their devoted and very humble Servant E.M. Jones.

    E.M. Jones
    Aquatint, English, 1810

  • Balloon in the distance over small village.

    1810 Oct. Mr. Sadler ascended at the Green Park & passed very near Allington Castle, Kent, & descended in a field a few miles East of Maidstone & was seen from the Castle Ruins as represented by this view taken from the spot.

    Watercolor, English. 19th century

  • Balloon in distance with group of onlookers.

    Oil painting, English, 19th century

    The painting apparently represents one of James Sadler's flights from the Mermaid Tavern, Hackney, Middlesex, London, in August 1811. On August 12, he ascended with a Lt. Paget. On August 29 he made a second flight with a Mr. Beaufoy, traveling to East Thorpe, Essex, conducting scientific experiments along the way.  

  • Balloon in flight with crowd in foreground.

    A View of the Balloon of Mr. Sadler's Ascending With him and Captain Paget of the Royal Navy from the Gardens of the Mermaid Tavern at Hackney on Monday Aug 12 1811

    Etching, English, 19th century

  • Image of boats on water with balloon in the distance.

    1811 Aug. 12th. Mr. Sadler ascended at 3 o’clock Monday afternoon with Captain Paget from the Mermaid Gardens, Hackney, and descended in a field near Tilbury Fort, Essex, at 20 minutes past 4. This represents the descent.

    Watercolor, English, 19th century

  • Profile of Sadler's balloon, yellow with flags above the basket.

    An exact representation of Mr. Sadlers Balloon by which he ascended from the Mermaid at Hackney in Middlesex

    Etching, English, 1811

  • Close-up of balloon basket with the ocean in the back.

    A view of the Balloon & Car with Mr. Sadler on his way from Dublin across the Irish Channel to England 1812

    Offset lithograph, English, 20th century

  • Balloon crashed in ocean.

    James Sadler is rescued by a fisherman after being forced down in the water during an attempt to cross the Irish Sea on October 1, 1812.

    Watercolor, English, 19th century

  • Balloon with large crowd around it.

    Ascent of Mr. Sadler and Miss Thompson from Burlington House, July 29, 1814

    Engraving, English, 1814

Portrait with balloon in background.

Mr. Charles Green, Aeronaut.
Stipple engraving, English, 1839
'Pubd. July 9th, 1839, by G.P. Harding, Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, Day & Haghe, Lithrs. to the Queen."

Charles Green
Charles Green (1785-1870) was the most celebrated and accomplished British balloonist of the 19th century. Having made his first ascent in 1821, he would complete over 500 flights during his career. Green was the first aeronaut to inflate his balloon with inexpensive city gas rather that hydrogen. He also introduced the drag, or trailing line.

Green would also become linked to one of the most widely reported aeronautical tragedies of the era. On July 24, 1837, against his better judgement, Green carried Robert Cocking, a water colorist and would-be inventor, aloft. Cocking wanted to test his parachute design and was dangled beneath the balloon. Large crowds of paying spectators arrived to witness the Cocking parachute demonstration. Sadly, Cocking’s parachute failed.

  • Coin with profile.

    Copper coin, English, 1823
    Coin commemorating Isaac Earlysman Sparrow's June 23, 1823 balloon flight with Charles Green. Sparrow was an Ironmonger from Bishopsgate, London who had an interest in balloons. He paid Green 50 shillings sterling to accompany him on a flight. Sparrow issued these coins to commemorate his experience. Sparrow's profile is on the front, with 'Isaac Earlysman / Sparrow' around the edge. Plain balloon on the reverse with 'Ironmonger Bishopsgate / London' around the edge.

  • Light pencil drawing of balloon.

    Mr. Green's Balloon as it appeared before he ascended, April, 1827-- at White Conduit Gardens

    Pencil drawing, English, 1827

    Green's balloon before ascension at White Conduit Gardens in April 1827. Image shows the balloon floating slightly above the ground, but held down by tethers and weights. Two figures are in the gondola, and a small crowd is around the balloon.

  • Six men around a table with a map.

    A Consultation previous to an Aerial Voyage from London to Weilburg in Nassau, on the 7th day of November, 1836.

