The First Air Balloons
The story of flight began at the end of 1782 near Lyons in France, when two brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier began experimenting with balloons. They harnessed the power of wood smoke to lift objects from the ground. Jacques Charles launched the first balloon to use hydrogen as a lifting agent in Paris in August 1783. It was twelve feet in diameter, rose to a height of 3000 feet and travelled 15 miles.
Intense enthusiasm for anything concerned with balloons or ballooning followed the first manned flight in a Montgolfier balloon which took place from Paris in November 1783. In Britain the first unmanned balloon flight was probably one that took place in London in November 1783.
Caleb Hillier Parry launches a Balloon in Bath
Edward Jenner’s lifelong friend, the physician Caleb Hillier Parry, probably carried out the first flight of an unmanned balloon in the Westcountry. He launched a hydrogen balloon from the Crescent in Bath on 10th January 1784. It was 17ft in diameter and 8.5ft high, made of varnished silk. It flew 19 miles, landing just west of Wells.
Jenner’s Hydrogen Balloon
Determined to try the experiment for himself, Edward Jenner wrote to Parry requesting a length of silk and urging him to join him in Berkeley. Jenner launched his hydrogen balloon from the courtyard of Berkeley Castle at 2pm on 2nd September 1784. It flew 10 miles north eastwards, landing in a field at Kingscote, where, the Gloucester Journal reported, it terrified the reapers so much that for some time they could not be persuaded to approach it!
Jenner’s ride over to retrieve his little aerostat resulted in his first meeting with Catharine Kingscote, a lady he subsequently married on March 6th, 1788, so there must have been little difficulty in persuading him to re-launch the balloon from Kingscote Park, for the benefit of the family and their friends. This was soon accomplished and in the best romantic traditions the balloon rose into the air carrying a poem, specially written by Jenner’s friend Edward Gardner, and dedicated to Catherine, his new found love. No details have come to light regarding the balloon’s fate, but it is just possible that it came to earth a little over 20 miles away on high ground near Birdlip Hill, where there still exists a public house bearing the title “Air Balloon Inn”.
Edward Jenner died on 26 January 1823, at the age of 73.