Richard Holmes, author – amongst many other books – of Tommy: the British soldier on the Western Front, which I’ve read with the keenest interest for my “Gabriels’s Map” project, has a wonderfully readable new book out that intersects with my “Killing Space” project on bombing: Falling upwards: how we took to the air. It’s a history of ballooning (of sorts).
Although Holmes does address the military uses of hot-air balloons, he is something of a romantic and there’s more here on the delights and dangers (for those in the air) than the prospect of war from the air they helped to usher in.
But early in the book he describes a collection of balloon memorabilia made by Sophia Banks (sister of Joseph) that included a British cartoon from December 1784 entitled “The Battle of the Balloons’ (you can see a watermarked copy here):
This shows four balloons, two flying the French fleur de lys and two the British Union Jack, manoeuvring for aerial combat. Their crews are armed with muskets, but also, more menacingly, with broadside cannons. Their muzzles point through portholes cut in the balloon wickerwork. Here the balloon is already conceived of as a weapon of war, comparable to the navy’s ships of the line.
Less than ten years later the French would establish the first military balloon regiment, but others insisted on the essentially pacific nature of ballooning and, indeed, of manned flight more generally. In his ‘Letter on Flight’ (1864) Victor Hugo, a good friend of the celebrated aeronaut Nadar, waxed lyrical (the appropriate Icarian verb, as it turned out) on the changes the balloon would inaugurate:
‘It will bring the immediate, absolute, instantaneous, universal and perpetual abolition of all frontiers, everywhere… Armies will vanish, and with them the horrors of war, the exploitation of nations, the subjugations of populations. It will bring an immense and totally peaceful revolution. It will bring a sudden golden dawn, a brisk flinging open of the ancient cage door of history, a flooding in of light. It will mean the liberation of all mankind.’
If only. There is, after all, a counter-history of ‘falling downwards’: the first bombing from the air involved unmanned balloons loaded with shrapnel launched by Austria during the siege of Venice in 1849 (though they apparently had little effect); during the American Civil War and the First World War observation balloons were a vital means of surveillance and artillery ranging; and in retaliation for the bombing of Tokyo, in the dog days of World War II the Japanese experimented with using incendiary balloons (‘fire balloons’ or ‘balloon bombs’ – see right) to attack the west coast of Canada and the United States (more here). The only one of these to appear in Holmes’s account is a splendid discussion of ballooning in the Civil War; his collection of ‘balloon stories’, as he modestly describes his project, stops at the end of the nineteenth century (and is concerned, above all, with the experience of balloonists, so ’empty’ balloons don’t count for much).
For all that, the Janus-faced history of the balloon, one peaceful and the other stridently martial, has implications for contemporary discussions of another aerial object: the drone. The specificity of the object matters, of course, since it has particular capacities and dispositions – but their realization depends on the networks in which they are embedded. As with balloons, so with drones.