    Uncolored etching, English, 1843

    Uncolored etching of six men (I. Hollands, Wm. Millbourne, T.M. Mason, Wm. Prideaux, Robert Holland, Charles Green), engaged in discussion around a table with a map. They are discussing an aerial voyage from London to Weilburg.  After a painting by J. Hollins, A.R.A., and engraved by J.H. Robinson.

    'Painted by J. Hollins, A.R.A. Engraved by J.H. Robinson. Hon. Member of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburgh. London, Published for the Proprietor, by Henry Graves & Co. Print sellers to the Queen & H.R.H. Prince Albert, 6, Pall Mall, Nov. 7, 1843.'

    On November 7, 1836, Green took off from London’s Vauxhall Gardens in his Royal Vauxhall balloon, accompanied by Robert Holland, MP for Hastings, and Monck Mason. The trio landed the next day at Weilburg, Nassau, Germany, having travelled some 805 kilometers (500 miles) in 18 hours.

  • Six men around a table looking at a map.

    A Consultation previous to an Aerial Voyage from London to Weilburg, Novr. 1836.

    Etching, English, 1837

    A hand colored version of the print.

  • Three portraits.

    Rob Holland, Monck Major, Charles Green.

    Lithograph, Englsih, 1837

    Green and his companions.

  • Image of balloon.

    In the wake of the flight to Weilburg, Green’s Royal Vauxhall balloon was renamed, the Royal Nassau.

    Chromolithograph, American, 1949

  • Balloon

    The Great Balloon, From a Sketch by Robert Holland Esq.

    Etching, English, 18378 (?)

  • Balloon etching with text on fabric.

    Etching, German, 1837 (?)

    What appears to be the Royal Nassau balloon with special markings.

  • Balloon with parachute contraption below it.

    On July 24, 1837, against his better judgement, Green carried Robert Cocking, a water colorist and would-be inventor, aloft, dangling beneath the balloon in order to test his parachute design. 

    Chromolithograph, English, 1837

  • Balloon with stripes.

    The Great Nassau Balloon
    Colored lithograph, English, 1837

  • Edward Spencer

    Mr. Edward Spencer
    Lithograph, English, 1838

    Edward Spencer was a friend of Charles Green and accompanied him on as many as 27 flights, including the fatal Cocking ascent. Spencer was the progenitor of a famous aeronautical family who would remain active in ballooning into the early 20th century. 

  • Color portrait

    Robert Cocking, Aged 61, who lost his Life at Lee in Kent, by a descent in his Parachute from the Nassau Balloon, 24th July, 1837.

    Lithograph, English, 1837

  • Comparison drawing

    Pen and ink drawing, English, 1837

    A comparison of a traditional parachute (above) and Cocking’s design

  • Poster with text.

    Poster, English, 1837

    The proprietors of the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden intended to draw a large crowd of paying spectators to witness the Cocking parachute demonstration

  • Faint watercolor

    Watercolor, English, 1837

    Robert Cocking in the basket of his parachute, preparing for the ascension in the Royal Vauxhall Gardens.

  • Parachute falling to the ground.

    Robert Cocking’s parachute failed. His death was one of the most widely reported aeronautical tragedies of the era. 

    Chromolithograph, English, 1837

  • Drawing depicting three stages of a fall.

    Lithograph, English, 1837

    The three stages to disaster

  • Line drawing depicting the three components of the disaster.

    Transfer lithograph, English, 1837

    Poorly executed transfer lithograph with loss of details.

    Right: Ascent of the Royal Nassau Balloon with Robert Cocking in his parachute attached below on July 24, 1837.

    Center: Full-body portrait of Robert Cocking standing in profile.

    Left: Image shows the descent of the parachute in three stages. Top of the image shows the parachute right after detaching from the balloon, and it is open and working properly. The balloon is aloft in the top right of the image. The middle of the image shows the parachute right after its collapse. The bottom shows the parachute fully collapsed and descending rapidly.

  • Drawing of balloon with ocean at bottom.

    Mr. Green's, Voyage Balloon, In which this intrepid Aeronaut intends to cross the Atlantic in the ensuing summer, from the American to the European Continent

    Lithograph, English, 1840

    This print celebrates Charles Green’s planned balloon journey, "in the ensuing summer, from the American to the European Continent." The land in the background of the image suggests that this scene represents the beginning of the voyage. Caption below the image. Unable to finance the projected flight, Green eventually abandoned his plan. News of the plan, however, inspired Edgar Allen Poe to publish his “Balloon Hoax” article in the New York Sun in 1844, in which he reported that the flight had succeeded.

    'London: Published April 2nd, 1840, by W. Morgan, 68, Upper Harrison St, Grays Inn Road, and of Wm. Rodborough, 3. Coventry St. Haymarket...'

  • Balloon off in the distance.

    Watercolor, English, 1842(?)

    John Hampton and Charles Green ascending from Baron de Ballinger’s Gardens, Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea in the Albion balloon. They descended on Sunbury Common. Hayes and Green bought the "Albion" balloon from Hampton, August 22, 1842.

  • Black and white poster with balloon in center.

    Vauxhall gardens, Friday August 16th, Grand Night Ascent

    Poster, English, 1850

    The poster may be advertising an 1850 ascent.

Thaddeus Lowe

T.S.C. Lowe with a "double telescope" or binoculars hanging at his side.

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe
Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe (1832–1913) was one of the great American aeronauts of the 19th century. With the coming of the Civil War, T. S. C. Lowe realized the utility of ballooning to conduct aerial reconnaissance on enemy troops. He convinced President Abraham Lincoln of the benefits of a Balloon Corps for the Union Army. Lowe created the Corps and led observations on Confederate troops.

Hand colored triptych print
Utagawa Yoshitori
Japan, c. 1867

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe (1832–1913) was one of the great American aeronauts of the 19th century. On June 14, 1860, Lowe and William Paullin made flights in celebration of the visit of the Japanese Embassy to Philadelphia. Lowe stands to the far left in the print. Staff members of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries date the print to 1867-1868, and indicate that the artist, Utagawa Yoshitori, who had never seen either a balloon or Philadelphia, based the buildings in the print on an Illustrated London News article on Agra, India. The very accurate image of Lowe (far left) in the print may have been based on a portrait published in Harper's Weekly (9/24/1859).

  • Print

    Print, Japan, 1868 (?)

    This is almost certainly a print produced by Utagawa Yoshitori in the 1860s depicting the scene when T.S.C. Lowe and William Paulin flew for the Japanese Embassy visiting Philadelphia. The large structure setting on the wheeled vehicle to the right may be the artist's interpretation of the enclosed basket of Lowe's Great Western balloon, which was being exhibited in Philadelphia at that time.

    The Japanese text reads: Translation by Thomas Momiyama (Museum Volunteer) 

    “(AMERICA) Originally European people came over, and traveling wide road surpassing hitherto narrow road, ultimately built a republic. It’s a big nation gathering various kinds of people. Throughout the year, elected people gather in the capital and discuss trade with various countries. Further, prosperity of Washington is comparable to our capital. From ports in California (they) sail ships to all over the world. (They) make building of the foundation of trade the fundamental of merchandizing.”

  • Painting with orange hues.

    Prof. Lowe's Balloon Wagon
    Artist unknown
    Oil on canvas, American, 1862 (?)

    With the coming of the Civil War, T. S. C. Lowe created and led an observation Balloon Corps for the Union Army. In the spring of 1862, the Union Army attempted to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond by attacking up the Virginia peninsula separating the James and York rivers. This painting of the Union position at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, shows one of Lowe’s inflation wagons on shore. Tanks inside the wagon were filled with dilute sulfuric acid and iron filings to generate the hydrogen gas to fill the balloons.

    The painting is based on a drawing of this scene by the Irish-born newspaper artist Arthur Lumley, published in the New York Illustrated News, June 14, 1862. The original drawing is held by the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The sketch and printed image of the scene at the White House landing differ some in details, but are clearly the basis for the painting, which was exhibited several times during the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s.

  • Troops fight.

    The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31, 1862
    Currier and Lives Lithograph, American, 19th century

    Lowe watches the carnage from his aerial perch.

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